Once indispensable to powerful pols, FERC commissioner navigates power politics
John Norris spent more than three decades running high-profile political campaigns in his home state of Iowa — and once ran for Congress himself. But these days, as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he’s more interested in the wonky world of transmission and pipeline policy than maneuvering tricky political battlefields.
Norris, who once managed campaigns for John Kerry, Sen. Tom Harkin and Jesse Jackson, said he doesn’t miss the political world where he once thrived, lamenting an influx of third-party spending on campaigns.
“It’s so polluted today with money, influence and politics, part of me wants to gather up the energy to take it on again, but part of me says, ‘OK, you’re making a difference where you’re at right now,’” said Norris, who made his own failed bid for the House in 2002. “And frankly, more of a difference … at FERC than I ever would have made as a member of Congress if I had been elected in 2002.”
Norris, 54, once served as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and is a highly sought-after campaign organizer. He and his wife, Jackie — the former chief of staff for Michelle Obama — have even been dubbed Iowa’s premier power couple.
But when Norris had the chance to come to Washington, D.C., he aimed directly for FERC, a powerful, independent Washington-based agency that oversees the electric grid and national pipeline infrastructure as well as hydroelectric projects. President Obama nominated Norris to serve on the commission in 2009, and Norris was recently reconfirmed to a second term ending June 2017.
Despite Norris’ lengthy list of political endeavors, he’s quick to point out that complex energy policy decisions at FERC don’t leave a lot of room for politics.
“I think there’s the reality check at FERC and in regulatory policy, where you have economic regulation, you have a public policy ideology among the commissioners, but you also have physics involved,” he said.
Norris is most keenly focused on FERC’s landmark new rule, Order 1000, and ensuring the grid can evolve to meet the country’s energy demand.
He’s also crunching the numbers to see how the system can meet Obama’s goal of reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 83 percent by 2050. Emissions will need to drop from 2,100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011 to 405 million metric tons in 2050, ruling out any use of coal or gas for baseload electricity generation, he said. Under that scenario, all the gas will be needed to provide backup generation for renewable resources.
“I’m trying to put a more specific face on those numbers than 83 percent by 2050, because that’s the only way you can begin to plan a system to get there,” Norris said. “All we’re doing, in my mind, with Order 1000 is telling folks, ‘You can do this more efficiently if you talk to your neighbor,’ because we can’t think like islands anymore.”
Even so, Norris concedes he hasn’t completely shut the door on his former life of politics in Iowa.
“There’s no part of me that says, ‘I’m never doing that again,’” Norris said.
Homegrown political chops
Norris grew up on his family’s farm in Montgomery County, Iowa, near the town of Red Oak, where he helped his parents raise hogs and grow corn and soybeans. His brother now lives and works on the farm, and Norris’ two sisters still live in Iowa, one a doctor and the other a nurse.
“I was one of those guys who got up before the sun was, and checked trap lines and then fed hogs, went to school, came home and worked in the fields until it was dark.”
When he was 14, Norris began going door to door to campaign for Harkin, who was then running for a House seat, and gained the political chops that would one day make him a valuable commodity back home and in Washington, D.C. Norris said he pushed for Harkin, who was then the Democratic nominee making his first run in a Republican district, while knowing that “nine out of 10 households, if they knew a Democrat was on their porch with a piece of literature, would have turned their dogs loose.”
In 1974, Harkin was elected to Congress from Iowa’s 5th District, beating out the incumbent Republican congressman, William Scherle.
Norris would continue working for Harkin in junior high and high school and eventually campaigned for Harkin. Harkin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984. After serving a decade in the House, Harkin moved to the Senate in 1984 and, after being re-elected in 2008, became the first Iowa Democrat to win a fifth term in the chamber.
Harkin came to politics with a background from the 1960s in Iowa that “took campaign organization to the next level at that time,” Norris said. Harkin was successful because he used volunteers to communicate a strong message, identify voters and separate out persuadable voters to “build the decks” in voter turnout, Norris said.
“Just a methodical progress towards winning numbers. People with good campaign organization skills can make great businesspeople — it’s planning, strategy and implementation.”
In 1981, Norris earned an undergraduate degree from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. He went on to serve as the director of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition during the farm crisis, a disaster fueled by low crop prices and farm incomes that triggered widespread bankruptcies and a recession for the state’s farming communities. Thousands of farmers in Iowa went under after prices began to tank and banks were lending money hand over fist, Norris said.
“It was devastating, everything from farm suicides to the huge protests or demonstrations on the state Capitol with all the white crosses for farms that had been lost,” Norris said. “It was just a devastating time for many families.”
Before heading off to the University of Iowa’s law school — where he would earn an degree in 1995 — Norris took a slight detour.
After running his first presidential campaign for the Rev. Jesse Jackson — who lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis — Norris visited friends in Greenfield, Iowa, who mentioned that a restaurant in a three-story, 1920s brick building downtown, known as “The Old Hotel,” was up for sale.
Norris and a friend invested $5,000 each and geared up for the grand opening by persuading all the local newspapers and radio stations within a 30-mile radius to run stories about it.
“We bought it on a song and started it with hardly any money. We put our campaign experience together, years of working on campaigns, and kind of did some creative marketing or free publicity in the area,” Norris recalled. “My dream or vision was to make enough money to develop the upper two floors, half bed and breakfast but also a conference center for people in Des Moines.”
Although Norris left the business after four years, he recently stopped by the “Old Hotel” last Christmas. The current owner received a grant from the state, and the restaurant and attached hotel are now fully refurbished.
“When I left the restaurant and went to law school, I thought I was on vacation,” he said, laughing.
When asked which campaign was the most difficult, Norris doesn’t hesitate: “My own.”
In 2002, Norris decided to run for Iowa’s 4th District House seat when he was living in Ames — and national Democrats considered him a top-notch recruit. The expansive, rural Republican-leaning district consists of 27 counties and is located in the central portion of the state. Norris said he was prepared financially to run and knew what to expect, having “had enough experience in campaigns to know what I was getting into.”
But Republican incumbent Tom Latham, a former farmer and well-known fiscal conservative, would prove to be a tough opponent. Latham won 55 percent of the vote to Norris’ 45 percent. Norris acknowledged it was a bad year for Democrats. The election, held on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saw the GOP solidify its majority in the House and gain control of the Senate.
“I walked away with no regrets and actually not discouraged about running for office or politics, although anyone who runs for office will tell you the fundraising part of it is just both dehumanizing and counterproductive to democracy and good policy,” Norris said. “But it was a good experience.”
Looking back, Norris said he ran a good campaign but probably should have listened a bit less to his team of consultants and followed his instincts more. “The Washington, D.C., consultant crowd kind of does ‘group think’ and cookie-cutter messages … and sometimes misses the local attitude and feel,” Norris said.
Norris would take his star power two years later to help run then-Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign during the Iowa caucuses. Norris helped the eventual Democratic nominee to a come-from-behind caucus victory — and helped burnish his own reputation. Kerry won 38 percent of the vote, beating out then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.).
One watcher of Iowa politics said Norris was a “tremendous campaign” director who engineered an astounding and unexpected victory for Kerry.
David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, who was working on Edwards’ campaign at the time, said Norris was seen as a key “get” at that point — an activist and key “influencer” at a senior level, and a critical player for Kerry.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and a former political reporter for the Des Moines Register, said he first met Norris when he was working on Kerry’s campaign, and described him as a “good, progressive Democrat” who was easy to work with and extremely organized.
“He really did think there was a path for Kerry to win at the time, when nobody else did,” Yepsen said. “John was just very methodical in helping Kerry win those caucuses. I didn’t write Kerry off, and I’m glad I didn’t.”
Eye toward energy
Norris’ future in energy policy only began to take shape in 1998 — and by accident.
That year, Norris was tapped to serve as chief of staff for then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). Norris said he hit it off with Vilsack and helped the governor assemble a legislative and policy team. Norris was serving as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party at the time.
Norris realized right before inauguration day that no one had been assigned to cover energy policy on a coalition of business and industry groups and utilities that were meeting regularly at the time to promote the restructuring of Iowa’s retail electricity market.
“The governor and I … realized we better get in the middle of this discussion if we wanted to have any impact on what may come to the Legislature or our desks someday, either as a proposal or legislation,” Norris said. “I looked around and said, ‘Who here has some energy policy background?’ and no one raised their hand.”
Norris recalled diving in, “fast and furiously reading every night” to learn the complex language of energy regulation. “Of course, my first meeting was like, ‘Who is this guy; we’ve never seen him before; what does he know about energy policy?’” Norris said, laughing.
Norris eventually chaired the group and helped the committee craft legislation that passed in 2001 allowing utilities to seek certain rates — and financial stability — before building new projects. “I really redirected the ship, steered them away from restructuring and going to a deregulated market by honing on what their real objectives were — a long-term supply of energy for Iowa,” Norris said.
But when Vilsack wanted to appoint Norris to the state’s utility commission in 2001, Norris had a change of heart. Norris was walking from the public utility commission’s offices back to the Capitol when he decided he needed to see Vilsack’s press secretary.
“I needed to let him know, you know what, I was going to run for Congress instead,” Norris said.
After Obama won in 2008, Norris and his wife — who ran Obama’s Iowa campaign — discussed whether they might want to try to work for the administration. Jackie Norris had visions of working at the Corporation for National and Community Service, while Norris had his sights set directly on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
They were still uncertain whether landing those jobs would make them want move to Washington, D.C., with their three young sons. But then the president-elect and future first lady called and asked Jackie to serve as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. That made the decision easy, Norris said.
When FERC was looking for a chairman in 2009, Norris decided to throw his hat into the ring, knowing that then-Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) was backing Suedeen Kelly, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was backing Jon Wellinghoff, who was then the acting chairman and wound up getting the job.
“If they didn’t want to navigate that fight, then whoever was the Democratic commissioner had to at least be someone they would consider for chair, and I better let them know I could do it,” Norris said.
Norris felt he was qualified from his years of legal and political experience, having served as chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board and president of the Organization of MISO States.
In December 2009, Norris was nominated to the only open slot on the commission. Wellinghoff had been appointed chairman earlier that year. Once again, he didn’t hesitate.
“When the president asks you to do something … you don’t say no,” Norris said.