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Enlarging the Conversation: Why Jonathan Narcisse Matters in the Iowa Gubernatorial Race PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 15 September 2010 07:39

Jonathan NarcisseGiven the density of Jonathan Narcisse’s ideas and plans, he’s smart to dispense the easy-to-grasp metaphor or example.

“Imagine you have a kid who hasn’t cleaned his room for six months,” Narcisse said in a phone interview last week. “And you can try to go in and you can try to clean the room. Or you can get some heavy-duty garbage bags and just go through that room and basically throw everything away, except the bed, the dresser, and a couple other things.”

The 47-year-old Narcisse, a former member of the Des Moines school board, is running an independent candidacy for Iowa governor, appearing on the ballot under The Iowa Party banner. And he wants to approach Iowa state government with some heavy-duty garbage bags in hand. (Full disclosure: River Cities’ Reader Publisher Todd McGreevy is a co-chair of Iowans for a Fair Debate, which is pushing for Narcisse to be included in gubernatorial debates.)

Narcisse’s proposals are radical in the sense that they have no respect for the status quo. Narcisse thinks the two major-party candidates – Governor Chet Culver and former Governor Terry Branstad – are like parents who think a light cleaning is good enough. He disagrees: “We just literally wipe out the massive bureaucracy, because at the end of the day, we spend that money wiser.”

In total, Narcisse is proposing cutting state and local taxes by $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year, with the caveat that equivalent spending reductions must precede tax cuts. For perspective, the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference in March put the state’s Fiscal Year 2011 general-fund receipts at $6.6 billion.

That type of bold plan has the potential to connect with voters who are dissatisfied with government and politicians.

But whether you agree with Narcisse’s assessments or his ideas is beside the point. In a gubernatorial campaign featuring two people who’ve already held the office, Narcisse is an essential voice because he refuses to nibble around the edges or accept the way things have traditionally been done. He gives voters the opportunity to consider core questions of governance and talk about fundamentals.

He enlarges the discussion.

Governance Over Policy

Although he considered running in the Democratic primary against Culver, Narcisse’s politics are fundamentally conservative – in just about every sense. He’s a small-government guy, he’s pro-life on abortion and against gay marriage, and he supports the death penalty in theory.

But there’s nuance there. Narcisse is cognizant of the separation of powers, and makes a distinction between governance and policy: The first is the purview of the governor – the state’s chief executive – and the latter is the realm of the legislature.

“Where there’s an issue of governance I feel 100 percent comfortable in acting,” Narcisse said.

So while Narcisse opposes gay marriage, he believes that the issue should be voted on by the public. He also supports giving voters the opportunity to have a direct say on abortion, term limits, and the prohibition of marijuana.

The death penalty is instructive on Narcisse’s perspective. While he supports it, that’s first a policy issue. But on an administrative level, Narcisse said capital punishment is problematic, because of the potential for innocent people being executed: “I completely support the premise of the death penalty, but the fact of the matter is government simply isn’t competent to have that power. ... The death penalty is not just simply an issue of policy; it’s an issue of governance.”

These subtleties arguably broaden Narcisse’s appeal. His natural constituency is those who believe in the inherent value of the smallest, most-local government possible. But he adds to that a populist bent, arguing compellingly that state government is bloated and ineffective.

And on top of that there’s a pragmatic side. He doesn’t advocate blowing up state government on ideological grounds; he argues for orderly transitions to something leaner and more efficient.

“We don’t cut irresponsibly,” he said at one point in our 90-minute interview. He also claimed that cuts don’t have to result in a loss of services: “If you change the way we do government, we can afford it [cuts].”

And he recognizes that “the governor also has to function within the limitations of his constitutional mandate.”

Yet he said that as governor he could implement efficiency components of his agenda without legislative approval. For example, Narcisse supports zero-based budgeting, in which departments must present and justify an entirely new budget each year instead of working from previous allocations.

Furthermore, he said the governor has tremendous power as a check on the legislature, “like vetoing every single nonessential expenditure.”

But the line between policy and governance often gets fuzzy, and Narcisse’s education plan in particular seems to have a foot on both sides of it. The efficiency elements of it are pitched as governance issues, but because the plan would fundamentally change the delivery of education in the state – from a public-school-district model to more of a free-market system that includes public-school districts – it would require legislation. Changes to the tax structure would also need action from the legislature. And some of his proposals would require changing the Iowa Constitution.

Narcisse’s approach to this challenge is naïve in many ways, but it has an idealistic charm; the candidate believes that public outrage can force the legislature’s hand, and he said he’ll spend much of his time as governor traveling the state and talking to constituents. He’ll be conducting a perpetual campaign for his ideas.

“Sometimes the recourse you have is the power of the bully pulpit,” he said. “The governor has incredible power, and he’s not just a politician; he’s an institution. ... If I get elected, I’m not really concerned about being able to get things through.”

He used as an example highlighting poor graduation rates in the Des Moines public schools. Instead of the normal gubernatorial model of defending state government, Narcisse suggested that he would emphasize problems as a way to push reform.

“A governor who stands up and starts exposing the truth is going to have an awful lot of support behind him ... ,” he said. “If you have a governor who stands up and releases those kind of numbers, legislators start jumping and diving like cockroaches with the lights on. So there is the ability of a governor to create a great deal.”

Narcisse has also outlined a president/prime-minister model for his administration – an acknowledgment that as governor he would have a big-picture perspective and leave the details to others. “I’m not going to pretend I know how to run a vast, multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy like state government,” he said. “But I know Culver and Branstad can’t, either. The difference is [that] I know how to structure it so I compensate for my deficiencies.”

Off the record, Narcisse offered three people that he could see running state government as his “prime minister.” He also emphasized the need for strong administrators to lead state departments. “The heads of the departments are not policy wonks,” he explained. “You don’t put the mental-health expert in charge of DHS [the Iowa Department of Human Services]. You put someone who can run a multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy in charge of DHS, and then you put the mental-health expert in charge of the division of mental health.”