Jonathan Narcisse is a former Des Moines School Board member known for his outspoken and oftentimes controversial nature. He is an independent candidate for governor and will appear on the November 2 ballot with his self-started Iowa Party.
You have a rather eclectic background in Iowa politics. You co-chaired the Polk County Democratic Party in the mid-’80s before working on Branstad’s inauguration committee in 1987. You’ve been quite critical of Branstad’s previous terms as governor. How has your opinion of him changed since you served on his inauguration committee?
In 1987, which was 23 years ago, I lacked the understanding of government I possess now. Also, the Branstad administration was in its infancy. The Branstad years were certainly memorable because Branstad is a great guy. But we sometimes confuse the fact that he’s a great guy with the fact that he was a mediocre governor at best and that his solutions for Iowa in 2010 are reckless and irresponsible.
For example, who knew when Branstad was bringing Jack DeCoster to this state that it would have a devastating impact on Iowa’s egg industry? Who could have imagined when Branstad brought Wal-Marts to this state that it would literally shut down Main Street – that it would shut down entire communities – and that those individuals would be hired to pack, load, and ship profits out of this state to Bentonville? Who knew when Branstad legalized gambling that it would wreck entire families and communities, create bankruptcy, devastate our economy? No one had an idea about the devastating impact of his policies, certainly in 1987. Especially because he’s a great guy.
But I don’t know if you’ve ever drank a diet soda where it tasted real good and then half an hour later you’re dealing with the aftertaste? Well, that’s the Branstad years.
Education reform has a big place on your agenda. How would you rate the Culver administration on education?
The Culver administration has not just earned an “F” on education, but it has participated in the systematic dismantling of our once-great education that, when he took over, has become a mediocre education system. Prime example: his pursuit of Race to the Top funds, taking us deeper into the belly of the beast.
Find me educators that say No Child Left Behind was a good idea. No Child Left Behind says that every high school in the 10 largest cities – Ames, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Sioux City, Waterloo, West Des Moines – are officially failing. Every single one. Ninety-five percent of the middle schools in those cities are officially failing.
Instead of Culver opting out of No Child Left Behind, he went further into the belly of the beast. Culver, at a time when teachers and the education infrastructure are under assault, initiates an across-the-board, 10-percent cut that has a devastating impact on our education infrastructure…. No Child Left Behind, which the Democrats and Republicans have embraced, has destroyed their [students’] passion for learning, destroyed their enthusiasm for knowledge. That, sir, is an unforgivable sin.
How would you change that?
We have 14 pages on our website that talk about how we’d restore the system. But in a nutshell, I would summarize it this way. We empower parents and educators to do what they love doing. Parents love their kids. We believe that and we restore power to them. We also give educators that are in the classroom powerful new resources to do their jobs, and we gut the bureaucracy that has plundered education in the name of kids, and we begin recreating a new education system. We, for example, fully fund three- and four-year [olds’] education with art, music, and languages being a part of that. Even before them we invest in parents. Fifty to 75 [million dollars in resources], minimum, for working with parents with kids from zero to three so that they can be better parents, including creative things like parent universities.
We change certain paradigms. For example, we go to skill-based progression instead of age-grade progression. Right now, the current system says even though all the kids in third grade leave at different points, somehow they’re back to the same page of the textbook when they come back in September for fourth grade. That is insane. We move to skill-based progression that recognizes that kids are at different points. We move to relevance-based education. We move to theory being less important than the ability to master theory and apply it….
We recognize the value of vocational and technical education, [but] not only because young people aren’t graduating from school. We have potentially $100 billion in infrastructure projects that taxpayers are going to pay for over the next 30 years – school construction, bridge work, roadwork – how do we have $100 billion that we’re going to potentially set aside … and we’re not training anyone to do those jobs? That’s just reckless and irresponsible leadership.
We recognize that we have to address the brain drain. Culver hasn’t. He comes up with a term like “brain trust,” but he hasn’t said how he’ll keep young people here. Here’s part of how we’ll keep young people here: if you stay here a year for every year we pay for and give us 40 hours of community service, we will provide you with a free college education to a state school or a comparable cash-match to a Iowa private school, so we keep our young people here…. Young people will leave college without debt, which means they have access to equity credit, so we can immediately move them into home ownership, which will probably lock them into their state for three or four decades, not three or four years.
On gay marriage, you were quoted by the Iowa Independent saying, “There’s no question, regardless of where you are in this issue, that the (Iowa Supreme Court) judges clearly usurped their authority.” But the decision was unanimous, and constitutional lawyers tend to agree that it was a strong application of equal protection under the law. Why do you take issue with the ruling?
I guarantee you I can find constitutional scholars that support everything.
Now, here’s the danger of what happened. Let’s say that instead of Barack Obama winning … John McCain would have won, and he would have stroked out and Sarah Palin would have became the great accidency number two. And she appoints Glenn Beck, or she appoints Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh or somebody, to the Supreme Court instead of Kagan and Sotomayor.
And now they come before the Supreme Court, and these justices say damn the law – just like Chief Justice Robert Brooke Taney said in the Dred Scott case that the black man has no right that the white man is bound to respect. Let’s say [enough] justices said, “You know what? We’re Bible believers and the sodomite has no rights that the nation is bound to respect. Not only is gay marriage a perversion before the eyes of god, but sodomy is, and the bottom line is that we need to restore sodomy laws, and we’re going to strip folks of civil unions and everything else.
But that would be a violation of the equal protection clause.
Here’s the argument: that those judges have the right to just make it up. We have a [vote for a] constitutional convention every 10 years in Iowa so that we can change the constitution. But we don’t live in a society where one person or seven people just get to make it up as they go…. The[Iowa] judges made law in clear violation of their constitutional authority. They have no power to make law. They can strike down the previous law but they didn’t do that. They went farther than that, and once they went past that point of striking down the law to making law … no matter how right they might be or perceive they are, that is despotism.
Some would argue, then, that the ability to vote the judges off the bench is a possible check on that power that you say they used to overstep their authority. What do you think of Bob Vander Plaats’ campaign to oust the three judges up for retention by rejecting them at the polls in November?
This is punitive, not corrective…. If those three judges are voted off, here’s what I would do if I were the proponents. I would simply appoint them again. And then after the governor picked one of them – and if he didn’t then the chief justice would – I’d nominate the other two and the head of Planned Parenthood. And then I’d nominate the other one and the heads of Planned Parenthood and One Iowa, and I would take a hot poker and stick it in the eye of social conservatives who have been poorly informed by their leadership about what this vote’s going to do.
This vote is punitive. And I’m going to vote against these judges because they do not only undermine the constitution in this regard, but they have allowed disparate justice to thrive in this state. The empirical evidence is overwhelming.
What is some evidence of that?
When you look at sentencing in this state, poor people and people of color who commit exactly the same offenses get completely different justice than rich folks. You’ve got poor folks who go to jail when they drive drunk; you’ve got lieutenant governors who get their record expunged when they drive drunk. You’ve got poor kids who go to jail when they speak back to cops; you’ve got a chief justice whose husband [was arrested for interfering with official acts] and there’s no consequence. Justice is disparate in this state. Mountains of empirical evidence show it.
But guess what? The advocates of single-issue politics don’t care if justice doesn’t exist as long as they get what they want. The vast majority of social conservatives, like the vast majority of gay activists, could care less about the disparate justice in this state as long as they get their way…. Well guess what? I’m not that shallow. I look at the totality of the justice system, and it rapes every sense of decency that exists as it relates to the concept of justice. There is no defense for this system. There is no way that we can look at this state and defend it…. So how can individuals of conscience, who say they care about the poor and working class folks, defend a system with such overwhelming evidence that it practices disparate justice?
Do you think that is a fair assumption? Because I know a lot of activists who have a whole range of ideological beliefs. Even when they focus the majority of their attention on one issue I think they would still care about that disparate justice, in the instance of racial disparity.
Here’s the fact: if they cared about an issue like that they would say, “Despite the fact that these judges ruled against on [in favor of] my issue, the totality of the indifference to the injustice that exists in the judicial system they lord over compels me to vote against them, because one good act doesn’t compensate for a career of indifference.” And they would vote no on those judges just based upon the preponderance of evidence that shows that these individuals are not qualified to lord over justice in our state.
But because they [the judges] voted yes on this issue they care about, they will vote yes on retention. And they should be ashamed, because even if April 3 never existed these judges should have been voted off because they have tolerated, embraced, and advanced a system that is rife with injustice.
You’re a proponent of “local control,” according to your website. Is this in reference to agriculture?
Absolutely. We actually have a strong plan to revitalize rural Iowa on every level. We feel like rural Iowa is a vital part of our state and we actually have strategies to fix much of what ails rural Iowa, as opposed to the two governors who basically are vested in a power culture based in Des Moines.
I mean, that’s why Governor Branstad shut down small [school] districts at four times the rate than even Culver and Vilsack. Have you seen the movie The Final Season?
I have not.
It’s a great movie, and there’s a part of the movie where they talk about the folk in Des Moines, and when they talk about the folk in Des Moines they’re talking about the Branstad administration. But the year he shut down the Norway school district there were about 320 students in the freshman class at North High School. Four years later about half those students graduated. Branstad didn’t say, “Oh, this was a travesty.” He said, “Look, we have great education in Iowa,” because his administration didn’t require that accuracy be a part of education reporting.
In fact on October 28 I shared with a couple of his key supporters that the difference between his record on education and Culver’s is that I wasn’t around to point out that his folks were lying about graduation and academic numbers too.
Your chose Rick Marlar, a Republican and truck driver from Washington County, as your running mate. As I understand it, you met him last year at a tea party rally. What do you think of the tea party movement?
Well, first of all, I don’t hold it against Rick that he’s a Republican since he didn’t hold it against me that I was a Democrat, okay? [Laughs]
I think there are two tea parties in this country, and an editorial I saw in The New York Times expressed it best. There is a tea party tea kettle, and they’re the folks that just want to blow off steam and don’t have any solutions. And then there’s the tea party folks who are concerned about big government and fiscal responsibility and low taxes, and I think these people are patriots. I think they’re sincere….
I had a friend call me saying the tea party’s racist. And I said, you know what, believe it or not – and I had to learn this as an African American – I judge everybody by their own individual character. I don’t judge them by their associations. I don’t judge them by their labels. Because if I did that, I would lump a whole lot of folks in Iowa in categories they don’t deserve. I don’t assume that a person, because they choose to speak out against high taxes and rogue government, is a bad person. I base it upon their rhetoric, their actions, and what they show me.
Rick Marlar is top-drawer, and there’s a whole lot of tea party people that are top drawer. And there are some that are just bad. But that’s true with Republicans and Democrats too, which is why I’m creating my own party.
You’ve said that you truly believe you can win this election, but an Iowa Poll last month showed Branstad as the runaway favorite and you at just 3 percent. With less than a month before the vote, how do you react to that deficit?
On June [1-3], 2010, the Iowa Poll indicated that Terry Branstad was going to double up Bob Vander Plaats and beat him by  points. [Branstad won by nine points.] The Iowa Poll has a history of being horribly wrong. It’s operated by a former Register staffer. The Iowa Poll doesn’t poll people like folks who have cell phones or folks in the inner city, and so we’re not worried about what the Iowa Poll has to say.
There’s no question that Branstad is strong, but the other reality is that there’s a huge none-of-the-above vote. A lot of folks don’t want Culver. A lot of folks don’t want Branstad. And there’s also another difference. You know, Eric Cooper made it clear: he’s shooting for 2 percent. [But] right now we are in the middle of a 99-county swing. We have had a huge amount of press – not the same amount as Branstad or Culver, but … we’re releasing very strong plans on education and fixing the economy and government, and we’re getting tremendous coverage….
Our goal is not to just basically try to have a seat at the table and influence the two-party system. It’s to actually fix the challenges of the state. That’s why we’ve put forth a strong agenda, a strong platform. you know, I would challenge if you’re going to run for governor you ought to have a plan to fix this state, and even if you don’t win you ought to be advancing real ideas and real solutions.
The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television, which [co-hosted] a debate between Branstad and Culver on October 21, used the Iowa Poll to decide that since they were the only two candidates who polled above 10 percent, only they would be invited to the debate. I know you aren’t happy with this decision, but how do you think the qualifications should change?
First of all, let’s not pretend that The Des Moines Register is a relevant news organization anymore. If The Des Moines Register was a relevant news organization they would engage in a responsible exercise of their Fourth Estate duties rather than basically advance agendas.
For example, the Register’s position on the judges is we should retain them, there’s nothing wrong with the justice system. And they’re driving that agenda. Well, there is a gentleman by the name of Dr. David England. He was the president of the Des Moines Area Community College, and he got busted with dope…. He was growing it. He had enough dope to fill this RV [and got off easy]. There was a student at Iowa State named Jason, and he had three joints. And he’s in jail right now. I talked to a gentleman in Anamosa today and he was in jail for a year and a half. He had one joint.
How can the Register, with any kind of credibility, suggest that this justice system isn’t broke when mountains of empirical evidence clearly document that the wealthy and powerful enjoy a different justice than the poor, the working class Iowan? So if they had any journalistic integrity they would allow the objective, empirical, scientific data to prevail. But instead what they’re doing is advancing the cultural privilege which they’re a part of. So let’s not take them seriously.
Generally speaking, how do you think a debate should go about inviting candidates? Who should they include and who should they not include?
The criteria for inclusion should be that the people of Iowa have determined that these are legitimate candidates. We’re talking 3 million people in the state and six people qualified for the ballot. So legitimate criteria for inclusion should be that the people make the determination.
If you were to become governor and you had to choose just one issue, which issue do you think deserves the most immediate attention?
Do you remember what Obama said when John McCain suspended his campaign and went back to lobby for the bailout? He said a president does more than one thing at a time. That was the right answer by Obama – it’s probably the reason he got elected president. He didn’t suspend his campaign and McCain did. A governor, by the very nature of his job, must deal with multiple things.
However, I can give you an answer in this regard: the governor must fix government, because if you don’t fix government you cannot fix the economy. You cannot fix education. So we must fix government, and the ways we could fix government are diverse, but there are some fundamental principles.
One, we must change the way that we run it. We’ve got to get away from the 99 percent revenue approach, where we get to spend 99 percent of what we think we’re going to bring in, and we go to a zero-based budget. We fund troopers at 100 percent. We fund courts at 100 percent. We fund education at 100 percent. And then everything that is not essential we veto, and we let people keep their money….
My focus as governor is to create efficient, accountable government so that we then can restore world class education, so we then can fix the economy, so we then can go about the business of restoring the strength of our families and rebuilding the moral fiber and character of our state…. We have a strong platform that restores the American dream. Home ownership, wealth, prosperity, family, safety and security, to the Iowan. And under a Narcisse administration we not only would restore an Iowa worth fighting for, but Norman Rockwell could paint our state when we get done.