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In Iowa, Obamas trust

    Central Iowa teacher, politico Jackie Norris serves as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff


“I am very excited about the challenge ahead,” Jackie Norris said. “There will be days where I am very scared because I think the stakes are really high. There are some real problems in our country that we all need to address collectively.” Photo courtesy of First Lady Michelle Obama’s office

By Douglas Burns

Where global proximity to power is considered, a Des Moines woman is now just one degree of separation from the political sun.

When he retires late in the evening to the private quarters of the White House, President Barack Obama, now the human being who more than 6.7 billion others can dare to author destiny, will no doubt seek the comforting counsel of his wife Michelle on matters from family dogs and blue ties to wars and economic stress.

And for her part, the nation’s new First Lady — the president’s “rock” or campaign “closer” — is placing her historically undefined job, and the spectacular public expectations accompanying it, in the trusted hands of political operative and former Central Iowa school teacher Jackie Norris, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

It is no canyon leap to suggest that what Norris helps prioritize for Mrs. Obama, from white-paper policy to black-tie pomp, may very well be the last thoughts in the commander in chief’s waking brain.

“Jackie Norris has the ear of Michelle Obama,” U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in an interview. “She’s going to have a very close relationship, and there’s no one closer to Barack than Michelle is.”

What’s more, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has named Jackie Norris’ husband, John, as his chief of staff. John Norris, a long-time Iowa political figure who ran for Congress, has a resume with a king’s ransom of top advisory roles to state-level and national politicians in Iowa. Most recently Norris held the chairmanship of the Iowa Utilities Board.

Together the Norrises (with close ties to Ames) are now registering cyclone-level strength on Washington, D.C.’s power radar.

“I am very excited about the challenge ahead,” Jackie Norris, 38, said in an interview. “There will be days where I am very scared because I think the stakes are really high. There are some real problems in our country that we all need to address collectively.”

Colleagues, competitors and others in politics say Jackie Norris earned her high-level position on the unforgiving Iowa Caucuses battlefield.

As a senior advisor to Barack Obama in the nominating process, in which Iowa consumed a lion’s share of the calendar, it was Jackie Norris as much as anyone who helped the Illinois senator take lightning in a bottle and turn it into an enduring flame with a victory in the Iowa Caucuses.

“I am proud to have Jackie Norris lead my staff in Washington, D.C.,” Michelle Obama said. “She brings vital professional and personal experience to our team, and we are lucky to have her.” Photo courtesy of Douglas Burns

“I am proud to have Jackie Norris lead my staff in Washington, D.C.,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “She brings vital professional and personal experience to our team, and we are lucky to have her. Jackie’s leadership and experience were assets to our campaign as our journey began on that cold, wintry night at the Iowa Caucuses, and her expertise and dedication will be key to running the First Lady’s office.”

Norris owes her new digs in the East Wing of the White House to the same sands-shifting political event Obama himself does: the Iowa Caucuses, says Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.

The chief of staff position, says Schmidt, a veteran political analyst, is “largely a feather in Jackie Norris’ hat for having done a terrific job.”

“The caucuses are really a great training ground for people to move on to other things,” Schmidt says. “Jackie Norris is a great example of someone who I think did a good job.”

Former Iowa Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer, a supporter of Barack Obama during the caucuses, said the reason the Obamas selected Jackie Norris is simple: trust.

“They were at ease with each other,” Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer, said. “You could tell that immediately. It wasn’t a typical politician-consultant relationship.”

While Obama is certainly an extraordinary candidate, Fischer said the caucus process demands grassroots organizing, shoe-leather work that can’t be neglected no matter the celebrity or charisma of a presidential aspirant. That means results in Iowa are more a reflection of staff work than in later primary states.

Norris is a native of Ossining, N.Y. (which she readily acknowledges is the home of the infamous Sing Sing prison).

“Ossining is a blue collar community,” Norris said. “Over time it’s really turned into a bedroom community for New York City.”

With a school nurse mother and a government teacher father, Norris said she early learned the value of education.

“We had a humble but very good upbringing,” Norris said, adding that it helped with a transition from the East Coast to Iowa.

While Norris isn’t an Iowa native, she cuts the persona of one, with a countenance that broadcasts the wholesomeness of someone who could have played six-on-six girls basketball in the 1980s — or would have been comfortable on a teen-age dinner date involving Maid-Rites. Norris may have adopted Iowa, but there’s no doubting it’s her home state as few Iowans, whether generations deep or fresh from first crossing the Missouri or Mississippi, know the land as well.

“You’re totally reading it right,” said JoDee Winterhof, a former top Hillary Clinton aide and native of Walnut. “She spent a lot of her life as an adult in Iowa.”

Norris earned her first political stripes in one of the more exacting jobs on Capitol Hill. From 1992 to 1994, she served as the scheduler and office manager for U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

Clearly she handled it well, because in 1996, Norris found herself in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House grounds as scheduler and event coordinator for Vice President Al Gore.

Then, making her foray into Iowa politics, Norris joined Tom Vilsack’s gubernatorial campaign in 1998 as finance director and helped the then little-known state senator vault past Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot, a rural radio icon who had served a wide swath of the state in the U.S. Congress.

“A large part of my job is working with the President’s staff to make sure that we’re collaborating, we’re working together to help move our plicies and our country forward,” Norris said. Photo courtesy of First Lady Michelle Obama’s office

Harkin knew Norris during her days with Vilsack’s campaign, with which the Democratic senator said he worked closely. Harkin noted that Chicago-based David Axelrod, one of Obama’s chief strategists and now senior advisor, consulted Vilsack’s campaign in 1998 giving him early exposure to Norris’ work.

“Vilsack knew Axelrod, and Axelrod was always coming to Iowa fishing around for something,” Harkin said.

A decade later, as the lines were first drawn in what eventually turned into at times vicious political warfare, Norris found herself up against a former ally in the 2000 Gore campaign: Winterhof, Hillary Clinton’s chief Iowa strategist.

In the early days of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, the smart money in prognostication circles was on the formidable and klieg-light tested Clinton machine — or that of another rival, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the happy haired and Southern-accented 2004 vice presidential candidate many Hawkeye Staters viewed with “local boy” comfort before his populist persona imploded in post-campaign tabloid absurdity.

Today, Clinton is Obama’s secretary of state, and Winterhof is singing the praises of her former political foe, Norris.

“Jackie is smart, and she’s got fabulous instincts,” Winterhof said. “She’s also tremendously hard-working. She’s tenacious.”

Nine years earlier, they were working for the same man in Iowa, Vice President Al Gore, with Norris as state political director and Winterhof taking time off as Harkin’s chief of staff to travel the state with Tipper Gore.

Winterhof then saw the drive Norris will now need in the White House.

“She will totally rise to the occasion,” Winterhof said.

Winterhof, now the vice president for policy and advocacy for CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, has spoken with Norris about getting Michelle Obama involved as a public advocate.

Life in Iowa, as jammed with heady political experience for Norris as it is, was a far cry from a series of mad chases for votes. A graduate of State University of New York in Geneseo, Norris earned her master’s degree in secondary education at Iowa State and taught government in Perry, Ames and Johnston for much of the last decade.

“I had the pleasure of working in politics and government prior to becoming a teacher,” Norris said. “Going into teaching I had seven years of experience in Washington, D.C., and when I came to Iowa I worked in Iowa politics and then realized that my passion really was for making sure we get young people engaged and active in the political process.”

Harkin recalled a visit to Mrs. Norris’ classroom in Perry as he was promoting efforts for Iowa schools. Now, the senator notes, this teacher is helping lead the American government through what Obama partisans expect to be one of the more transformative periods in American history.

Norris also found time to fall in love with John Norris, get married and have three children, twins Hunter and Cole, 5, and Sam, 3.

It is through working-mother bonding that Michelle Obama, 45, and Norris deepened a relationship. “It’s obviously a source of conversation for us,” Norris said.

The Obamas are parents of two girls, Malia, 10 and, Sasha, 7.

Those looking for a clue to the initiatives likely to emerge from the First Lady’s office may want to start here, at the often conflict-filled, guilt-ridden crossroads of work and family.

“It’s not uncommon that for anybody with kids, one of the things that you spend so much of your time thinking and talking about is your children,” Norris said. “It’s everything from the funny stories to the tough moments to the day-to-day responsibilities that come along with parenting.”

“Jackie Norris has the ear of Michelle Obama,” said Senator Tom Harkin. “She’s going to have a very close relationship, and there is no one closer to Barack than Michelle is.” Photo courtesy of Douglas Burns, Announcement speech, Springfield, Il, Feb. 10 2007

Schmidt expects the Obamas (with the help of the Norrises in supporting roles) to lift to a national discussion their own personal journey with raising young kids while holding intense jobs.

“As a working mother of three children, Jackie will share her insight on an issue I care deeply about — work and family balance,” Michelle Obama said. “We share the common values about the importance of family, community and hard work.”

Norris confirmed widespread press reports about Michelle Obama’s intent to first focus on settling her own girls in their new environment.

“In the last week Michelle has been bringing her daughters to school,” Norris said in the interview with Cityview just days before inauguration. “They’re in a new school. She’s been meeting with their teachers to talk about how to get the kids into the same curriculum. She’s been practicing with one of her daughters, I don’t remember if it was Malia or Sasha, to prepare for upcoming activities at their school. Every day is thinking about the girls and thinking about their success in school.”

One of the Norris’ friends, Bradley Knott, who along with his wife, Kim, hosted the transitioning chiefs of staff at their suburban Maryland home in the week before President Obama’s inauguration, said those long days often ended with conversation about family.

“It’s a lot of family and friends,” Bradley Knott said. “When they were out here, we were helping them find a house.”

Norris was literally sitting in a car with a realtor during at least some of her interview with Cityview. The couple plan on living in Washington, D.C. full-time.

“We have sold our wonderful home in Beaverdale to move to Washington but have hopes to return to Iowa at some point to continue to raise our family,” Jackie Norris said.

Knott, a Carroll native who is now managing partner for an e-learning election company, HAVA Partners, as well as a professor of employment law at the University of Maryland, has known John Norris for a quarter century and Jackie since her early days on the Iowa political scene. He describes Jackie Norris as a “likeable taskmaster.”

“It’s a hard skill to have,” Knott said.

And it will be put to the test with a Barnum-worthy juggling act of White House and kid demands.

“It will be a challenge for them because Washington is not as family friendly as Iowa is,” Knott said.

Obama aides have told the Politico that they’re trying to find creative ways of keeping families connected — from the Obamas to the Norrises to those of presidential chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel and press secretary Robert Gibbs. One idea: having families come to the White House for casual dinners. Another: letting staff go home for a regular dinner with the kids as long as an evening return to work is promised.

“We worked really hard to get the job to work really hard,” Norris said.

For working families in these roiling economic times, the modeling and highest-level recognition of their own job-home struggles is sure to have resonance.

In fact, Schmidt predicts that if managed correctly, Michelle Obama could emerge as something of a family-values shield for the Obama administration. Her public image, already burnished with dreamy dances with her husband on inauguration night and oh-so-cute cutaway camera shots with Malia and Sasha at momentous moments, is that of a mom in charge of her business at home. That will make it harder for social conservatives to demonize President Obama as an eccentric or liberal. Such slams just won’t jive with the images. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed Mrs. Obama with an unfavorability rating of just 7 percent.

“She’s kind of a woman superstar,” Schmidt said of Michelle Obama. “She is going to raise that whole focus on family values.”

There’s another element to consider when evaluating Jackie Norris’s role in the White House. Obama is the product of strong women, which means at the least, Michelle’s voice will be heard. And the gatekeeper for much of what informs the First Lady will flow right through Norris.

Barack Obama’s little sister said the clearest windows into the Illinois senator’s character are the women in his life.

Obama was raised by strong women and now surrounds himself with them, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in Iowa before the Iowa Caucuses.

Soetoro-Ng went so far as to refer to her Democratic presidential candidate brother as a feminist.

“I really believe that my brother is a feminist,” she said. “So much of what he does is so he can help to make the world a better place for his daughters and nieces.”

Obama’s sister, a high school teacher in Honolulu, steered clear of major policy issues and talked about growing up with Obama, a decade her senior.

Soetoro-Ng said Michelle Obama, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated attorney, is a strong woman involved in key decisions.

“She offers ultimate proof that he is a feminist, that he is an advocate for women,” Soetoro-Ng said. “He wants a real partner.”

While being a White House mother is a first and central responsibility for the First Lady, the portfolio Norris will help manage extends well beyond that

“When we actually get in the White House, a large part of my job is working with the president’s staff to make sure that we’re collaborating, we’re working together to help move our policies and our country forward,” Norris said. “It’s also making sure that the trains are running on time, that all the things that need to happen at the White House on a daily basis on behalf of the First Lady’s office and the social office are actually taking place.”

Asked if Mrs. Obama was using any previous first ladies as role models, maybe taking a bit of Hillary here, and a little of Eleanor there, Norris said the Obamas are but in the early stages of defining their family’s public role.

“The beauty of being first lady is that there isn’t a job description,” Norris said. “One of the things that Michelle is able to do is think through the way she wants to do her job. I think you will see that she will continue to be a fierce advocate for military families, for people getting involved in community service, continue to talk about working families and the issues that especially working families face on a daily basis.”

Added Norris, “She’ll also work doggedly to open up the White House to the American public and to make people feel that the White House is accessible to anybody that wants to come to it.”

And with that, Jackie Norris, who just a few years ago was teaching kids about government, was speaking for her nation, offering an invitation of sorts to one of its most venerable buildings. It is a humbling fact not lost on her.

“This whole experience from the onset of the campaign has been a breathtaking, exciting, exhilarating experience,” Norris said. CV

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