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Kim Norton isn’t here to cut ribbons

January 12, 2019

Kim Norton’s first time door-knocking—or at least one of her first times—did not go well.

“It was a Sunday,” she remembers with a laugh. “The man who answered the door looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing? It’s the middle of the Vikings game.’ I guess they were playing the Packers. I hadn’t even thought about it.”

No door-knocking while the Vikings play the Packers. Yeah, some of us would have thought about that. Then again, that’s what makes her Kim Norton.

While many of us have squandered our days watching football and yelling at the TV, Rochester’s first new mayor in 16 years—and the first woman to hold the office in its 164-year history—has been asking where she can sign up for the shovel-work of civic engagement.

We’re talking eight years on the school board, ten years in the state house, and dozens of line-entries on our new mayor’s CV for the boards, committees, coalitions, commissions, councils, and conferences she’s served on since the late 1990s.

It’s exhausting just to look at it, and it’s work that has made her perhaps the most well-known, well-regarded candidate to have run for the office since W. W. Mayo.

But there’s a theme in Norton’s citizen-to-city-hall biography. She has written PTA newsletters, taught Sunday school, organized cultural fairs, and authored public safety law. She’s a mother of five who’s also been a special-ed family liaison, a former employee of the Nebraska state mental hospital who has manned rape crisis lines, canvassed the city to count the homeless, and gone on police ride-alongs.

So for every round of Rotary-styled community service, our incoming mayor has shown a determination to not forget the needs of those who are struggling. Not that you’ll hear it put into precisely those words from the newest face at city hall. “I get bored,” is how she downplayed her decision to embark on a late-career Bush Fellowship to study environmental stewardship, smart growth, and sustainable energy use. “I get antsy if I have to sit around.”

Again, some of us fight boredom with Netflix.

“I definitely plan to be a strong mayor in a weak mayor system.”

We are sitting in Panera, and I feel bad about taking Norton away from all of this virtuous activity in order to get her talking about her pathway to city hall. I have observed her in two political debates and at a strategy-sharing hour organized to pair the DMC brain trust with a quirky cast of visiting administrators from our sister city in Münster, Germany. (I’ve seen the future of Mayo-Münster meetings—this is not a deli joke—and it involves bike helmets strewn about during policy discussions.)

I’ve also done enough Norton-watching to declare that our incoming municipal figurehead has an unassuming personal style, is confident enough in her place at the table to remain chill as men with lesser pull drone on over her, and seems more interested in listening than talking. These, of course, are good qualities for a nonpartisan officeholder. But the job seems due for an update.

If anything, Norton’s experience may give us more mayor than we deserve, given the pay structure of the position. (At $36,650, the time-consuming job pays less than half what the mayor earns in Duluth.) Both the job of mayor, and the idea of Rochester itself seem destined to change in the face of what’s likely to be a vibrant, if messier urban future.

Critics are worried about political partisanship from the former DFLer. A recent Facebook post called her a shill for Mayo Clinic and the DMC. They question how she can be a strong mayor in a system in which the position doesn’t even get a regular vote on council issues.

“You can get a lot done through meetings and building relationships and sharing your vision,” says Norton. “I won’t be shy about weighing in.”

And while the mayor can veto council actions, Norton says she would rather work together with council members.

As for the partisanship and Mayo Clinic-shill fears, Norton says that “anyone who knows me would probably laugh at that. Most people are worried that I have too strong an opinion and won’t agree with them on everything. I’m usually more of a devil’s advocate.”

Either way, the days in which all of Rochester’s citizens shared the same basic needs, the mayor’s office was a ceremonial post, and there was ample parking for all are likely coming to an end.

Fortunately, the Mayor-Elect has some ideas: Transparency in government. Citizen engagement. Sustainable energy, affordable housing, worker training, strong neighborhoods, and multi-modal transit. “We’ve had a mayor who, in his own words, hasn’t cared that deeply about policy,” she told a gathering recently at Little Thistle Brewery. “I definitely plan to be a strong mayor in a weak mayor system.”

“Tight-knit potlucks just for themselves”

Norton, who is 61 and the oldest of four, was raised in Lincoln, Neb. Her father worked in the family wholesale paper business while her mother raised her and her younger brothers. Norton points to three women in her life as her greatest inspirations: her mother, who valued open communication and made sure the kids could talk about anything; a grandmother who received a graduate degree, traveled, and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention; and another grandmother who studied ballet in New York before what has to have been a colorful career working in Vaudeville (a lover of the arts and music, Norton was a dancer and gymnast in high school).

After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Norton set out to work with the deaf, but life intervened when, while working at the state mental hospital, she met a psychology student who would become her first husband. The couple moved to Texas, where Norton briefly attended graduate school before the pair started a family. The couple had two boys and two girls, and he took a job in Rochester.

As a young mother with children in Harriet Bishop Elementary School, Norton joined the local PTA. One thing led to another, and pretty soon she was not only chairing the state PTA, but serving on the board for the national chapter. In 1998, Norton ran for the Rochester school board, a decision requiring her to learn about not door-knocking during Vikings games.

“I was on the phone for hours every day listening to parents,” she remembers. It started what has become central to the Norton brand, which is moving toward, rather than away from, critics. By 2004, having realized that the school board answered to the funding whims of the legislature, Norton ran for the state house. She had seen a host of pragmatic objectives needing attention in the statutes, and to her dismay, her legislator “only wanted to talk about reducing taxes.”

It’s a second characteristic of Norton’s brand that she could not run for state office until she figured out something most of us seem to know about ourselves from young adulthood—that is, what political party she identified with.

“I always just voted for the person that I liked,” she explains. After calling leadership from each party to tell them about her problem—that “I don’t know what party I’m in” dilemma—she found a successful listening post in the Democrats. Norton had already been to the State Capitol to advocate for a host of education objectives, including indoor air quality, increased parent and family involvement, and more K-12 funding. “Those are Democratic party issues,” then-Education Finance Committee chair Mindy Greiling told her. “I think you’re a Democrat!”

Norton may have found her party in 2004, but she lost that election—for state rep—to Fran Bradley by 311 votes.

She ran again in 2006, however, and this time she won by just 99 votes. She rolled up her sleeves to get to work on a host of bread-and-butter legislative needs, eschewing glamorous measures for the necessary but unpopular passage of a long-stalled primary seat belt law, a bill that had been idle for 26 years. After a conversation with a homeowner stuck with a mold problem, she championed radon-resistant construction. She also carried autism legislation, and with GOP Sen. Dave Senjem, the transformative bill funding the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center initiative.

Being in the majority party had made this kind of productivity easier, but when the GOP took power in 2010, things changed. A workforce bill Norton had spent years fine-tuning was carried across the finish line from the other side of the aisle with a cold efficiency that embodied a new decline in inter-party collegiality in St. Paul. The people’s house had become a less-friendly place. Norton doesn’t blame it on one party. Well, the potlucks, maybe.

“Tight-knit potlucks just for themselves,” she remembers of the GOP. “We didn’t get to socialize. The party structure became so toxic. It became a matter of, ‘We were going to pass bills, and we don’t need your vote, so we will do what we want.’”

The practice of adding amendments in the 24 hours before hearings—and the gamesmanship that produced—needed legislative fine-tuning, in Norton’s view. “I became very frustrated. There were bills that I wanted to make better. I just wanted to make policy.”

After three more victorious campaigns, Norton left the house in 2016, applied for a Bush Fellowship, and spent 17 days in Scandinavia studying how smart government works in places like Copenhagen, Malmo, Oslo, and Stockholm. She would later travel to Germany and the Pacific Northwest, picking up ideas in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley. She came back a champion for green energy and livable cities.

She had seen the move toward biking and walking in the cities with which we are increasingly competing for talent—how “downtown Seattle has jungle gyms,” and “Vancouver has five-story trees.” She had seen that Portland has an office of neighborhood engagement, and that Münster has a bicycle-only parking garage holding 3,000 bikes, a hub that fills up each day before noon.

During the aforementioned meeting with the administrative cabinet for Rochester’s sister city, Norton prodded the Burgermeister himself (Münster mayor Markus Lewe) to describe how the 300,000-person city had developed an astonishing bike-commuting infrastructure. The city offers six miles of lighted, bike-only expressways that seamlessly, safely move bicycle commuters from the outskirts to the core, are quickly cleared of snow in the winter, and are surely worthy of consideration by any Midwestern city that wants to be taken seriously as a bastion of health.

Of course, Rochester is currently dealing with heated skirmishes over whether Broadway will get so much as a new stripe allowing bikes three feet of turf. So we have a ways to go. “If we are going to double in size,” Norton says, “there’s not enough room for four more lanes on Broadway.”

Given these realities, her job, as she sees it, is to be the messenger capable of demystifying our coming changes. “I sit down with seniors and they say, ‘I don’t like bikes.’” she explains. “I tell them that if we can take the bikes off the road, and give the bikes their own space, drivers won’t have to worry about bicyclists pedaling so close to your car. When they hear that, they open up to the idea. You also have to tell them that if you make space for bikes, you’re going to have a better chance finding a spot to park. Because every one of those people on bikes are people who are not taking a parking space away from you and your car.”

It comes down to priorities that are grounded in the changing times, she says. “Are we building a city of individuals in cars,” she asks, “or are we looking to a future that’s pragmatic and that looks to best practices around the country? To say, ‘I want to it to be how it is now, and never change,’ that is not realistic. The key is to help people understand why a change is being made.”

And this, the bike issue, is a walk in the park compared to the seriously thorny matters poised to arise during Norton’s tenure as mayor. At a debate luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce, the city business community tasked Norton with a list of worried questions about municipal workplace mandates currently taking hold in the Twin Cities, including a $15 minimum wage, and mandated employer maternity and sick leave. Unlike her opponent, Norton left the door open to all of them, albeit if the full council approves. She also has ideas about getting garbage collection down to one firm per region (saving energy use and reducing wear-and-tear on the roads), the need to build affordable housing throughout the city, and the need to create and sustain “a diverse, strong, sustainable workforce.”

“Kim is interested in problem-solving,” says her husband of seven years, Randy Stone, a Mayo Clinic psychotherapist. “She loves connecting with people. She wants to be in the thick of things. She wants to engage with people. What you and I find tiring, she finds energizing. … She responds to all emails and she is not afraid of change.”

“She gives up so much to do these things,” says Theresa Wilson, a longtime friend and observer of the personal cost to Norton of electioneering. “To get through her first run for office,” Wilson says, “I swear she lived on nothing but red licorice for a year.” Wilson has also experienced the new mayor’s light touch when it comes to political differences.

“I’m a moderate Republican,” she says. “My husband is very Republican. But when it comes to politics, you can disagree vehemently with Kim, argue late into the night, and she’s still your friend tomorrow. People can oppose her and she’ll say ‘Let’s have coffee.’ She’s thinking, ‘I still represent them.’”

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