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Kim Norton: ‘You can’t take this district for granted’

Rep. Kim Norton

Rep. Kim Norton

What happened to the legislator who got everything she wanted?

It is perhaps a stretch to use those terms to describe Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester. But Norton turned 2014 into a personal tour de force, weathering weeks of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike as she shepherded the state and local investment package toward the Destination Medical Center (DMC).

At times, it seemed like the only people aside from Norton who wanted the bill to pass worked for Mayo Clinic. After a lot of long days — and a few long nights — Norton succeeded, winning $585 million for a planned $6 billion overhaul of downtown Rochester; some $424 million of that total would come in the form of direct state investment.

Later, some legislators used the massive bill against Norton, arguing that she should not expect them to grant her any legislative successes “ever again.” It was bothersome for Norton, who said she rarely puts her district over statewide interests, and thinks the DMC will someday benefit all Minnesotans.

That experience, along with the huge influence of money on politics and policy, helped Norton toward her announcement last week that she would not seek re-election to a sixth term in the Capitol. Norton spoke with Capitol Report to reflect on her time as a moderate, swing-district legislator, who still holds out hopes for a few more proposals next year.


Capitol Report: When did you know you didn’t want to seek re-election?

Norton: Well, it wasn’t a moment, it was a build-up over time, and it’s been coming for probably three of four years now. I had been considering this, and I just feel like this is probably the right time.

CR: You’re considering a run for mayor of Rochester. What would go into that decision, and are there parts of being a mayor that you would prefer to being a legislator?

Norton: Well, first, it’s nonpartisan in Rochester, and that would be appealing to me. Second, it would allow me to continue to work in the area of policy, and I would hope to build partnerships with the city council. I love policy work, that would allow me to continue to work on it, but it would just be specific to my community and city.

I want to be really clear that while I’m interested in the mayoral position, our current mayor, Ardelle Brede, is doing a good job. My intent was not to rush him out or run against him. But if that position does open, and he chooses not to run, that is something I would consider.

CR: This past year, you were one of a few Democrats to support the idea of adjusting the minimum wage for tipped employees. Why is that a good idea?

Norton: I spent time talking with members of my chamber and local restaurant owners, and they were very supportive of some sort of adjustment. I think it makes it more fair for the other workers in the restaurant, people who work in the kitchen, and chefs, when you can make certain their salaries aren’t out of whack for different employees. The tip credit would allow them a little more control over managing that aspect.

CR: Did taking that stance or other moderate positions ever hurt your standing with any of your liberal DFL colleagues?

Norton: For the most part, individuals are tolerant in the DFL caucus of the wide variety of views we have. But I would say, yes, some individuals are less tolerant than others. They have a harder time not seeing all Democrats the same. Overall, the caucus has been tolerant over the years when I vote my district.

I will also say that it’s very difficult to be the one, or one of a small group of people who take a position outside the caucus’s position as well. There’s a certain amount of stress and strain on the relationship. I would say it gets tiring over the years, to always be in sync, or to fight the expectation of being in sync with everyone else.

CR: In 2014, you were the public face of the Destination Medical Center and had to weather criticism from both sides of the aisle. How do you remember that experience now?

Norton: It was a lot of work! [Laughs.] It was a worthwhile cause, it was a huge economic development opportunity for my community. But I think it did hurt my relationship with some of my colleagues, probably more on my side of the aisle than the other. And some people have a hard time making it personal, rather than representing my community, which is what I was trying to do. And I was doing it with the support of the governor, and others… with people throughout the Legislature on this. I certainly was open and forthright about what I was doing. So, I felt good about the work I did. But it was difficult to see how people’s opinion or treatment of me changed as a result of it.

 CR: You’re talking now about pushing stricter gun control laws next year. What do you have in mind?

Norton: I don’t have anything predetermined. Members of my community have been coming to me for some time, and I’ve had concerns, myself, including about my safety at the Capitol. I try to understand my issues, and work on issues I feel passionately about, and know a lot about. Gun legislation isn’t in that ballpark for me, so I hoped other people would bring bills forth that I could take a vote on, take a stand on. And nothing has really happened, moving things in a direction where my constituents are happy.

I’m just doing the research. I have in front of me a whole stack of research papers, articles, printed out. I have meetings set up with people with different perspectives on the issue. When those are done, I’ll ask staff to help me draft a bill, or a number of bills, that represent what I think would be best for my constituents and the state.

CR: Are there other things you still want to dive into next year?

Norton: Top of those, and it’s a constituent issue, is the ignition-interlock for a first-time [drunken-driving] offense. I worked many hours working on that, getting into the best form that I could, not knowing if it would get a hearing — and it did not — last session. There had been a suggestion that it could get a hearing next session, but it’s such a short session, again, I don’t know.

Another is the nurse licensure compact bill which, four years ago passed the House and Senate, and the governor was letting us know he probably would veto, so we didn’t ever send it to his desk. Some changes have happened in the compact nationally, as well as some legislation that passed this year, particularly with regards to telemedicine and physicians compacts, that I think are really signaling it’s time for that issue to be discussed again.

CR: Should Democrats be worried about holding your seat? And what would be your advice to the DFL candidate that runs in your place?

Norton: Well I’ve always been worried about holding my seat, and I’m a Democrat. [Laughs.] This is a swing district but it’s certainly winnable by a Democrat, especially if they find the right one. You just, in my lifetime here, you can’t take this district for granted. Advice I would give would be — and I’d give this to any legislator — know your district, communicate, and keep a relationship going with your service, and vote your district, and you’ll be fine. It might be stressful, but you’ll be fine.

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