Citing mounting frustration with partisan politics, Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton said she has decided not to run for re-election in 2016.
"I've made the decision, after a couple of years of consideration, that it's time for me to retire, so I am not going to run for re-election in 2016," Norton said during an interview with the Post-Bulletin at her home on Tuesday. "It makes me a little sad, I will say, but at the same time it feels like the right thing to do and the right time to do it,"
The former Rochester School Board member and self-described moderate said she's interested in getting back into nonpartisan politics and is giving "fairly serious consideration" to running for Rochester mayor in 2018.
"I'm frustrated and I just think it's time for me to get out of partisan politics," she said.
Norton's election to the Minnesota House in 2006 was historic in many ways. She became the first Democrat and first woman to win the northern Rochester House seat since candidates began using party affiliation in the mid-1970s. After serving on the Rochester School Board, Norton ran for the seat in 2004 against Republican Rep. Fran Bradley and lost by 311 votes. Two years later, she ran against Republican Rich Decker and won by a mere 99 votes.
Norton's decision to retire creates an open seat in what could be a very competitive district. Norton said when she first ran, the district was definitely more conservative. Over the past decade, House District 25B has become slightly more left. Still, she said she considers it a swing district. She said she has approached some Democrats about running for her seat and believes one or two might get in, but no decisions have been made. So far, no Republicans have announced plans to run for the seat.
Democrats have generally done well in the district in recent years. In 2014, DFL Sen. Al Franken and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton won the district. In 2012, President Barack Obama carried the district with 53 percent of the vote. Norton ran unopposed last year.
Fed up with partisan politics
Norton said it has been an honor to serve in the Minnesota House, but the job has become less enjoyable as partisanship has increased. When she was first elected, Norton said there were a sizable number of moderates in both parties. Over time, the number of moderates have dwindled and the parties have become more extreme.
"I am a policy person. I like bringing disparate ideas together and coming up with a compromise that you can all agree to, and to me, that is what the Legislature should have been," Norton said. "On occasion, and unfortunately it's a rare occasion, that happens. But I seem to be serving at a time when the parties are polarized about as far as they've been in my lifetime, and it's just getting really hard to do that across-the-party-line work.
During her career, Norton has sometimes found herself at odds with members of her own party. She opposed a bill allowing unions to try to organize in-home daycare providers who receive government subsidies. She has also backed efforts to pass a tip credit, which would limit how much employers need to pay tipped employees.
She also helped pass one of the most significant pieces of legislation in Rochester history — the Destination Medical Center law. That legislation set aside $585 million in public funding to help support the $5.5 billion effort to transform Rochester into a global destination for health care.
Fellow Rochester DFL Rep. Tina Liebling has not only worked with Norton at the Capitol but also lives with her in a two-bedroom apartment during the legislative session. She said Norton's decision not to run again is a tremendous loss for the state.
"The state is losing one of the best legislators in the place," she said. "Kim's ability to handle complex issues and to be effective, I think, is pretty hard to equal. She is one of the most effective legislators."
Norton said she is most proud of her work related to public safety. She authored the primary seat belt law, which allows law enforcement to pull over motorists solely for failing to buckle up. She also fought to pass the graduated driver license law.
"I know both of those have saved lives already in the few years they've been in place. I know they weren't popular in every corner of the world, but I know they've made a difference and that's gratifying," Norton said.
Preparing for possible mayoral bid
After she finishes up her legislative term, the 57-year-old said she is looking to continue studying public policy. She has applied for a Bush Fellowship with the goal of earning her master's degree while studying human resource management and urban development. If that doesn't pan out, she said she will continue attending seminars and informational meetings to learn more about the policy challenges that cities face. She said running for mayor in 2018 would give her the chance to help implement the Destination Medical Center law she helped passed.
Norton added, "It gives me an opportunity to keep working on city policy, keep nurturing DMC so it goes through as written, allows me to stay home and be with my husband and be in the community."