Kim Norton didn't have an opponent when she ran for re-election in 2014, but her path to the Minnesota House hasn't always been that easy.
Her first campaign fell short when she lost to Republican incumbent Fran Bradley by 311 votes in 2004. When Bradley chose not to run for re-election, she ran again and defeated Republican Rich Decker in 2006 by just 99 votes. Her margin of victory was bigger in successive campaigns until the Republicans couldn't recruit a candidate during the last election cycle.
But House District 25B, which encompasses northern Rochester and Cascade Township, is by no means a Democratic stronghold, so Norton's retirement makes this a wide-open race in a election year where all 201 state legislative seats are open.
Norton's decision against running for re-election, just two years after having no opponent, speaks volumes about today's political climate.
"I'm frustrated and I just think it's time for me to get out of partisan politics," she said during an interview at her Rochester home earlier this week.
Norton, a moderate who served on the Rochester School Board for eight years before being elected to the Legislature, said she's interested in getting back into nonpartisan politics and is giving "fairly serious consideration" to running for Rochester mayor in 2018. If she runs, she'll have an opportunity to implement Destination Medical Center, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in Rochester history. It's also legislation she had an instrumental role in passing.
"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."
Her legislative accomplishments, which have often focused on public safety, include authoring a bill to make Minnesota a primary seat belt enforcement state, sponsoring legislation for a graduated driver's license program for novice drivers. She also was a major player in the creation of ignition interlock programs to keep DUI offenders off Minnesota highways.
Norton sometimes defied her own party. In 2013, she was the sole Democrat in the Minnesota House to sign on a bill introduced by Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican from Red Wing, that would have recognized civil unions for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The bill, which in effect would have gotten government out of the marriage business and leave religious institutions in charge of performing marriages, was offered as a compromise during the divisive debate that ultimately legalized gay marriage in Minnesota.
"The community is very split on this issue, and I am just trying very hard to listen and to do the right thing," she said at the time.
The civil-union proposal quickly fell short. In hindsight, it was a brave attempt to find middle ground on a schismatic social issue. That's especially apparent two years later after the recent national attention on a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
We sadly understand the reason for Norton's decision to not run for re-election. We're not only losing a legislator worn down by today's polarized politics, but we're losing one who was successful in spite of it.
In recent years, the Legislature has resembled a roomful of bickering children. One of the few adults has just decided to leave the room.