It can be lonely as the only Democrat on the Sedgwick County Commission.
Tim Norton keeps a yellow paperback book in his office at the courthouse titled “How Do You Lead When You’re Not in Charge?” He’s read it recently – the commission has had a conservative Republican majority for a year and a half.
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“I love being a public servant … I’ve got good ideas. I’ve got the energy and experience,” Norton said. “Just because I’m not the chairman or I’m not in the majority doesn’t mean that I don’t have leadership skills to get things done.”
Norton will face Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell in the Nov. 8 race in District 2, which includes parts of south and southwest Wichita, Haysville and Clearwater.
It’s a critical race for the political tilt of the commission, which decides how much money to allocate to fund the jail, the county roads system, the health department, the tag office, the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place and other entities.
Norton joined the commission in 2000. Earlier, he was the manager of Target East and a member of the Haysville City Council. He worked full time as Haysville’s mayor in the recovery effort after a 1999 tornado leveled parts of the town – an event he says changed his “whole life trajectory.”
People still remember that I was the guy on the spot.
Tim Norton, Sedgwick County commissioner
“People still remember that I was the guy on the spot,” Norton said. “I think I led us pretty well. I stayed positive.”
Norton says he’s the better option for people concerned with the current county majority, made up of more conservative Commissioners Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn.
“There’s no case for change as far as I’m concerned, not from my race,” Norton said. “Obviously, there was already a case for change in another race.”
That’s a reference to the Aug. 2 Republican primary, in which Peterjohn lost his District 3 seat by double digits. The eventual winner of that seat – either retired Air Force Col. David Dennis or Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory – could form a more moderate majority with Commissioner Dave Unruh and Norton, if he were to win re-election.
“I had a lot of people come to me and say, ‘Norton, don’t walk away right now,’ ” he said.
District 2 includes Haysville, Clearwater and large parts of southwest of Wichita. It also includes an area just north of Kellogg between Tyler and McLean.
He says he’ll work to improve relations with the city of Wichita and strengthen support for the public health department and partnerships with economic development groups and the Sedgwick County Zoo.
Norton, 69, rejects the idea put forth by his opponent that 16 years in office is too long.
“I think I’m valuable to this community,” Norton said. “I think I can get things done. I don’t know that it’s about time. It’s about value and worth.”
Delta roots, Target career
Norton grew up in the “cotton country” of northeast Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta, in a family where politics was often a topic around the kitchen table.
“We were thinking about the bigger world, even though we grew up in a town of 3,200 in Arkansas,” Norton said.
He studied journalism at Arkansas State University but wound up in retail advertising for a small discount chain.
He started working for Target in 1977, which took him to Wichita in 1980. He became more well-known in the 1980s and 1990s as the manager of Target East.
“I found a little small town that I like, which is Haysville, where I can let my kids grow up and be small-town kids and still be close to a pretty good metro area,” Norton said. “I could be connected here. I could be known as the Target guy.”
Norton said he worked to be active in the community early on by participating in Riverfest, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the United Way.
He was first elected to Haysville’s City Council in 1988. He became mayor in 1996 after the previous mayor resigned. He then won mayoral races in 1997 and 1999.
Haysville tornado: ‘It was chaos’
And then May 3, 1999, happened.
Shortly after the tornado struck, Norton drove to downtown Haysville with a city council member.
“All the power’s out. Power lines are down. It’s obvious there’s debris everywhere. Another good friend of mine, standing with a flashlight where there’s no signal anymore at the intersection, is trying to guide traffic,” Norton said. “There was a ton of people at the city building, because it had a basement.
“A lot of them had no shoes on; kids were in pajamas,” Norton said. “It was chaos.”
Norton left Target to work on the town’s recovery.
It was different and tough but, you know, the most gratifying time in my life to say that I had a chance when put under that kind of pressure to make a difference.
Tim Norton, Sedgwick County commissioner
“I gave up a corporate job,” Norton said. “Financially, it was different and tough but, you know, the most gratifying time in my life to say that I had a chance when put under that kind of pressure to make a difference.
“It’s not for me to judge if I made a difference, it’s for the people of Haysville and the Wichita community to say whether I made a difference,” he added.
Norton won a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission in 2000 after Bill Hancock retired. He ran unopposed in 2004 and defeated Republican challengers in 2008 and 2012.
‘Think about the underserved’
Norton touts a long list of accomplishments and endeavors while in office.
He said the county’s support for Wichita Area Technical College, the partnership with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research and work on the National Center for Aviation Training were critical for regional economic development.
“We worked to try to decide what we needed to do in workforce development for the aviation industry,” Norton said. “We stepped off the ledge to build that.”
Norton says he was very involved in alternative programs designed to lower jail population and cut costs.
“We bent the curve,” Norton said. “It required everybody that had anything to do with public safety and the criminal justice system and the courts all hitching up to the wagon together.”
Former public safety director Bob Lamkey said Norton asked the right questions, gathered data and worked to make sure the county was protecting public safety efficiently and effectively.
Tim was one of the steadiest, most incisive commissioners. … I always found Tim to be very thoughtful and responsive to public safety issues.
Former Sedgwick County Public Safety Director Bob Lamkey
“Tim was one of the steadiest, most incisive commissioners,” Lamkey said. “I always found Tim to be very thoughtful and responsive to public safety issues.”
Norton also talks about his work to raise money for the Child Advocacy Center, which just opened a new building near Lincoln and Broadway. The center provides therapeutic and emotional support for abused children.
“It’s a game-changer for our community,” he said.
Norton is one of the more vocal commissioners about issues related to neglected children or mental health.
My family always pushed me to think about the underserved and disadvantaged and disenfranchised and folks that struggle.
Tim Norton, Sedgwick County commissioner
“My family always pushed me to think about the underserved and disadvantaged and disenfranchised and folks that struggle,” he said.
Norton also says his attention to drainage issues led to a public works department effort to clean out debris from the Cowskin Creek to relieve flooding problems south of Haysville.
‘Working with all our partners’
Norton wants the county to go back to using debt to pay for some road and bridge projects. The commission majority began paying for those projects with cash instead of borrowing money. Norton contended during 2016 budget discussions last summer that that policy led to unpopular cuts to public health, economic development, recreation and culture.
He says the county should look at restoring some health department programs cut in the 2016 budget. He points to a motion he made in the 2017 budget process that restored a county health department position to help create a community health assessment.
“I believe that that health assessment person is critical to knowing our community and working with all our partners to gather data, to understand our community, to know where the pitfalls and the roadblocks are,” he said.
Norton said he has a good relationship with the Wichita City Council but criticizes the “acrimony and some pushback between the city and the present majority.”
“A lot of people know that it’s out there. It’s the elephant in the room,” Norton said. “Truthfully, I wasn’t invited to the meetings where they got adversarial with each other.
“I am not the person that has hamstrung the conversation,” Norton said. “I’ve always been a relationship builder.”
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell has not endorsed anyone in the District 2 race. But he agreed with Norton on city-county relations: “Tim is not the problem.”
Lamkey added that Norton always worked well with the city on public safety cooperation.
“He’s been very good about reaching across the street to solve issues without making a lot of noise,” Lamkey said.
Norton said he largely agrees with points Gregory and Dennis have made in candidate forums and debates.
“They have said things that are pretty lined up with the way I think,” Norton said. “Would that change the (county commission’s) dynamic on some of these issues that have been controversial?
“I think maybe it would.”
Work: Retired retail manager
Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, Arkansas State University; master’s degree in adult education, Newman University
Experience: Sedgwick County commissioner, 15 years; Haysville mayor, four years; Haysville City Council, nine years
Phone: (316) 253-6521