Daniel Norton grew up behind a white picket fence next to the railroad tracks in Peoria, Illinois. As a boy, Norton was fascinated by the hobos who used to stop outside the fence in search of supper. One tramp showed the young Norton a hobo's mark hidden behind the garlands of red roses splayed across the fence indicating the household was a good place to get fed, but you had better be ready to work for your meal.
The values of Norton's parents epitomize a different era—when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal still animated the Democratic Party with the fire of social justice tempered by a belief in the redemptive power of work. It's an ethos that still burns in Norton and that has kept him in progressive politics for 30 years. On primary day, September 14, he'll see how much resonance his politics have with Seattle voters as he faces off with establishment liberal Cheryl Chow and renters' advocate Judy Nicastro for Position 1 on Seattle's City Council. He's already the sole candidate in any race to earn the endorsement of both the City Council's current reformers—Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck.
Norton's campaign has been marked, however, not only by progressive issues but also by critics who charge him with another characteristic of Roosevelt's New Deal—deficit spending. Specifically, controversies coming out of Norton's two-year tenure as chair of the King County Democrats are dogging him.But even his critics don't question his unwavering commitment to the issues he believes in.
Lean, tall, and ramrod straight in bearing, Norton, 51, has long been a fixture among Seattle activists. Associated with peace groups like SANE/Freeze and battles for the public interest—like fighting Nordy's parking garage—Norton has been known as a principled man who could work both inside the boardrooms and out in the streets. His understated sense of humor and lack of ego show his Midwestern roots. Unfortunately neither is an asset for reaching out to voters.
He says if elected his top priority will be to ensure that "every family, every individual currently on the streets is off the streets and has shelter." Back in Peoria, he ran a program that helped get street alcoholics into treatment and turn their lives around. He says he had great success with street alcoholics, known as the most difficult homeless population to reach. While combining a can-do attitude with an unwillingness to accept homelessness in our new Gilded Age is refreshing, Norton remains fuzzy on the specifics of how to reach his ambitious goal.
On public transit, however, he's come up with an innovative and seemingly practical idea: the citywide $10 bus pass. Norton proposes a new tax that would be charged on Seattleites' public utility bills. The tax would subsidize cheap Metro passes for any city resident who wanted one. Norton also claims the city could get more buses—small, neighborhood circulating routes as well as better east-west service—out of Metro with the money and riders his program would generate.
Probably his strongest suit is as a corporate welfare watchdog. Norton has been in the thick of the controversies over everything from the Pacific Place parking garage to Safeco Field. "People don't trust city government to do the right thing," he notes. "I know the difference between a deal and a good deal." Norton's experience with City Council members was very disheartening during these battles. Each told him, "'I've got a gun to my head. What can I do?' That's what we elect politicians to do—take a stand." Norton says he will have no fear in protecting the public interest and our wallets.
The King County Democratic Party is deeply divided over the issue of whether Norton adequately protected their wallets, however. No one asserts anything illegal or unethical took place. A faction of the party does believe Norton seriously mismanaged the organization from 1997 to 1999, when he served as county chair. Another group of King County Dems strongly praises Norton's leadership and supports him for City Council. This family quarrel has raged throughout the electoral season as the Democratic district organizations made their endorsements: Norton did more poorly than expected, picking up just one sole endorsement, the 32nd District, and one joint, the 46th.
The debate over Norton's leadership is multifaceted and seems downright petty at times. The most salient issue concerns the amount of debt incurred under Norton. His critics, like Paul Berry, current treasurer of the King County D's, say Norton started out with virtually no debt and left the party over $15,000 in the hole. The official paperwork the party files with the state supports Berry's claim. Berry is scathing in his criticism of Norton. Given the way Norton operated as chair, Berry says, "I have serious questions about his commitment" to his espoused principles.
Norton disputes all of Berry's claims. He says when he arrived the party's finances were a wreck and that the paperwork filed with the state was inaccurate. Norton backs his statements up with an itemized memo from 1997 that shows the party's debts at more than $20,000 when he took office. He was able to reduce that to around $3,000 after one year. He admits he raised the debt back up to $15,000, but adds the money was well spent—getting candidates elected.
The 32nd District chair, Shaun Dale, who has disagreed with Norton over the years on issues, says, "Dan Norton reduced a substantial debt which he inherited." Dale goes on to observe, given the intensity of Democratic infighting, being county chair "isn't exactly a path to popularity."
Still, when you're running on a platform of restoring the public's trust in government, a raging financial controversy isn't going to help your case. His opponents are only too happy to embellish it. Blair Butterworth, Nicastro's campaign consultant, comments, "Norton is a nice guy, but putting the King County Democrats $30,000 in debt will give him a helluva time in the hurly-burly of the campaign."
Council member Nick Licata has caught wind of the controversy but doesn't know the details. It doesn't concern him much. "The irony is he's being criticized as a manager" but he's running for a legislative office, Licata explains. "Being a manager is totally different." Licata says the strengths Norton possesses will make him a first-rate legislator. "He's thoughtful, intelligent, and his instincts are right." Licata figures Norton's communication skills, progressive values, good work habits, and lack of ego would make him an invaluable ally on the council.
Norton has played in Peoria, and after the primary we'll see if he gets a shot at playing with Nick and Peter.