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AGAINST THE WIND

Right now Colorado attorney general Gale Norton looks like she should be a shoo-in for Hank Brown's soon-to-be-empty U.S. Senate seat. She's won two statewide elections, she's made herself highly visible in what is normally a dry, low-profile office, and she's smart. She's pro-choice, talks tough on crime and pushes the death penalty--views that make her popular around here. She tests well, as the pollsters say. She's got the highest "positives" of any Republican in the state, and a recent poll showed her well in the lead for the Republican nomination.

She's also not the type to make some sort of offhand remark that's going to get her in trouble. Norton thinks about everything she says before she says it. You can see the gears grinding. She separates her teeth so slowly, you get the impression that it's painful for her to move her jaw. In a world of blustery politicians, impassioned speeches and near-and-dear causes, 41-year-old Gale Norton is an enigma. She isn't a "people person." She jousts at no windmills. Cool, calculating, well-versed--Norton is Bob Dole without the war record. But that doesn't mean the road to Washington won't be a bumpy one.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised in Thornton, Gale Norton is the elder daughter of two blessed to Dale and Jackie Norton. Her childhood was unremarkable, she says, except for the death of her little sister, Laura, at age seven, of leukemia. Norton is characteristically stoic about the loss: "I recognized there were no guarantees. Opportunities don't come around a second time." She likes the line so much she made it part of her Senate candidacy announcement--complete with the association to her sister's death.

In junior high school Norton fell in love with science fiction, enthralled by authors like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. In high school her adoration turned to drama. (She played Anne Frank's mother in her school's production of The Diary of Anne Frank.) But cheerleading material she was not. "I was the classic `A' student," she says. "Involved in a whole lot of activities, but one of the last ones to be asked out on a date."

In college her loves were twofold: journalism and a man four years her senior--Hal Reed--whom she married shortly after graduation. But it wasn't till she got to law school and read The Fountainhead that she felt she'd found her niche. "I liked the philosophy based on individuality," she says. "One that stresses the importance of people being free to pursue what is best in them--free of government restrictions and of attitudes that people should have to conform to mediocrity."

In 1978 Gale Norton graduated from law school magna cum laude, with Ayn Rand in her head and a divorce in her hand. (Things with Reed hadn't worked out.) She then went to work for James Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, following him to Washington, D.C., when he took over as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior. Norton stayed in Washington three years, bouncing between Interior and the Department of Agriculture, but even Watt has said that she never really fit in. She agrees with the assessment, explaining her dislike for D.C.'s policymaking-by-popularity-contest: "What I did not like about Washington was the tendency to decide goverment policies on the basis of who's for it and who's against it." Finally, she returned to Colorado and private practice in 1987. Three years later she made two life-altering decisions: to marry local real estate agent John Hughes and to run for attorney general.

At a recent Cherry Creek Republican Women's Club meeting, Norton looks out of place among the carefully made-up, heavily jeweled group. She sits at a front table and politely talks to whoever talks to her. She doesn't work the crowd. When it's time for her speech, she graciously compliments Colorado representative Martha Kreutz on how fresh she's looking, then launches into a prepared statement. It's vintage Gale. She starts with three examples of runaway federal regulation, all OSHA standards gone awry. You can feel gusts of Ayn Rand's basic premise blowing by. She shifts gears to stab at the Democrats' reckless spending causing the deficit, but five minutes later she's reciting more examples of silly federal regulations--one dealing with Key Largo wood rats and the psychological damage the government said a landowner was imposing on them. Finally, she closes with her now trademark "opportunity" rhetoric.

"Opportunity" is a common theme in Norton's Senate campaign. In fact, it's the central theme. Just five months after winning her second term as AG, Norton announced she was running for Hank Brown's seat in 1996. Her rationale: The Republicans need to keep the seat, which Brown says he will relinquish, to make the most of the current cycle of conservatism.

 

"The 1994 elections presented Republicans with a limited window of opportunity," her March 4 press release stiffly declares. "The 1996 elections will either close that window or open it for long-term change... Colorado needs the strongest Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate."

Not quite the inspired personal-commitment lingo that usually accompanies candidacy announcements. But then, Norton has never been known to wax deep or poetic. That's not what got her into office in the first place. Indeed, this once-rising star of the national Republican Party can most likely credit both her victories to her opponents--and their mistakes.

In 1990 there was Duane Woodard, a two-term incumbent AG who switched his party affiliation more often than Ben Nighthorse Campbell (twice, to be exact). Norton had just come out of nowhere to win the Republican primary against better-known Republican activist Mac McManus. But Woodard was oblivious. He was so used to winning his seat he didn't even start running a campaign until it was all but over. Blindsided by the Republican Party's huge infusion of cash, Woodard lost after Norton used the money to pay for a series of scorching commercials about the parole board's release of a convicted felon who raped and murdered a woman promptly upon release.

Boom. Norton's in office, the first female AG in Colorado's history and the darling of the Republican Party. In 1992 she's asked to speak at the Republican National Convention. In 1994 she heads into her second campaign surprisingly disorganized and underfunded. (Sources say she had only $4,000 in her account in what eventually ended up to be a $300,000-plus race.) Her opponent, Dick Freese, raises more money than she does and uses it to hammer her. He runs a series of negative ads hitting her on everything from misappropriation to never showing once for a parole-board hearing. It's a big mistake on Freese's part. As veteran lobbyist and campaign guru Frank "Pancho" Hays says, "You can't go completely negative in this state. The voters are too sophisticated for that." Norton wins by figurative default.

Five months later she announces for U.S. Senate.
The Republicans need her, she says.
But some Republicans disagree.

If Norton wins the Senate race in '96, she forfeits the rest of her term as AG. The state constitution allows the governor to appoint, subject to Senate confirmation, whomever he finds qualified to fill the vacancy until the next election. Which leaves half of the four-year term to an up-and-coming Democrat, giving him or her two years to make a name and prepare for another election. It's a blow some in the GOP aren't taking lightly.

"She's not ready, and she doesn't care about the vacancy she's creating," said one longtime party activist. "A lot of people worked hard in the party to make sure she got that office...and now she doesn't seem to care about it."

Norton says that she's confident, "based on conversations I've had," that a Republican would replace her in that seat. She won't say who the conversations were with or what assurance was given her. Romer press secretary Jim Carpenter says he "can't imagine the governor making that assurance under any circumstances." But Norton says she doesn't see anything unusual about it. "The Senate would never confirm anyone but a Republican. And Romer's appointed Republicans to his cabinet in the past," she says, citing as a precedent (always the lawyer) former Romer chief of staff Stuart Bliss.

Depending on the governor to appoint and the Senate to confirm a Republican is a dangerous leap of faith, considering the Republicans almost lost control of the state Senate in 1994. It's not the kind of double miracle Colorado senator MaryAnne Tebedo and state representative Shirleen Tucker were counting on, either. They spent a lot of time, effort and political chits last session getting a bill through both chambers that would guarantee that a Republican would fill the seat. The legislation would have required the governor to fill vacant seats with a candidate from the same party as the departing officeholder. The bill, S. 202, was titled the "Vacancies in Elected Offices" act, but it was better known among legislators as the "Gale Norton Protection Act." A last-minute amendment changed its implementation date to January 1, 1999, so the bill no longer would protect Norton. Romer vetoed it anyway, on May 31.

The failure of the attempt didn't change Norton's mind or her plans. But it did affect a number of other Republicans.

Bruce Benson, who as state GOP chairman in 1990 gave Norton's first campaign an unprecedented $183,000 (three fourths of the total money she raised), has thrown his support behind U.S. Representative Wayne Allard--even before Allard has formally entered the race. Independent oilman Cortlandt Deitler has done likewise. The positioning of two of Colorado's biggest and most influential Republican contributors/ fundraisers this early in the game casts a long shadow over the Norton camp--and sends a message to other potential contributors. Terry Considine, who narrowly lost to Ben Nighthorse Campbell three years ago, says he hasn't lined up behind anyone yet, but he's "pretty sure that Wayne will be our nominee and our next senator." That kind of domino effect, just eighteen months before an election that most experts say will cost between $3 million and $4 million--can't be good news for Norton.

 

Norton remains poker-faced about the issue, refusing to say how much she's raised. "The end of our first reporting period is June 30, so I have no comment now," she demurs. "But we do have fundraising under way."

And help from Washington isn't going to be quick in coming. Especially not for the primary. Katie Atkinson, Benson's 1994 gubernatorial campaign manager, says, "Last time I was in Washington, the PAC committees were stepping back and waiting to see what kind of support each candidate could muster. They want to see if Allard can make the jump from the Fourth District to statewide and to see if Norton can make it from a down-ticket campaign to a top-ticket one. It's a much different kind of race."

And it's the kind of race that could very well mean a crowded Republican field. While the Democrats' ranks are noticeably thin, the Republicans duking it out are a formidable crew. The top lineup will likely be Norton, Allard and former Colorado secretary of state Mary Estill Buchanan. Buchanan lost the Second District congressional primary back in 1988 to state representative David Bath. She'd be the most surprising addition to the race, if and when she officially enters. But she's already doing quite well in the polls--second to Norton, with Allard trailing her.

On the Dems' side, Tom Strickland--of the heavyweight Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, and Strickland law firm--is the name floating around. Some are still praying that Romer will decide to take a run at the seat, but most have concluded that ally Strickland wouldn't be raising funds if Romer were even considering the race.

In such a crowded field, the key issue will be the ability to raise dollars, and fast.

It doesn't help Norton that already one Washington insider newsletter has cast doubt about her ability to run a professional, effective campaign. "[Norton's] decision to announce her Senate candidacy at a county Lincoln Day dinner on the Saturday night following Campbell's Friday announcement of his switch did little to quell some concerns about her readiness for prime time...," said the Cook Political Reporter.

"There's no doubt the [political newsletter] Hotline and the Cook Report clearly have an impact on PAC committee members," says Atkinson. Even more reason not to spend money early.

Norton's oddly timed, ill-staged campaign announcement raised some eyebrows at home, too.

"I couldn't believe it," said one GOP campaign veteran, "I was brushing my teeth late Saturday night, and all of a sudden, there's Gale on TV, no banner behind her, no decent visuals, no diversity in the crowd--her husband staring somewhere off into space, and she's saying, `What the heck. My hat's in the ring.' What kind of campaign is that?"

Norton defends the decision, not so much as politically viable, but as just her style. "I've never been comfortable with the idea that you go through an elaborate charade--`Maybe I am running, maybe I'm not,'" she says. "I just wanted to make it official. The real splash campaign kickoff will come much later."

If the announcement fell flat, Norton's appointment of Missy Pennington as her campaign manager fell flatter. Pennington, who was deputy campaign manager in Bill Owens's successful race for state treasurer, has not impressed the experts.

"Norton's put together a decidedly minor-league crew," says one Democratic political analyst in town. "None of her people are in the league of Dick Wadhams [Hank Brown's and Terry Considine's former campaign manager]. It shows Norton's having difficulty getting the backing of the Republicans' best and brightest."

That could be an understatement.
Norton made the rounds of seasoned Republican campaign managers before naming Pennington to the post. Jeanne Adkins, who managed Norton's campaign in 1994 and chaired the '90 run, says she turned Norton down because of time constraints. Kathy Finger, former chairman of Denver County Republicans, turned her down "because I'm too old to run a campaign." Adkins says she knows there was at least one other person who was approached by Norton and turned her down.

So the offer went to Pennington.
"I was shocked," said one legislator who asked not to be named. "Absolutely shocked."

 

"Missy Pennington--ha-ha-ha-ha," laughed a GOP activist.
"Wasn't she fired off of Bill Owens's campaign?" asked another Republican.
No, Pennington was not fired. But Rob Fairbanks, who managed Owens's successful campaign for treasurer, is hardly glowing in his appraisal of her as his deputy campaign manager. "I had no problem with her," he says stiffly. "She stayed through the duration of the campaign with that title."

Even scarier for Norton, one Republican called into question whether or not Pennington is truly "inspired" by her candidate. "A month before [Pennington was announced as Norton's campaign manager], Missy was supporting Wayne," this insider says.

The only one lauding Pennington is Owens himself. "I think she'll be an outstanding campaign manager for Gale Norton," he says. "Missy's been a housewife and a homemaker and a mother of three kids and hasn't been a professional politician. I just think some of this [criticism] is sour grapes that someone can come in from the outside and be recognized for talent."

But the rest of Norton's campaign staff doesn't particularly inspire confidence, either. Her field director, Mike Williams, was a former assistant attorney general who quit his $42,864 job in May to help out on the campaign. He has no experience in statewide campaigning. As of press time, there was no scheduler and no full-time fundraiser.

Jeanne Adkins, who Norton says will help out with the fundraising as a consultant, says she's untroubled by the apparent weakness of the campaign staff.

"Gale's very involved in her campaigns," Adkins says. "She pays attention to detail and she knows what it takes to get elected."

Gale Norton is speaking again, this time in the privacy of her own conference room. But it's the same careful, well-thought-out speech. She works hard to make eye contact, to appear relaxed and personable. But the intense concentration she gives to each answer shows on her face. Her eyes fade in and out of recognition as responses are formulated. Again the jaw is slow in moving. You can almost hear the hinges squeak.

"I think everything negative that could be dreamed up about me has been said," she says, referring to Dick Freese's '94 campaign advertisements. Her face is unreadable. Not even a twitch.

She's at least partly right. A lot of bad things have been said about her--but nothing's stuck.

It seems Norton has more in common with her self-proclaimed hero and role model--Ronald Reagan--than just politics and a friend in James Watt. She and Reagan also share a proclivity to mimic Teflon. What hasn't stuck to Attorney General Gale Norton is more than a handful of public-relations nightmares, including accusations that she broke one of her most memorable campaign promises, cozied up with an industry she was supposed to regulate and busted her budget.

In her 1990 campaign against Woodard, Norton rode the wave of public outrage over the parole of sex offender Gary Davies, who later raped and murdered again. In her oft-repeated television spot, Norton accused Woodard of failing to give the parole board adequate legal advice, insinuating that Woodard's presence at the Davies parole-board hearing could have made the difference. But critics and political opponents alike charge that, since taking office, neither Norton nor her staff has ever attended a parole-board hearing. Norton says she never made a campaign promise to attend them. "After I was elected, I said I wanted to have an attorney work full-time with the parole board on all of their activities," she says. "I requested money from the legislature to do just that. It was denied." Still, Norton argues, she and her staff have provided "much better advice to the parole board" since she took office.

Norton's "insurance-fraud campaign" was also a disappointment. In 1991 she plastered the state with newspaper, television and billboard advertisements asking Coloradans to call a toll-free number to report suspected insurance fraud by friends, family or neighbors. The campaign was paid for in full by the insurance industry--a partnership many found unseemly. After all, the attorney general's office is by law a watchdog over the insurance industry. The partnership between Norton and the industry smacked of a conflict of interest. And to make it worse, not one of the 2,500 hotline complaints resulted in criminal prosecution.

And Norton has had more than her share of hassles with the legislature's Joint Budget Committee since she took office. Not only did the Republican-chaired funding committee reject the AG's special full-time parole-board attorney idea, but it has consistently shot down her requests for supplemental appropriations when she found herself short for staff salary and overtime. A brouhaha ensued in 1993 and 1994 when she claimed she had overspent her budget on purpose, based on an "understanding" she had with JBC staff that she would receive additional salary dollars. That understanding never materialized for the JBC, and they turned down her supplemental appropriation request not once, but twice that year, forcing her to require staff to work unpaid overtime hours.

 

All of this has been reported by the Denver media. None of it appears to have made a bit of difference to voters.

But U.S. Senate campaigns--those "top-ticket" races, as Katie Atkinson likes to call them--are a different game than Norton is used to. In the right hands, it may matter that Norton spent upwards of $700,000 pursuing a losing Title IX case (basically arguing that Colorado State University could disband its girls' softball team, regardless of federal civil-rights laws) all the way to the Supreme Court. That she fought to overturn Denver's assault-rifle ban could raise eyebrows. That she disbanded the criminal forfeiture unit in her office could cost some votes.

Or not. Perhaps the most significant impact on Norton's campaign will be her handling of the Amendment 2 case, now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. With the Republican primary scheduled for the second Tuesday in August 1996 and the U.S. Supreme Court expected to make a ruling by July of that year on the anti-gay-rights initiative, the timing couldn't be better--or worse. For Norton, it's a long shot. She's already lost four times on the issue: two preliminary injunctions, then once in district court and again in the Colorado Supreme Court. All of the losses came basically because the AG's office couldn't show an important enough reason (what the courts call a "state interest") to justify a law that denies a segment of its population participation in the political process. Most legal analysts, even one inside the AG's office, think the chances of the U.S. Supreme Court finding a state interest that the state Supreme Court couldn't find is unlikely. But Norton's betting on it.

It's a curiously risky route to take for someone who's usually known for her careful, pragmatic, dispassionate planning. Norton says she has to pursue the case because she owes it to the voters of the state who passed the law. (Amendment 2 passed in 1992 by a ratio of 53 to 47.) But some legal experts, including one source inside Norton's office, say the attorney general's responsibility is the same as any lawyer's: to tell clients when they are losing a battle and suggest letting a decision rest. Especially after four losses and an estimated $1.5 million in legal fees.

But not Norton.
There is speculation that Norton may be pursuing the case so stubbornly because of bitterness over the dissolution of her first marriage to Harold Everett Reed. Reed and Norton met when she was attending the University of Denver. They married in 1975, the year she graduated. The union lasted the three years that Norton attended law school, then a divorce was granted. All the record says is that unhappy differences had arisen. But the local gay magazine Out Front "outed" Harold Reed in September 1993, describing him as "having been seen over the years in a variety of leather outfits."

Norton doesn't deny this, but she won't address it squarely. "I don't know what he calls himself now," she says. "We haven't talked for several years."

She pales at the question of Reed and her decision to pursue Amendment 2 to the Supreme Court, but her expression is blank.

"It's not an issue in the campaign or the case," she says. "I think it goes beyond what's appropriate in his life to drag him into it."

If Norton manages a victory in the Amendment 2 appeal, or at least spins the outcome somehow in her favor, the next subject of attack for any serious opponent will probably be her creation and sustenance of the Capital Crimes Unit in the AG's office. Norton created the unit in 1993, at a cost of about $300,000, supposedly to assist district attorneys in prosecuting death-penalty cases. After its first year of funding, the unit and its four full-time staff members have little to show for the investment. According to Assistant Attorney General Mary Malatesta, the unit's been involved in seven criminal prosecutions and is considering involvement in three more. But sources say that "involvement" in some of the cases was as little as "showing up for [jury selection] and going home after the judge decided the room was too crowded." And none of the cases has resulted in a death sentence--the purpose for which the unit was created. In fact, of the three cases that have been decided, two defendants pled to lesser charges and one case--that of Eugene Baylis--resulted in an embarrassing loss.

In the Baylis case, the defendant walked into a Colorado Springs bar and sprayed the crowd with an AK-47--and was acquitted on all eighteen charges. Even though head prosecutor Jeanne Smith says the attorney general's Capital Crimes Unit was not to blame for the defeat, the unit's involvement in such an incredible outcome can't fail to provide extraordinarily rich campaign fodder. To add insult to injury, last session the Joint Budget Committee's staff report recommended a cut in funding (from about $300,000 to $44,000), saying the unit was unnecessary except as an informational clearinghouse. The committee, however, did not take its staff's advice and granted full funding.

 

Norton has an uncanny talent for beating insurmountable odds--she came out of nowhere to beat Woodard. But her biggest obstacle, especially in this race, could be herself. Because everything that has allowed Norton to beat the odds this far--her coolness, her analytical style, her clear preference for the law-review article over the editorial--could well backfire.

Even those who value and respect her as an attorney general wonder whether the triumph of brains over compassion serve her better in her current office than in a new one.

"She has no passion," says one Norton supporter. "I've never heard her make a passionate speech. I've never heard her take a real firm stand on anything."

That may be great for an attorney general, some observers note, an office in which you want an objective, legal mind. But at least a modest display of compassion, warmth or caring is usually required in a Senate race.

Norton disagrees. "I question the idea that we ought to have leaders in Congress who would rather deal with fluff than substance...or with emotion rather than reason." In theory, that could be commendable, but in a race for one of the 100 most coveted seats in the country, it could be fatal.

"Scott McInnis makes it real," said one Republican campaign veteran. "He's been a cop, he's been there and he's mad. He riles you up."

But Gale Norton--who even when speaking of the childhood death of her baby sister can come up with nothing more moving than vague terms about the lessons of "opportunity"--doesn't.


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