Chris Norby: A wonk of the Right

After tallying a 2-1 victory over Republican rival Linda Ackerman in a special election primary last week, Chris Norby is a prohibitive favorite to join the Assembly after a Jan. 12 runoff.

One thing he is not likely to ever be: a crossover budget vote.

“Chris is a hard-line, ideological conservative, with a libertarian bent,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the popular conservative blog The Flash Report. “I think it’s fair to say that he will join the Republican Caucus and will immediately be one of its most hard-line members.”

“I don’t think raising taxes is going to solve out budgets woes,” Norby told the Capitol Weekly when asked about the likelihood of him ever supporting a Democratic budget plan. “It could make them worse.”

Norby emerged as the almost certain winner of the AD 72 seat that opened up when Mike Duvall inappropriately bragged on camera about alleged affairs with lobbyists during a committee hearing. While the rough-mannered Duvall was known as the only member of the Legislature not to finish high school, Norby taught high school history for 18 years. Some say he has the manner of a college professor.

“He’s certainly an in-depth policy wonk,” Fleischman said. “He reads a lot, calls around a lot, gets a lot of information. He’ll be either the favorite of the lobbyists, or the most hated by the lobbyists, depending on if a lobbyist wants to do the work to educate a legislator who really wants to understand the issues.”

“He almost has a photographic memory,” said his campaign manager, John Lewis, what he said is Norby’s ability to remember every high school mascot and county seat in the state. “He’s like a walking encyclopedia.

Lewis had the task of guiding Norby through a seemingly difficult campaign that turned into a cakewalk. His main opponent in the heavily Republican district was Linda Ackerman, wife of former Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman and California committeewoman to the Republican National Committee. While the Ackermans were certainly better known in Sacramento, Norby had name ID locally after 18 years on the Fullerton City Council and seven on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Ultimately, only 18 percent of the electorate turned out, but it means as incumbent Norby will be very difficult for anyone to unseat in coming years.

Linda Ackerman tried early in the campaign to tar Norby with the Duvall brush, bringing up a 2003 sexual harassment allegation. Lewis said a key part of their campaign was to be ready for the charges, hitting back with key facts as soon as Ackerman raised them. In reality, Lewis said, the original lawsuit against Norby was “added on for leverage” in a wrongful termination case against the county.

“Once people kind of know the facts, it was ‘you gotta be kidding me,’” Lewis said. “They only met three times, each time at her request. The two of them were never alone together. She couldn’t produce any witnesses.”

The attacks were only the latest in a series of antagonistic encounters between Norby and the Ackermans going back to the 1980s, when Norby and Dick Ackerman were both on the Fullerton City Council. But if anyone was thinking they’d become the GOP version of the Parra-Florez saga, Lewis said it was a “one-sided feud” based on personality differences between the garrulous Ackerman and more bookish Norby.

“It’s been a mystery to me,” Norby said.

Even his fans say Norby is unlikely to follow Ackerman into Legislative leadership. He’s drawn comparisons to outsider Assemblyman Chuck Devore, R-Irvine, for his unwillingness to compromise on what he sees as key Republican issues.

“He’s definitely a small government conservative,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “I think he’s rubbed a lot of people on both sides of the aisle the wrong way.”

Coming from an occupation more often associated with Democrats, Norby may differ from many Republicans in saying he’d like to raise teacher pay. Of course, he wants to do so by making teachers work harder and having them teach more periods. This, he said, would attract brighter, harder-working people. He also doesn’t necessarily want to raise spending on education, instead putting “more money into the classroom” by cutting administration and unproductive programs.

“I’m not popular with the CTA [California Teachers’ Association],” Norby noted dryly.

Norby may also run afoul of some business concerns for his uncompromising stand on property rights. He’s an outspoken critic of economic redevelopment agencies, controversial governmental bodies that has often seized private property in order to push economic development goals. Norby served as state chair of Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform (MORR) and also wrote a book, “Redevelopment: The Unknown Government.” According to Norby, big retailers and other corporate interests have used these governmental agencies to siphon away money from local business and even from education.

These stands won him the support of libertarian conservatives like Congressman Tom McClintock, whose support Lewis said was key in the runaway win over Ackerman, and anti-tax crusader Lew Uhler.

In particular, Norby said, he’s like to put a stop to the practice of big box retailers and other big businesses playing different locales against each other in a race to provide tax incentives and other goodies.

“There’s only so much sales tax out there,” Norby said. “You can’t really grow that pie.”

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