An Unprecedented First Term

Mayor Kim Norton on leading during a
tumultuous time
By Sara Dingmann
Photography by

Rochester Women Magazine sat down with Mayor Kim Norton the only way we can during a pandemic—over Zoom—and asked her about the significance of being Rochester’s first female mayor and her leadership in a chaotic time. 

What is your history in Rochester?

I moved here in 1990 and got very involved right away, volunteering with arts in the schools, and that eventually turned into a stipend position. I was the coordinator of that program for four years. It was my way of acclimating to our new town and being involved in my kids’ education as well. I was trying to be at home with my kids as much as I could as a young mom. That was one way I could do that.

Then I ran for school board. I had chaired one campaign and worked on another person’s campaign and finally asked myself, “Why am I helping everyone else? I should do it myself.”

I eventually ran for the legislature because I knew that we needed to increase funding for schools. I served in the legislature 10 years but wanted to come back to Rochester and get out of partisan politics. I wanted to invest my time and energy here.

It was either private sector or nonprofit work. Ardell Brede was ready to retire so that was kind of where I settled. It really is just about service to the community and making this the best place it can be for the people who live here.

What does it mean to you to be Rochester’s first female mayor?

When I first ran, I honestly didn’t even think about it. I was running because I thought I had something to offer: years of experience. I really understood DMC (Destination Medical Center) and thought I could be a good person to make sure that stayed on the right track.

But it became clear very quickly that other people saw it differently. After I got elected, parents wanted their children to meet me because I was the first woman mayor. It meant something to people. 

It’s an honor and a privilege to be a role model for young girls. While it wasn’t the motivation, it does carry with it maybe a little heavier responsibility to make sure I do a good job.

And now here I am leading in this really controversial time. It’s like, well, I’m doing the best I can, and I hope when history writes its blip about Rochester’s first woman mayor, they will see that I did my best.

How do you overcome new challenges, such as COVID-19?

My first year was all dealing with homelessness, something I did not expect to be dealing with. I thought I’d be focusing on creating a healthy community and sustainability. At the start of the second year, I thought we could focus on that, but no, COVID was here, and we had to focus on that.

As mayor, I’m trying to lead at a time of total uncertainty. There’s no roadmap for this at all. We just have to say today’s information is telling us this or that. And I stay on top of the information. I’m not sure people understand that. We have the Emergency Operation Center, and because I’m a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative cohort member, I’m speaking with experts at Johns Hopkins University every other week. We’re getting the national picture—Dr. Fauci is on those calls.

I’m getting information from the best sources around the world and around the country. And yet, people are like, “Oh, you’re just making arbitrary decisions.” They’re not. They’re educated decisions from expert information with the goal of protecting my community and its members the best I can.

Do you feel that being Rochester’s first female mayor has made leading during COVID-19 more difficult?

 I am of two minds about this one.

The people that have trolled me the most, and the people that are the most vicious, have been men. They are relentless, and a lot of it is misogynistic. They are on every social media comment I make. And it feels to me as though it is because I’m a woman.

On the other hand, the other part of me says if I had been a man doing the same things, the criticism would be similar because of politics. People have been unable to let go of the fact that I have a partisan term of 10 years in the House.

They don’t know me. They don’t really understand my politics. They only see a D or an R, and they think that’s all they need to know. It doesn’t make any difference that I didn’t vote with my party all the time.

How has the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement affected your decisions?

 I wouldn’t say it’s just Black Lives Matter – there are many groups. They’re one organization, and they’ve gotten national recognition. But it really is more about systemic racism and lack of equity and justice that has been clear to me for many years. We are not a fair and just society like we want and claim to be and like our Constitution says we should be.

It’s a movement I’ve been supportive of and have tried to work within the current framework on those issues in small and subtle ways.

It is those advocacy groups who are going to keep the issues in the forefront. I want them to hold us accountable to making changes. But changes don’t happen overnight, and they do take time. And I know there’s an impatience, but we do need them to stay the course, keep the pressure, so that we can do the right thing.

This is a moment in time where we can make a huge difference in how this country treats all of its people. So it’s exciting.

Do you have any advice for other women who are interested in running for public office?

I think people should just do it. If you look at the history of women running, they need to be asked seven or eight times before they consider it. Women need to be told they’re leadership material and that they can do the job. And we need to get past waiting for someone to tell us that we’re the right person to run for office.

And I would say there’s a lot of really great women out there, but, you know, there’s also a lot to learn to be a good leader.

It’s important to get yourself out there and take that first step and say, “I want to do this. I want to do something and I’m going to learn. I’ve got what it takes. And I’m going to be that person and just do it and not wait for somebody to ask.”

Men have been doing it for a bazillion years. We’re going to do it too. Why not?