10 February 2020

NOTE FROM NORM: In Susan Kimberly, A Reminder of Comity

I began my first campaign for Mayor of St. Paul in 1989.

The venerable George Latimer, Mayor for the previous 14 years, had decided he would not run for re-election.

I was 40 years old, committed to the notion that St. Paul was the place I would raise my family, and I wanted to expand my commitment to public service by becoming Mayor of one of America’s great cities.

As a young attorney in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office I had worked my way up through the organization to become the state’s Chief Prosecutor.

Along the way I met men and women from all walks of life on both the good and the bad sides of it, too.

I learned to appreciate and respect different perspectives on life, points of view on issues ranging from gun control, the role of government, poverty, wealth and even fashion.

It’s a reminder to my children, and my grandchild, that you are never too smart, too young – or too old – to learn something from somebody regardless of the journey they have had in their life.

Those were lessons that have never left me.

As a pro-life Democrat in a Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) dominated town my odds of becoming Mayor were going to be slim if I couldn’t get the endorsement, or succeed in blocking it, from the city’s DFL party.

I dutifully gathered together my friends, family and co-workers and we began to frame how a campaign to win that endorsement could be created and then we set out to execute the plan.

I found, throughout the City, those inside and outside of the DFL Party, many who were open to the idea of my candidacy.

Men and women who, unlike me, had roots in St. Paul that went back generations.

People whose parents, and grandparents, had fashioned the modern-day St. Paul with hard work, grit, determination and love for Minnesota’s Capitol City.

I was enormously proud then, and remain proud today, of their encouragement, kindness, wisdom and support.

And, then there was Susan Kimberly.

Susan, a DFL activist, city political power broker and one of the smartest people I have ever met, was my neighbor in St. Paul.

She and I also argued vehemently about nearly everything that had to do with politics and government in St. Paul.

As she said in a recent article in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, “We literally talked over the back fence.”

The Susan Kimberly I met in 1989, though, once was a man named Robert Sylvester.

And, in a story in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, a good synopsis of Susan’s journey of discovery, and a brief glimpse into our relationship, can be found.

This past weekend I had the honor and privilege of attending the opening night performance of an auto-biographical play that Susan has written, “Superman Becomes Lois Lane” that describes her difficult, painstaking and ultimately, liberating journey from Bob Sylvester to Susan Kimberly.

I could not be prouder of Susan.

Nor could I be more grateful that our paths crossed so many years earlier even though those paths were ones of political opponents and not political allies.

Ultimately, I got elected Mayor of the City of Saint Paul having had my first campaign for Mayor come up short.

One of my first hires was to bring one of those Saint Paul leaders I got to know, Ray Faricy, into my Administration as City Attorney.

Ray had also just run against me for the job of Mayor.

He was one of my smartest hires.

Pam Wheelock became my Chief of Staff.  While I was the political outsider that had bucked the city’s DFL establishment to become Mayor, Pam was an accomplished political insider who cared little about one’s partisan credentials.  Pam just wanted to get things – good things – done.

And, together we did a lot of good things.

Then, in 1995, I had to decide who would be my next Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor.

I looked to the most knowledgeable person about City government and what it took to grow jobs in St. Paul.

Someone who shared my belief that creating an environment that fostered job growth was a key to Saint Paul’s future.

A former President of the City Council  in a past life before her transition- and who many presumed would one day be Mayor of St. Paul.

I made the decision it would be Susan Kimberly.  And, she accepted the job and became the first Transgender Deputy Mayor in a major U.S. City.

Not long after becoming United States Senator for Minnesota, I asked Susan to become my State Director.  She accepted the position and did a remarkable job serving the people of Minnesota.

My decision to reach out to Susan who had once been one of my strongest political opponents to be one of my closest and trusted political advisors wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.

It represented my belief then, as it does now, that the strongest and effective form of government is that in which a “Team of Rivals” can be brought together to get things done.

At every level of government in the United States we lack that basic fundamental notion that the smartest and most talented people aren’t necessarily those who think, look, or act just like us.

Sometimes they are the people so fundamentally different from us that we can barely understand who or where they came from in their life.

This past Saturday, sitting in the History Theater of St. Paul, watching Susan Kimberly’s life story literally play out before my eyes, I was reminded of that lesson.

While I may not ever completely understand who or where Susan Kimberly came from in her life, I absolutely know where she is today.

For me, the people of St. Paul, and the State of Minnesota, she has done them, and herself, proud in living and leading a life of purpose and one that has positively impacted the lives of millions of her fellow citizens.