Norris Recounts Path to Majority Status, Dunavant Award

By Bill Dries

Good government isn’t a bowl of cherries. There will be controversy even with the best of intentions and with everything done by the numbers. And that applies to those who win awards like state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

State Senate Majority Leaders Mark Norris of Collierville, an elected official for 22 years, is one of two recipients of the Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Award. 

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“Sometimes you have to tackle difficult issues regardless of which side you are on just to make sure the issue is fairly heard and that people get a fair hearing,” Norris said.

He points to his involvement in legislation that set the process for the merger of Memphis and Shelby County public schools into one system as well as the de-merger one academic year later into seven school districts in the county.

“It was very challenging for me to handle. But it was the right thing to do,” Norris said. “Usually people don’t see it that way at the outset. It’s in retrospect.”

Norris and Lisa Geater, chief of staff to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, are recipients of the Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Awards, given annually by the Rotary Club of Memphis East.

The Daily News is a sponsor of the awards. A committee of Rotarians and the family of the late Probate Court Clerk, Bobby Dunavant, choose the winners from nominations from the public. Norris and Geater will receive their awards at a May 11 luncheon at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn.

The keynote speaker for the event will be Spence Wilson, chairman of the board of Kemmons Wilson Companies.

The awards were started in 2004 as a way of promoting good government.

Norris made his political debut 22 years ago when he was elected to the Shelby County Commission in 1994.

It was the year after Norris got involved in a land use dispute in Collierville, across the street from the farm he and his wife bought when they moved to Memphis shortly before that.

“One thing led to another,” Norris said. “That’s how I got involved with a hearing before the county commission. Ultimately, after that event, some on the commission retired.”

Six years later, Norris, an attorney, was elected to the state Senate as part of the Republican minority in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Today he is the Senate majority leader who carries virtually all of the Republican governor’s proposals to the Senate for consideration.

One notable exception was Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal – a form of a Medicaid expansion that was crushed in a 2015 special session of the Legislature.

It was caught between outright opposition to anything associated with the Affordable Care Act and mixed signals between the two Republican leaders of the two chambers about which House would act first on the bill.

When Norris arrived at the state Capitol in the mid-1990s, a state income tax was a key political topic.

Most Republicans opposed such a tax and there were many conservative Democrats who were either undecided or inclined to think it was a bad idea.

Incoming Republican Gov. Don Sundquist would oppose it for his first term, but called for a state income tax in his second term starting in 1998.

Norris was among Republicans who did not back Sundquist’s change of stance.

Tennessee voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2014 that specifically prohibits a state income tax.

Before that, Norris proposed specific line-by-line budget cuts, some ultimately passing although it was slow going through the Democratic majority.

The experience forged some relationships.

Democratic Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. John Wilder, however, governed differently than House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. Wilder had Republican committee chairs as part of a coalition that kept him in control as the leader of the Senate.

“Many of the things that we may have moved forward in the Senate were destined to run into a brick wall in the House,” Norris said. “I think Gov. Wilder knew that. But it maintained peace and harmony in his chamber. Speaker Naifeh had a different way of running things. Most of what we did was not well received until later in the game as numbers changed.”

In the 2010 elections, Republicans became the majority in both Houses with a larger majority in the Senate than the House, and Norris was among the leadership of the new majority.

“It’s something that I try to bear in mind now that we’re in the majority with the Democrats in the minority,” he said. “Sometimes the opposing parties will propose things just for political theater. But oftentimes they actually have good ideas, too. When I started, the tendency was not to entertain the Republican ideas. They had a way of running things and we really weren’t part of that.”

Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey leaves the leadership position and the Senate at the end of 2016, after leading the first five years of the Republican majority in the chamber.

Norris is weighing a bid for governor in 2018.

In the interim, he said, “My mantra is to maintain the continuity of conservative leadership.”

For the last three years, workforce development in West Tennessee has been Norris’s dominant issue. He serves on the Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development board, which recently commissioned an independent study comparing the economies of the state’s three grand divisions.

“It did establish that the economies of West Tennessee are lagging the middle and east,” Norris noted. “What can we do to move West Tennessee ahead because logically … in the next 10 years, West Tennessee should more than come into its own and exceed the production of the other grand divisions.”

Norris said developing the workforce in the region is tied to social issues, including juvenile justice and rehabilitation of non-violent offenders as well as poverty.

“We’ve got a number of social issues that are inexplicably intertwined. … You’ve got to address all of those things simultaneously,” he said. “Those are things that maybe at first blush you don’t particularly associate with Republicans per se.”