Lancaster Democrat throws herself into statewide campaign
Retired couple Carol Edens and Ed Epps chatted with Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith for a few minutes Wednesday at an Irish pub in Spartanburg.
Then Edens asked about “that 15-year-old girl” who was campaigning with him for lieutenant governor.
“Oh, she’s young,” Smith said. “But she’s a good egg, with an old soul.”
Smith moved on, and Mandy Powers Norrell sat down at their table with a bright, wide smile, locking eyes individually with the man and then the woman.
“Hi, how are y’all!” she said with a sweet Lancaster drawl.
After a bit of chit-chat, the couple questioned Norrell on a slew of issues – education, healthcare, immigration.
The 44-year-old attorney held forth for 15 minutes. She talked about her political passions and how she’s fought for them for six years in the S.C. House. She peppered her policy positions with anecdotes that brought warmth to cold, hard subjects.
The couple smiled back at Norrell, nodding in agreement. When the candidate wasn’t talking, she was listening. Intently.
She paused only once, politely, to order lunch. Tuna, rice and pinto beans.
“I know you shouldn’t order pinto beans with tuna, but I just love pinto beans,” Norrell said with another infectious smile.
The spell had been cast. They loved her.
“I didn’t know anything about her, but I was very impressed,” Edens said afterward. “Absolutely I’d vote for her…. I like her background, too. She doesn’t come from privilege. She’s very mature. She does look very young, but she has kids almost as old as mine. I guess I’m just jealous!”
“I think she’s terrific,” Epps said. “I’ll vote for her. I liked her. I loved her.”
At a time when politicians in general are loathed even more than usual, Norrell has an uncanny knack for making people like her. Connecting is her superpower. She makes it seem easy – adorable and real, without pretense.
“She’s other-oriented,” explained Keith Grey, Lancaster County’s Democratic Party chairman. And the most incredible part is that it’s apparently sincere and genuine, he said.
Norrell, who represents District 44 in the S.C. House, seems to be that rare politician who cares about her constituents more than her own personal or political ambitions, Grey said.
Rep. Brandon Newton, a Lancaster Republican representing District 45, said he disagrees with Norrell on practically every issue, but he acknowledged that she has a special gift.
“We’re on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, but Mandy is a very good campaigner and very relatable to people,” said Newton, a former county GOP chair. “And I hope whoever wins our party’s nomination for governor will take her very seriously.”
Mitch Norrell, the candidate’s husband and law partner, said he thinks he knows where that special gift came from: her family and the town she grew up loving – a town that loved her back.
Norrell, 44, has lived nearly her entire life in Lancaster. Talking with her in a conference room in the Norrells’ Main Street law offices, it seems she’d be perfectly happy to spend the rest of her life here.
Hearing her talk, the town and its people are seemingly imprinted on her soul and hard-wired into her DNA. Her family’s Lancaster roots go back at least 11 generations, she said. And those roots run deep.
Like many Lancaster residents, her parents Beverly and Carl Powers, now both deceased, worked at Springs Mills.
“Their parents before them were sustenance farmers,” Norrell said. “My dad’s people were sharecroppers.”
Her dad didn’t finish high school, but instead enlisted in the Navy. She’s fond of recalling the fact that her father didn’t grow up with electricity or running water and liked to say the Navy “fixed my teeth and showed me the world.”
When his Navy hitch was over, her father came home and started work at the old bleachery. Norrell’s mother, who married her dad while still in high school, became a key-punch operator at the mill.
The couple tried fruitlessly to have children, with six successive pregnancies ending in miscarriage, Norrell said.
On the seventh try came Mandy.
“I was an only child, growing up feeling very special,” Norrell said, beaming. But it wasn’t only her parents and other family members who were thrilled when Mandy came into the world.
“Everybody who worked at Springs with my parents were so invested in them having a child,” she said. “It was amazing. I grew up with people just coming up to me in various places in Lancaster and telling me I was special and that they were praying for me.
“So I grew up feeling very, very loved by my village.”
Her parents dreamed Mandy would be the first family member to attend college, but that dream looked bleak when Norrell’s mom had to quit her job in the 1980s because of a bad back and other degenerative ailments.
“So I got a job at the mill, because you could always get a job at the mill,” Norrell said, noting she worked at Grace Bleachery in screen-printing. And besides, she said, if you were a member of the Powers family, you were expected to work.
“With that money and student loans, I was able to go to college,” said Norrell, who graduated with honors from Lancaster High in 1991. Sadly, she added, with the skyrocketing costs of a college education, “I think today nobody would be able to do what I did then.”
She graduated from Furman University with honors and received a scholarship to attend law school at the University of South Carolina. In between, at age 21, she fell in love and married Mitch, who was then 33. Today the couple have two children – Teddy, 19, a rising sophomore at Duke University, and Emma, 16, a rising junior at LHS.
Norrell credited her interest in law to a time when her mother made her come and sit in court while she served jury duty. The legal process and the two old-school Southern attorneys doing battle that day on an accident case fascinated her, “and I just thought this could be an awesome (career) path.”
Her interest in politics was spurred as a child by her adoration of then-President Jimmy Carter who, to Norrell, stood out for his intellect, his morals, his compassion and his approach to religion.
“I just loved that man,” she said. “As a little kid, if anybody said they were voting for Ronald Reagan, I’d try to convince them to vote for Carter.”
Norrell continued to live in Lancaster, commuting to law school each day in Columbia. She managed to graduate in two and a half years, near the top of her class, she said.
A law-school grad who matriculated cum laude could likely ride that to a big-city, high-paying job. Instead, Norrell said she wanted to stay true to her roots and use her talents in her hometown.
She does some litigation, but specializes mostly in personal bankruptcy. She also serves as attorney for the town of Kershaw. Mitch is city attorney for Lancaster.
“So now I’m filing bankruptcies for people I used to work with because the mill’s closed,” she said. “They come in and I’m so happy to see them, but under the circumstances, it’s so sad.”
Quite simply, she just couldn’t bail on Lancaster – neither the town nor its people.
“There’s something about Lancaster,” she said. “I swear I could be anywhere in the world and if somebody from Lancaster were to come around I wouldn’t even have to know them – I’d just know. Lancaster is that special. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
On a recent night, when the conversation came around to Norrell in Lancaster’s popular watering hole The Craft Stand, David Adrian Cook’s entire being seemed to come alive.
The normally gregarious Cook had mostly been sitting quietly by himself at the bar, sipping a stout after a hard day’s work at his business, H&C Auto Shop. At the mention of Norrell, Cook launched into an effusive soliloquy, saluting his old friend and former Lancaster High prom date.
“She cares more about this town than anybody I’ve ever known,” Cook said. “I’ve never known anybody who loves this community more than Mandy does.
“Most people who seek power seek it to wield it against other people. She’s the only person I can honestly say that I knew that sought political office to help her community,” he said.
“She is beyond her age in wisdom – and that was fairly evident even when she was 16 years old,” Cook said.
When Norrell first considered entering politics, she sat her family down and told them they had veto power over the decision. The family gave its consent, on one condition: Norrell had to be home every morning to help get the children off to school.
In nearly six years in office, both Mitch and Mandy said they can only think of about a half-dozen times where she was forced to stay overnight in Columbia.
The rigors of a statewide campaign, however, mean constant crisscrossing of the state in the lead-up to the do-or-die June 12 Democratic primary, in which Smith faces two challengers. (Norrell isn’t on the June 12 ballot with Smith; the lieutenant governor will appear on the November general election ballot.)
Last Wednesday, Norrell and Smith, along with deputy political director Scott Harriford and a Lancaster News reporter, visited Spartanburg for a series of small, intimate events with voters as part of the campaign’s “introduction tour.”
The candidates made four stops before heading down to Richland County for a candidate’s forum in the evening. The first stop was Papa’s Breakfast Nook, a popular downtown 24-hour joint where a smattering of voters, local friends and supporters – including Norrell’s brother-in-law Tom Norrell, pastor of Spartanburg’s Central Methodist Church – filtered into a back room for a bite and a chat.
Next was lunch at Delaney’s Irish Pub, in the heart of downtown, where both Norrell and Smith table-hopped, speaking with voters and pleading their case.
From there it was off to the local Krispy Kreme, owned by longtime Democratic Sen. Glenn Reese, 76, who handed Smith a campaign donation, along with some hard-won advice earned through 27 years of winning in a Republican-dominated county.
Sitting in his office, where he, Barack Obama and a small handful of others in 2007 plotted the strategy that would help propel Obama to a come-from-behind victory in the S.C. primary, Reese urged the candidates to bridge the partisan divide.
“Both sides love you,” he said. “You should run as a bipartisan ticket.”
The Parnell news
With his check in hand and his advice taken to heart, the candidates made their last Spartanburg stop on the outskirts of town at a Panera Bread restaurant, a meeting of supporters and would-be supporters put together by former Congresswoman Liz Patterson.
While none of these events drew more than 16 people, Smith and Norrell considered the day a success.
Yet behind it all was a pall that lingered throughout the day.
In stolen moments here and there, Smith and Norrell conferred and discussed how to respond to the news that 5th District Democratic congressional candidate Archie Parnell had physically assaulted his first wife in 1973.
Around 2 p.m., the candidates released a statement calling for Parnell to drop out of the race. The positive energy that seems to flow like an endless stream from Norrell had become a trickle.
“I consider Archie a friend. That’s what makes this so hard,” she told Reese.
She had confided earlier that morning that the whole thing is “heartbreaking.”
“I’m not a fan of kicking someone when they’re down,” she said. “I’m not a fan of piling on.”
While not close friends, Norrell campaigned for Parnell in his first run for Congress against Ralph Norman. “But there is a closeness that develops when you work together on a campaign,” she explained.
Norrell said she was gratified that Parnell first came to her to make sure she wasn’t intending to run before launching his own bid, which gave both S.C. and national Democrats a jolt of enthusiasm when he came close to defeating Norman last year, further fueling talk nationally of a potential “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm elections.
But Smith said domestic violence simply cannot be tolerated, especially not in a state such as South Carolina, which has among the nation’s highest rates of physical violence and murder of women at the hands of men.
Rough ’08 race
The Parnell episode may have been disheartening and depressing. But such are the perils of politics.
It’s a rough-and-tumble business. Norrell herself had been accused in 2008 of throwing elbows and taking liberties with campaign ethics rules in her first, failed race for office against Mick Mulvaney for the District 16 state Senate race – a bitter campaign in which both candidates were slammed for spending more time damning the other than discussing issues.
“Still, to this day, I tell people that’s the nastiest campaign I’ve ever watched,” said Rep. Newton, a Mulvaney supporter who was in high school and beginning to get heavily involved in politics at that time.
“It was rough, and I think it was rough not just on the candidates, but on the community. When an election gets that personal, it bleeds over into your supporters. That was a very, very nasty race. One that I hope I never see again.”
Norrell seemingly admitted as much, telling a pair of voters at one stop in Spartanburg, “That race was brutal.”
Across the aisle
Since then, Norrell has had opposition in only one race since 2012, and she is running unopposed again this year for her House seat – a race she intends to stay in should she and Smith fail to win.
It’s obvious from watching her that she learned lessons from that failed Senate race, and how to use her innate ability to connect with people – be they voters or opposition politicians.
As a state legislator, Norrell has made a name for herself as someone who can reach across the aisle to accomplish legislative victories. That’s no small task, since Democrats hold only 44 of the 124 seats in the House and Republicans control every level of state government.
Among her proudest accomplishments, she said, was her fight for passage of Erin’s Law, enacted in 2014. That law now requires all S.C. public schools to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual-abuse program.
The House vote on that bill was an impressive 99-1 in favor.
Should Smith prevail on June 12, Norrell will be an asset either by his side or out in the hinterlands campaigning. Smith has said Norrell was his first and only choice. The trip to Spartanburg gave a glimpse as to why.
Showing a reporter her Twitter feed, Norrell stopped on a Tweet pic of her with a little girl. Norrell had met the girl and her mom in Greenville. The mother told Norrell she was undecided. So Norrell sat down with her one-on-one and told her why Smith should earn her vote.
After a few minutes of talking to her, espousing the candidates’ combined experience and their track record of working with the opposition, “she left and immediately went and voted absentee for James,” Norrell said. “That’s so exciting!”
Full of surprises
If anyone truly knows Norrell, it’s her husband and law partner Mitch.
And it’s not all pretty, he said. She can be rather untidy, not to mention impetuous and maybe just a tad wacky.
Norrell herself admits to the wacky part. She remembers vividly times when she would don mascot uniforms at school pep rallies for important football games played by her Lancaster High Bruins. And not Bruin mascot uniforms, but mascot uniforms for the opposing team.
In one instance she recalled donning a uniform and undergoing a mock beating and arrest by police officers for one big game.
Perhaps the pinnacle came in 1990 when her future husband accompanied her to the state high school football championship at Williams-Brice Stadium for a game between Lancaster and Union.
Norrell excused herself to go to the restroom, only to emerge minutes later in a Yellow Jacket costume running down the stadium steps past her unsuspecting and bewildered beau. “Then they put a cage over me and hauled me off,” she said.
“That’s when I think he fell in love with me,” Norrell said. “He didn’t realize I was so wild and crazy.”
“Yeah, she’s full of surprises,” Mitch Norrell said of his wife, also recalling last year when Mandy decided the family would spend Christmas in Iceland after discovering a Black Friday deal on plane tickets.
“Iceland was never on the top list of places to travel to,” he said, admitting, however, that it turned out to be a “wonderful, fabulous time.”
Such silliness aside, Mitch said, his wife seems utterly transparent.
“Her public persona is her private persona,” he said. “She will talk about her life story to anybody. She’ll open up to anybody. She’s just a very loving person.”
When it comes to Norrell’s ability to connect and engage with people, her husband said he believes it comes from the home she was raised in and the sharpness of her mind.
“She had a very good combination of parents,” he said. “Her mother was very outgoing just like Mandy is. And her father was very quiet and he studied people. And I think she gets the best of those [traits] from her parents.
“And she was an only child after a lot of failed pregnancies, so Mandy was adored from the moment she arrived in this world,” he said. “So she never had any doubts that her parents and her entire family adored her.
“When you have that, you don’t develop the emotional walls that most people have. So she can connect immediately.”
Mitch said his wife also possesses a “mind like a steel trap,” which comes in handy in her law practice and in her ability to connect with people.
“I remember a time a man came up to her and said, ‘Excuse me, I know you don’t remember me, but….’ And she told him, ‘Of course I do. You sat behind me in second-grade.’ That was amazing. I can hardly remember who sat in front of me in school, much less behind me.”
If she has an Achilles heel, “it’s clutter,” he said, laughing. “Her clothes and her papers, things like that, are just wherever she puts them down.
“I think we compliment each other,” he continued. “I’m more of the planner. I’m the one who makes sure we have toilet paper and groceries. She is more a free spirit. So, it all works out.”
And what of the future? The governor’s office or perhaps Congress and beyond?
“I can see anything imaginable in Mandy’s future,” her husband said. “She is capable of anything. I’m supportive of anything she wants to do. There is no question that if she had to step into the role of governor, she could do it on day one and be super-capable of it.
“There’s nothing she couldn’t do.”
The Lancaster News