The Exoneration of Chris Norby.


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Norby at the Orangethorpe-Harbor Starbucks. His eye is looking better, but he still sees occasional light flashes.

Permanent War is not a viable way of life, whether abroad or at home,” opined Chris Norby.

“Hey, that’s a great epigram for this story, let me write it down!”  The former Fullerton Assemblyman was referring to his opposition to the vague, indefinite “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror.”   But as I pointed out, “When people hear YOU say that, they’re going to ALSO be thinking of you and [now ex-wife] Martha.”  This made him laugh heartily.  It’s good to see he’s kept his sense of humor after all the shit he’s been through lately.

It’s embarrassing to have to write this story.  Chris has been a private citizen now for over a year, and his domestic troubles should not be fodder for the press.  But for various reasons – chiefly, his still being considered a political threat by both Democrats and the police, the press jumps all over each sordid detail of his troubled fourth marriage.  The Register, Voice of OC, Weekly, Liberal OC, and this blog itself rushed to publicize and speculate on his wife’s accusations of domestic violence, but now that he’s been cleared, the reaction is a collective yawn.  Sure, there was a story or two when DA Rackauckas declined to pursue the charges, but seriously it is not news when T-Rack declines to prosecute a Republican politician, former or not.  The real news is Chris’ resounding victory last week in family court, where the thoughtful Judge Lon Hurwitz practically laughed the charges out of court – the closest you can get to “proving the negative” that you are not a wife beater. And we owe Chris a story about that.

But you’ll have to read through this whole piece to get to the Jerry Springer stuff;  I have other ideas for this article.  For one thing, since it is near certain that the political career of this much-slandered, 64-year old, maverick-Republican father of a toddler is complete, I thought that this was a good time to ask him the high and low points of his 28 years as Fullerton Councilman, OC Supervisor, and finally one-and-a-half-term Assemblyman.

But wait.  Before Norby was a politician, and during his tenure on the Fullerton council, he was also a very popular history teacher at Brea High School.  I mentioned, “My friend the late Gus Ayer once referred to you as a ‘quirky Lincoln impersonator’ – does that make any sense to you?”

“Ah, Ayer.  Fountain Valley, right?  I really liked that guy.  Actually I didn’t just impersonate Lincoln, but all the popular presidents.  Nixon, Reagan, Clinton.  My students’ favorite was when I did Jimmy Carter.  My favorite was FDR.”  And there in the Starbucks he gave spot-on impressions of all those Commanders in Chief – Jimmy urging the American people to sacrifice, FDR rallying the nation after Pearl Harbor, Nixon’s “I am not a crook” … It was fun.

But, what was the high point of your political career?   It doesn’t take him a second of thought:  “It was being part of FINALLY getting rid of Redevelopment Agencies. I’d been fighting them for DECADES.  They were unsustainable, although some politicians loved them as gravy trains.  Two different cities would end up bidding over one car dealership, to see who could give them the biggest tax breaks to stay.  The public NEVER won.  The money inevitably came out of public education, although I had a hell of a time convincing liberals and teachers of that.  For a while, the missing education money could be backfilled, but by the time Jerry Brown got into office he knew that couldn’t work any more, so he convinced his Democrats to join him in abolishing RDA’s.  But I was the only Republican who would join him at first, to the other Republicans it was just a political game.”

With Maxine Waters and Tom McClintock: Three Warriors against Eminent Domain. Picture by the Orange Juice’s Larry Gilbert.

I remember that 2011 night clearly, me and Larry Gilbert and Tony Bushala staying up late to see if ANY Republican would join Norby and the Democrats on this crucial fiscal choice;  none did until weeks later.  “Several Republicans would come up to me and say ‘At heart I’m with you, Chris, I know you’re right, but we just can’t let Jerry Brown have this victory.”

That seems to be something Norby heard a lot in the Assembly.   He’s also proud that, alone among Republicans, he did his best to end the War on Drugs, always voting for reduced sentencing, and also pushing a hemp bill.  “It’s rope, not dope!” he exclaimed, quickly adding, “not that there’s anything wrong with dope.”

And his fellow Republicans would come up to him and say, “At heart I’m with you, Chris, I know you’re right, but I just don’t want to send the wrong message to my kids.”  And Chris would snap back in response, “You’d rather your kids went to jail?”

With great ambivalence I note that, as proud as we Democrats are of Sharon Quirk-Silva‘s defeat of Chris in 2012, and setting aside the positive qualities of Sharon and the hard work of her campaign, the margin of Chris’ defeat was probably provided by exactly the votes and positions that made him, to us progressives, the best of the Republicans – the votes and positions that earned him the undying enmity of law enforcement and prison guard unions who threw their enthusiastic and crucial support behind Sharon.  And no wonder Sharon is now no use on law enforcement and liberty issues, especially with a wilier opponent facing her in the harsh form of Young Kim.

Mistakes, regrets?  He named off a few.  He does appreciate an alert and fearless press, without which he wouldn’t have realized he was “double-dipping” by receiving insurance from both Brea High School and the City of Fullerton.  “I didn’t even realize I was doing that;  I should have but I didn’t.”  He immediately withdrew from the City plan.

His biggest regret in the Assembly is not having taken a bolder stand on immigration reform.  There are just so many times you can defy your party’s orthodoxy in one term without becoming a pariah.  “But, apart from my troubles with Martha, I’m very close to her extended family, and very aware of the human toll our screwed-up immigration system takes on real, good people.”  He had planned to get “bolder” on immigration in his second term… but his second term was not to be.

It popped into my mind:  “Hey, what about that legend I’ve heard so many times, that you were found sleeping, possibly drunk, on a park bench near the Civic Center one night?”

He laughed.  “That is such an exaggeration.  It was four in the afternoon.  I hadn’t drunk anything – I rarely drink, and never very much.  I wasn’t asleep.  I was lying on the grass near the Old Courthouse reading The New Republic.  And a county worker came by and asked ‘Supervisor Norby, are you okay?’  And for one reason and another, a police report had to be filed… and then the press had a field day with it.”

“I love lying on the grass and reading,” I agreed.  “I like the smell of the grass.  The only problems are, you’ve gotta wear dark clothes or they get stained;  and also pretty soon the ants will crawl all over you.”

“Yes.  The damn ants.”

The only thing he seems really bitter about regarding Sharon Quirk-Silva’s spectacular surprise defeat of him in 2012 is that, according to him, she spent the entire campaign refusing to debate him “about the issues.”  And “apparently that worked for the Democrats.  So, more power to them.”  Dripping with sad sarcasm. Was that true? Sharon?

What’s he doing now that he’s out of politics?  Fittingly for the man who killed redevelopment agencies, he’s sort of taking their place, as a “property finder” in the north county for a couple of developers.  He’ll find defunct car dealerships and carwashes, “mid-level grocery stores” like Albertson’s or Ralph’s who are being squeezed out by Walmart on one hand and Trader Joe’s on the other, hook up the owner with a buyer, and help them negotiate the zoning process with the local government, to convert the property into “infill housing.”

Well, okay, now I want to ask my biggest question:

Do the Fullerton cops “have it in” for Norby, and if so, why exactly?

We ask, BECAUSE: 

  1. Chris’ arrest for domestic violence and child endangerment on March 12 was completely unjustified and unnecessary, as Judge Hurwitz as much as admitted;  and
  2. The Register‘s Sean Emery had the story within HOURS, maybe even quicker.  (I don’t know him well enough to ask, but it seems extremely probable FPD sources called him with the scoop.  Nobody sits and keeps their eyes on the crime dockets that closely.)

The storied Bushala.

Next piece of the puzzle: I can NOW REPORT that, despite the mixed reports from our mutual friends over the months, Chris was SERIOUSLY considering running for Fullerton Council.  “A lot of people” were urging him to do so, and from the way he talked yesterday, it seemed he’d been tilting toward YES.  Won’t happen now, of course.  But Norby back on council would have added a second vote to Bruce Whitaker‘s lonely pro-police reform position, and possibly have put some steel back into the spine of the weak Greg Sebourn, who after all was elected on the Bushala slate with promises of reform.

What would a Norby-Whitaker-Sebourn majority have done, that the Fullerton PD would fear?  Two things at least:  at long last established the OC’s first civilian review board WITH TEETH;  and “at least put on the table” the possibility of dissolving the FPD and instead contracting out with the OC Sheriff.  “It’s ironic,” observes Chris of the latter idea.  “Beat cops don’t realize but working for the Sheriff’s Department would be so much better for them.  Everything that comes with being part of a bigger and more respected organization, plus those cops who don’t live in Fullerton could be assigned somewhere closer to home.  The only folks who would suffer from the move would be management.”

There’s that, the fear of what a Norby majority might do regarding the Fullerton police, but even more, Chris believes, there was the desire to punish him for what he’s done in the past.  For “being a friend of Tony Bushala” and for “all the Kelly Thomas stuff.”  What Kelly Thomas stuff?

Not only was Chris very visible at several Kelly Thomas rallies, but it turns out that, back when the police leadership had seen the surveillance video of Kelly Thomas’ murder while the City Council was apparently not allowed to, Chris had authored “Bruce’s Law,” specifying that any video made on public property using a public camera can be seen by an elected body. In actuality, it was only councilmembers  Quirk-Silva and Whitaker who had any desire to view that video;  the other three, the “Three Bald Tires,” soon to be recalled for their callousness by a Bushala-funded mass movement, had absolutely no interest and wanted only to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  Still, “Bruce’s Law” failed, with the Legal Counsel of the Assembly Rules Committee explaining to Chris that it was completely unnecessary:  the Council was already perfectly entitled to view the video, all that was lacking was political will.

Redkey.

Seen in this way, an unnecessary and immediately publicized arrest of a high-profile Kelly Thomas sympathizer, the Norby affair is all of a piece with this month’s ridiculous Pasadena arrest of non-violent protester AJ Redkey:  Fullerton police, feeling January’s not-guilty verdict was not enough, are letting loose retribution on any Kelly Thomas sympathizers they can let loose retribution on.

One other thing from Chris’ time in Assembly that cops in general might have hated and wanted to punish him for – his righteous efforts to end, or drastically curtail, the practice of “asset forfeiture,” whereby police forces fund many of their activities through funds and properties seized from folks busted for drug or other offenses – motivating and leading to all manner of abuses.  This caused me to mention the fortunately victorious Jalali case in Anaheim; and it turned out that not only was Chris completely familiar with that, he had read and loved my article about it.  THAT’S the way to get sympathetic coverage, politicians – read and compliment my work!  LOL.

But in sum:  We have no proof, but we have an unnecessary and unjustified arrest, immediately publicized, of a man who was considering running for office, and would have and HAS done many things that the police oppose. 

And, considering all of the above, I ask you, what have we – and especially Fullerton – lost?

The Sordid Stuff You Came For.

Martha and Chris with their eldest son

“Okay, let’s see, I forget. This ‘Martha’ or whatever she’s calling herself now, this was your fourth, fifth wife?”

“Oh, God. FOURTH. [laughing bitterly]  I’m not going to have a fifth marriage.  Each one is worse than the one before.”

“Well, two things, Chris.  Don’t rule out there’s something masochistic in you that is always looking for something crazier.  And also, say ‘Each one is better than the next.’  It sounds more positive.”

He laughed a lot.  I do think he enjoyed our interview.

Everything I report in this section is Chris’ version of events, and no, I have not tried to contact Martha for her side of the story, you do it if you want to.  I tend to give credence to his version of events because:

  1. Judge Hurwitz seemed to;
  2. Everything he says comports with what Bushala, Zenger, and Shawn Nelson have told me, one or two of whom are honest enough that if it weren’t their honest impression they would probably just keep silent;  and
  3. Martha sounds a lot like a wife I once had, and I think they both suffer from what is loosely called “borderline personality disorder” – to the degree that I could finish Chris’ sentences as he described her behavior.

The insecurity and rage is nonstop and bottomless.  Every day there’s some new unexpected woman you’re supposedly having an affair with.  A nice Asian girl would drop some food off at Chris’ office and Martha would scream “Puta china, go ahead, have my husband!”  She’d troll Chris’ Facebook for attractive-looking women to accuse him with;  in actuality the cranky old Luddite hardly knew what Facebook was, one of his aides had set the page up for him.  And if there weren’t a handy woman to accuse, you’d hear in bawdy detail about the wild sex you must be having with your male friends!

Most difficult are the former spouses with whom you’ve had children.  Possibly the Norbys’ first famous public spat began with a dispute over attending Chris’ son’s graduation – a son with his third wife.  At first the plan was, Martha would come along and all three would co-exist peacefully.  Then Martha decided, no, it’s okay, she’d stay home.  Then she got insecure again and was sure Chris was planning to get back with Wife #3.  This was during the campaign against Sharon Quirk-Silva, and in her anger Martha took to Facebook to let the world know she supported Sharon over her own husband.

When she took that down after a week, the mystified public theorized about what sorts of threats or coercion she might have been under (or if it was even really Martha.)   Actually her jealousy and insecurity at having her husband up in Sacramento (which she expressed to friends as worry over his long bike rides in such a dangerous town) alternated with her knowledge that the family needed the income from his Assembly job.

Keller.

Still, every time she would embarrass Chris in public like that, she seemed to think that Sharon owed her a favor.  Sharon, bless her heart, wanted nothing to do with the hot mess.  Skipping forward a couple years, on the day after the March 2014 arrest Martha showed up triumphant at Sharon’s office, demanding all manner of public assistance.  Sharon handed her over to [fellow "chicklet" and former Fullerton councilwoman]  Pam Keller, LOLOL, who handed Martha a thick packet of forms and saw her off.

Tony Bushala testified, first in a mass e-mail and then under oath, to the violence of Martha against Chris:

On December 17, 2013, Martha Norby hit Chris Norby in the right eye.  These photos were taken by his old Oxy friend and attorney Alex Wallace who picked up Chris and took him for treatment with Alex’s friend Margaret McCabe, a 10-year Army Medic and Iraq War veteran. Concerned about ongoing light flashes, pain and blackening eye socket, he was taken on Christmas Eve day to an optometry clinic near Alex’s Lakewood home.

The medical report below clearly attributes “spousal abuse” as the cause, and reports “massive bruising” and “floaters and flashes.” Chris declined when the doctor offered to send the police the report, not wanting family disruption, and hoping–obviously in vain–that he could continue with his violent and abusive wife. Chris has since seen two other doctors and continues to have pain and light flashes. On the day he was falsely charged (March 12) his wife had turned a garden hose on him, hitting again his right eye with a high-powered stream increasing the pain and flashes.

For whatever this is worth…in 2010, Chris & I were watching the Rose Bowl in his old garage. With about 3 minutes left to go. the TV went black. He pushed on the power button, but then it went black again. Martha had grabbed the remote and kept turning the TV off., then yells at me to leave… “no more football!” Chris explains to Martha that there are only 3 minutes left in the game, and asks her to turn it back on. She refuses, then begins swearing in Spanish (words beginning in “ch”). Then she throws the remote at him, breaking it.  While he’s on the floor trying to put it together, she yells–”you hit me, I call the police!”  Chris hadn’t laid a finger on her.  I told Chris that day, he has a problem and told him that I wished the best for him.

Should he have called the police when his wife threw the remote at him in front of me? Should he have done so when she damaged his eye just before Christmas of blasted it again last week? In hindsight, yes. But she got to them first, without evidence or a witnesses.

Many in the community and in her own family have witnessed her violent physical and verbal outbursts. They are now stepping forward. I am one of them.

Tony Bushala.

Medical report from the December incident. Click for larger view.

After the December incident, Martha was very contrite, blamed the incident on herself completely (which Alex Wallace witnessed and testified to) and then behaved well for a few months.  When she testified last week, she had a new story and claimed that she had to sock Chris in the eye in self-defense because he was choking her – the first time anyone had ever heard her say that.  Complete lie, or a story she had told herself and came to believe?  I only ask because of my own experience with a borderline woman but in any case that helped tank her credibility.

The March argument was as petty as can be, something to do with whether or not Chris could be allowed to take their three-year old son Johnny out for a walk;  I couldn’t concentrate as Chris described the back and forth, but it ended up in the back yard with Martha aiming a high-pressure stream of water from a garden hose directly at Chris’ injured eye.  He hopped on a bicycle (Martha had come to commandeer the keys to their one car) and hit the drug store for a new patch and some medicine.  Apparently she thought he was out contacting the police, so she called them herself pre-emptively and claimed to be in danger.

He pedaled back home, he tended to his eye, and nobody argued.  Their daughter (her three kids from a previous man call Chris “Dad,”  Johnny is their only natural kid) saw the re-injured eye, and simply asked “Mom?”  Chris sadly replied “yes.”  The arrival of the police surprised everyone but Martha.  Chris says they were very confrontational with him, particularly an Officer Sepulveda, and arrested him for spousal abuse and child endangerment.  Martha filed a temporary restraining order, the police evidently called the press, and Chris, under duress, stayed away from his family until being cleared in court last week.

“My kids need me,” he told me several times.  He played me two phone recordings from the day after the arrest, March 13.  One was a cop asking Chris to bring their daughter back to the house;  he didn’t have her, but Martha had told the police falsely that he had taken her to Tony Bushala’s house (horrors!) in violation of the restraining order.  The other recording was the daughter sobbing, and begging her “dad” to take her to an important school event that her mother had forgotten about – Martha was busy doing her mischief at Sharon’s office.

Now the restraining order is lifted, the divorce is final, and legally Chris is completely exonerated.  “So, I imagine you’re living somewhere nearby where you can see your kids regularly?”

“Actually I’m still living there in MY HOME.”

“WHAT???”

“Oh,  don’t worry.  I’m living in the garage, and I keep it locked.  I don’t speak with Martha, we pass like ships in the night.  But my kids need me to help them with their homework, and take them where they need to go.”  When I called Chris with some follow-up questions later that evening, I could hear the young people talking and laughing in the background.  But…

“Dude.  I have a bad feeling about this.  One of these days, Martha is going to be nice again, nice and sweet and contrite and charming.  And you’re going to be lonely and sentimental.  And things are going to go right back to how they were.  As good as it used to be, and then as bad as it used to be.  I really don’t think you should be living there is all…”

It was already getting late and Chris had another appointment, and as he got up to leave he joked, “Lead us not into temptation.”

And as the retired maverick politician walked out of Starbucks, he may have been reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but going through my head were the lines Hunter S Thompson wrote about his attorney Dr Gonzo as he watched him depart:

“There he goes.  One of God’s own prototypes, never intended for mass production.  Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.