Politics & Government

Her last day on council approaching, Lexington Vice Mayor Linda Gorton begins to say her goodbyes

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton is retiring from public service at the end of the year and said she plans to write a novel.
Vice Mayor Linda Gorton is retiring from public service at the end of the year and said she plans to write a novel. Lexington Herald-Leader

The three-ring binders are stacked two and three rows deep on the sprawling desk in Lexington's City Hall.

On top is a binder marked "redistricting." Inside is a how-to guide on redrawing Urban County Council district boundaries every 10 years.

"This one, we are definitely going to keep," said Vice Mayor Linda Gorton as she surveyed the binders in her corner office one day in mid-November.

Gorton, the city's longest-serving council member and current vice mayor, has amassed 16 years of information stored in binders and meticulously organized in four filing cabinets.

What to keep and what to pitch has dominated Gorton's time for months as she prepares to exit public life.

Gorton, 66, shocked many when she announced in November 2013 that she was retiring at the end of 2014 and would not seek re-election after serving four terms as the 4th District council member, one four-year term as council member at-large and one four-year term as vice mayor.

Her last council meeting is Dec. 9.

Gorton has served under four mayors and with dozens of council members. She's been the one constant in a City Hall marked by turnover and sometimes acrimony over the past decade.

It's not just her institutional knowledge that will be missed, council members and city government insiders say. Gorton's work ethic and even-handed diplomacy will be difficult to replace.

"She's the voice of reason," said Emma Tibbs, who has spent two decades on the Fayette County Neighborhood Council and has worked with dozens of council members. "When they are going at each other, Linda will always find a way to bring them back together."

Council member Kevin Stinnett has served with Gorton during 10 of her 16 years on council. He joined the council in 2004.

"When I first came on to council, it was a really volatile environment," Stinnett said. "We haven't always had the leadership that got the council to work together. You had different factions that wanted to work independently of each other. You have to have a collective body that wants to work together. We have had that leadership these last four years."

Under Gorton's tenure as vice mayor, the council tackled some long-standing problems.

It made changes to employee health insurance, passed ordinances to set up an affordable housing fund, authorized a new homeless coordinator, re-worked the way it doled out grants to social-service agencies, started a food truck program, approved domestic partner benefits for city employees and lifted the ban on election-day alcohol sales.

That's just the highlight reel. Although there were disagreements, those dust-ups never spiraled into name-calling that generated embarrassing headlines.

"I believe in building consensus," Gorton said. "You have to communicate with your fellow council members. They don't want to be surprised. They want to know what's going on."

'Incredible group'

On a table in Gorton's office is a framed photo from 1999 — her first year on council. In it is Gorton, then-Mayor Pam Miller, then-Vice Mayor Isabel Yates and council members Sandy Shafer, Gloria Martin and Jennifer Mossotti.

"They were an incredible group of women," Gorton said.

As Gorton looked at the photo in mid-November, Mossotti appeared in her doorway.

Mossotti served on the council from 1997 to 2004 and returned in 2012. She was re-elected in November.

"I'm going to miss you so much," Mossotti said. After Gorton was first elected in November 1998, Mossotti remembers a timid Gorton knocking on her office door to ask if she could be Mossotti's office mate. The two shared offices until Mossotti left council in 2004.

"She came in shy, naive and wide-eyed and will leave completely the opposite," Mossotti joked.

Gorton said her longtime friend is right.

"I was apolitical and completely naive," Gorton said.

Entering politics was never a goal, she said.

A native of Circleville, Ohio, a small community south of Columbus, Gorton was one of four children. Her father ran a grain elevator and was a member of the school board, the only politician in a large farming family.

While attending the University of Kentucky, she fell in love with Charles Gorton, a Lexington native. The two married in 1971 after Linda Gorton received her nursing degree. Linda Gorton spent the next several years following her husband, who was in the Army, first to Germany and later to Korea with stops in Fort Benning, Ga., in between. Linda Gorton learned Korean and German.

Eventually, her husband retired from active duty and went into the Army Reserve. They moved back to Lexington. He found a job at UK and later became an administrator at the Fayette County Health Department.

Gorton, who had worked as a nurse in Georgia, Korea and Germany, took several years off after her children — Abby and Clay — were born.

She eventually went back to work full-time and spent 17 years as a nurse in Dr. Terrance Furlow's office until she retired last year.

Gorton was also active with the Glendover Elementary PTA, the Girl Scouts, other school groups, soccer and youth sports. Public service has always been part of the Gortons' life.

Politics, however, was not.

Then Gorton read in the newspaper that Yates was not going to seek another term as the 4th District council member. The 4th District includes neighborhoods such as Shadeland and Lansdowne along Tates Creek Road.

"I remember looking at Charlie and saying, 'I really think I want to do this,'" Gorton said. "He looked at me and said, 'Really?"

Really.

Her ties to the area and her involvement in so many community groups gave her the edge in a field of four candidates.

Those first six months on council were eye-opening, she said. The council was debating passing an ordinance which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The debates were contentious and personal. During one meeting, a minister told council members that if they voted for the ordinance, they would go to hell.

"I am from a small rural community," Gorton said. "I had never seen people treated with such disrespect. ... It was very disturbing."

The ordinance passed on July 8, 1999, at around 1:30 a.m. Gorton was one of 12 members who voted in favor of the ordinance.

"We were leaving that day for vacation and I made my husband drive the entire night," Gorton said. "I wanted to get out of there."

The personal attacks used to get to her, Gorton said.

She has since developed a much thicker skin.

"Nothing really bothers me much any more," Gorton said.

In addition to the fairness ordinance, Gorton said she is proud that while on council, Lexington passed other groundbreaking legislation, including the indoor smoking ban and the purchase of development rights program that encourages the preservation of rural land.

Those initiatives were copied in other communities.

She has also pushed environmental ordinances that improved the city's storm water and water quality, and other ordinances to strengthen rural land preservation. She's championed green spaces, such as the Arboretum and the city's trail system.

She co-founded the Friends of the Dog Parks, a nonprofit that works with the city to fund and run the city's dog parks.

But there were some defeats.

The council's most contentious debate in the past decade was whether to take over Kentucky American Water.

After careful research, Gorton sided with people who thought the city should control its own water supply.

When voters ultimately decided via a referendum in November 2006 not to proceed with condemnation of the water company, it was a blow, she said. It was the biggest disappointment in her tenure on council, she said.

At the time, Mayor Teresa Isaac was for the takeover of the water company. Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon was not.

The two were frequently at loggerheads during Isaac's term from 2002 to 2006. It made the council divisive, combative and sometimes unpleasant, Gorton said.

"People were being attacked," she said.

Nonetheless, Gorton stayed on council.

After she completed her fourth and final term in the 4th District, Gorton successfully ran for an at-large seat in 2006.

In the May 2010 at-large council race, Gorton was second in a nine-person race. The top six vote-getters move on to the November general election. Gorton was the top vote-getter in November and became vice mayor despite being out-spent by opponents.

"I was shocked," Gorton said of her victory.

Emma Tibbs said Gorton rarely turns down an invitation to speak to a civic group, talk to students or give her time to a nonprofit. That means she has a diverse network of supporters.

"She didn't have the most money, but lots of people know her," Tibbs said.

Tibbs added that Gorton's popularity with voters and longevity at City Hall may have to do with a personality trait that many politicians underestimate: She's nice.

"If they don't have that likability factor, they have a tough time getting elected and staying elected," Tibbs said.

Gorton admits everyday errands can take longer than normal because she knows so many people.

For example, once a trip to Kroger took more than two hours because Gorton was stopped by chatty constituents in nearly every aisle.

"My husband suggested that he do the shopping and I set up a table in front of the store," Gorton said, laughing. "I can't help it. I really like people."

Other offices?

Gorton has been approached several times to run for state offices by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

No thanks, she told them.

She's better suited for Lexington's non-partisan government.

"You have to toe the party line — no matter what the party is," Gorton said.

"I think that my work here is important, and I've always loved it," Gorton said. "It's the best job I've had. It involves people and working to solve problems through policy."

Would she ever consider running for mayor?

Gorton said she's learned never to say never.

But for right now, she's looking forward to retirement.

Her daughter, Abby, 37, and son, Clay, 33, both live out of state. Her son, a Black Hawk pilot, and son-in-law, an F-16 fighter pilot, are both active-duty military. They move frequently, and it's hard for them to get home, Gorton said.

To see her kids and her grandchildren — a 14-month-old and 6-month-old twins — she will have to go to them.

More travel and time with her husband and family is on top of her to-do list.

The nurse-turned-politician also wants to start a new chapter in her life. And she wants to write it herself.

A high school English teacher piqued her interest in writing. She later wrote poetry when her son was stationed in Iraq.

"I want to try my hand at fiction," Gorton said. " I don't know how good I'm going to be at it. But I want to try it."

Will Lexington readers see some familiar characters and plot lines in these stories?

"You never know," Gorton said, laughing.

Tibbs said Gorton's dreams of trading the public spotlight for a quiet cubicle at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning might be short-lived.

"I think when people learn that she is available, she will be asked to serve on every board in this town," Tibbs said.

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