Norwood in the Lions’ Den
Kennedale’s Minister-Mayor-Moralist is having problems with feet of clay.
By STORY AND PHOTOS BY JEFF PRINCE
Kennedale’s preaching mayor stepped from his van, 20 minutes late for a meeting. “I need to get my weapon,” he said, reaching into the backseat.
He pulled out a Bible and smiled.
He might need a weapon and a smile to get through the next few weeks: He’s facing a public relations nightmare just prior to an upcoming election, with unpaid taxes and spiraling debt and an admission that he’s been accepting food donations to get by. Add to that the questions about whether he committed a national hoax in his quest for attention, and April could indeed be the cruelest month for Jim Norwood.
Norwood is seeking re-election as Kennedale mayor in May, and his critics are rooting for challenger Bryan Lankhorst to trounce the sensationalist Norwood, who never met a moralist cause — or camera — he didn’t like.
Campaigning in 2004, Norwood vowed to get tough on the sexually oriented businesses clustered near Loop 820 and Business 287. Since then, two of five adult businesses have closed, and the rest are squirming in the city’s crosshairs. City leaders past and present have wrangled with these topless bars and adult video stores, so any credit for their demise must be spread widely. Norwood grabs at least his share.
“I have fulfilled almost every promise I made in 2004,” he said, also citing lower taxes and easier access to staff at city hall.
Norwood has a loving family and flock. He and his wife recently adopted a baby girl. His Oakcrest Family Church congregation reveres him. He owns a flower shop and is considering opening an auto parts business. Making Kennedale a better city is a high-priority goal.
“I’m doing it for that little girl there,” he said, pointing to a photo of his 7-month-old daughter on his desk.
But under pressure and public scrutiny, cracks are appearing in Norwood’s smooth façade, yet again.
The man who years ago turned from drinking and drugs to embrace religion and politics first made a name for himself in the local political scene in the 1980s. Zealous stances on gay activities and sexually oriented clubs gained him national headlines but polarized voters. In the 1980s, he served a single term on the Arlington City Council and caused a stir with his moralizing before being voted out. After a long absence from politics, Norwood again gained national recognition in 2004 during his campaign for the Kennedale mayor’s job.
Typically, few people outside of this little suburb near Southeast Fort Worth give a hoot about what happens here. Leave it to Norwood to create a ruckus loud enough to put the town on the map. He told local reporters how he photographed cars parked at sexually oriented businesses, then sent the photographs as postcards to car owners with an invitation to his church. The story had the right combination of humor and outrageousness and went national. He appeared on television shows such as CNN Live Sunday and talked to Bill O’Reilly on the radio and was written about in The Washington Post.
As it turns out, the whole postcard thing might have been a manipulation of the media.
What’s more, Norwood’s floral business is in shambles. He hasn’t paid income taxes in years. And he’s resorted to taking food and diapers from the church’s pantry — items intended for the needy — for his own family.
But if Norwood is anything, he’s a cool customer. “I know you’re going to tear me to shreds, but, yeah, I’ll talk to you,” he told a reporter on the phone.
In the main worship hall at Oakcrest Family Church on a recent evening, a Christian rock band played for a smattering of church members sitting in the pews. The music drifted through the closed door of Norwood’s cluttered office, providing a fitting soundtrack for an examination of his life. He was sitting, legs crossed, head tilted sideways, calm as a millpond as he answered questions about his re-election campaign.
Politics can be cutthroat, especially for someone like Norwood. Not everyone appreciates a preacher turned mayor who blurs the two positions, a guy with a shady past who now paints himself as an arbiter of morality. But he’s done a good job of dodging slings and arrows ... until now.
He talked about the national attention he received after sending postcards to porn shop customers.
But then came the tough question. What about the deposition?
Attorney Kelly Jones, who once served on the Arlington City Council with Norwood, sued his former buddy in 2005 for nonpayment of a bill. The two settled out of court, and Norwood escaped a trial and publicity about his money woes, but not before he was forced to sit for a March 30, 2005, deposition.
Back in 2004, when Norwood described to news media how he created the postcards and mailed them, a Fort Worth Weekly reporter had asked to see one of the postcards. Norwood couldn’t produce one but said he had heard that the owner of the XXX Super Store Video had one hanging up in the shop. Nope, no postcard there. Instead, the reporter found a poster offering a $500 reward to any XXX customer who could bring in one of the postcards. The store owner was threatening to file a harassment lawsuit against Norwood and wanted postcards as evidence.
“The preacher ought not to use city funds to carry on his Inquisition,” an XXX employee told the Weekly back then.
Joe Dingler, vice president of the now-defunct Fantasy Foxx, called the postcards “a scare tactic to chase our business off.”
Despite the offered reward, weeks went by and nobody produced a postcard. After a while, XXX upped the ante to $1,000. Still nobody brought in a card. Some people wondered if Norwood had pulled a hoax and never mailed any.
Skepticism would soon grow even more. Were the postcards mailed or not? Under oath, Norwood said they were not — but his explanations keep changing.
During the deposition, Norwood and his attorney tried mightily to avoid questions about the postcards, saying they weren’t relevant to a case about an unpaid bill.
Michael Hassett, the attorney representing the plaintiff, disagreed and pressed harder. “I think it has to do with this witness’ credibility and bias, and I think that given the amount of national and local media coverage that Mr. Norwood’s activity has garnered, I ought to be able to ask him a few questions about it, even in a lawsuit for fees,” Hassett said.
Now, back in Norwood’s office, the mayor was growing as uncomfortable as he had seemed to be during the deposition. Tiny beads of sweat, which weren’t there before, glistened on his forehead. His cheeks flushed slightly. Responses to questions became more labored. Hemming. Hawing. Disjointed sentences.
Asked if he had lied about the postcards, Norwood began a confusing explanation. First, he seemed to admit that the postcards were never mailed and pointed to the media for jumping to conclusions. “I mean the media did what we wanted them to do,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey this is what they are doing up at there at the church; they are taking pictures and getting the names and addresses and cards going out to ... .’”
“The media thought that, because you told them that,” the reporter said.
“No,” Norwood replied. “Well, and I’ll tell you that on ... the guy that was working with me, helping me with this, prior to when we really started ... uh ... you know ... when CNN, I think, was coming out and doing some things, prior to that time I had a minister here that kind of made that suggestion that we ought to do that [mail out postcards], and he did mail some of those out himself to some of the people that we got license numbers of.”
Norwood provided the minister’s name but asked that his identity be withheld. “The guy is a sex offender, a previous sex offender, and I wouldn’t want his name printed,” Norwood said. “He was my associate pastor at the time.”
The man is no longer with the church, he said.
If this associate pastor mailed postcards to adult business customers, why would Norwood give sworn testimony saying that the postcards were never mailed? Did he make up the whole thing? Did he intend to mail them but never did, and then the national press got hold of it and it snowballed from there? What really happened?
Norwood’s explanation revealed a talent for Clinton-esque verbal gymnastics.
“I did not personally mail them out; that was the question that was asked” in the deposition, he said. “The question was directed at me.”
He said he’s certain that his associate pastor mailed them because some people called him and said they had received postcards. “I had people who called me on the telephone and talked to me and said, ‘I received one of your cards and I’d like to know what kind of help you have and what’s available as far as help with the problem I have,’” he said. But he never saw any of the cards the callers said they’d received.
The deposition, however, doesn’t jibe with Norwood’s depiction of it. The transcript shows that the plaintiff’s attorney didn’t limit his question to whether Norwood mailed postcards. Norwood told attorney Michael Hassett that he took photos and turned them over “to the man that does my computer work at the church.”
“What did he do with them?” Hassett asked.
“He printed out cards on the computer that had pictures of the automobile and on the flip side an invitation for the people that owned those automobiles to come to church,” Norwood said.
“Were the cards sent to the owners of those automobiles,” Hassett said.
“Because we didn’t mail them,” Norwood said.
A church member walked into Norwood’s office carrying a plate of food and a box of diapers and set them down on the coffee table. “The diapers are for the baby,” she said to Norwood, who thanked her.
Despite his apparent money problems, Norwood and his wife recently adopted a baby girl born to a drug-addicted woman who attends Norwood’s church and has given birth to nine children — “all different fathers, and six of [the fathers] in jail,” Norwood said.
The couple adopted the little girl so that she could stay in contact with one of her siblings. Norwood’s son had previously adopted one of the baby’s brothers.
The church gives out 100 food baskets a week to the needy, along with household items. Few people outside the church know that Norwood is among the recipients.
“I’ve been humbled,” he said. “I’m not ashamed.”
Ten years ago, money wasn’t a problem. A string of auto paint and body shops made Norwood a wealthy man until it all dissolved amid lawsuits and bad investments. He tried to explain how it all came about, but his explanations of that financial downfall — like that of the unsent postcards — were confusing and contradictory. And as he explained, the façade seemed to slip a little further.
In one breath he blamed his own generosity. In the 1990s he lived in a gorgeous home in Granbury and owned luxury cars and a boat. That’s all gone. He focused most of his energy on his church and congregation and didn’t pay enough attention to business, he said.
“I mean, basically, the bottom line to it is, I’ve given my fortune away,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of ex-offenders who have worked for me that have ripped me off, stolen money from me, stolen my vehicle, and things like that. I’ve assisted people in times past when they’ve needed help with their rent and things like that, and when I had the money available I was willing to help them.”
In the next breath, he mentioned shoddy representation by attorneys that cost him tens of thousands of dollars in a dispute over franchise fees. And he lamented buying a flower shop in south Fort Worth when he knew nothing about the business.
“My dad always told me to do what you know,” he said ruefully. “It was probably a mistake on my part to get into something I didn’t know anything about, and I’ve been busting my can for nearly nine years and have nothing to show for it.”
And he described losing hundreds of thousands of dollars as an early investor in the Fort Worth Brahmas minor league hockey team. What’s a preacher doing investing in a sport known for its brawling and blood? He said he was merely helping a local team in a sport he enjoyed. A group of investors primed the pump, but when the team struggled, the investment soured, and investors scurried. He stayed firm and poured good money after bad because he hated to see the players, many of them from Canada, unemployed and far from home, he said.
Brahmas general manager Mike Barack recalled Norwood’s early involvement during the 1997-98 season as heartfelt but flawed. “From a business standpoint, his heart was in the right place in terms of wanting hockey to succeed,” Barack said. “In terms of all the minor details to make it happen, I’m not sure that was his forte. He had a lot of things on his plate at the time. He had his flower business and all kinds of businesses and his activities at the jail [ministry]. But my overall view was that he definitely had hockey in his heart, and I’m sure he wished he had more money to keep it going because he definitely gave it a hard shot.”
After the 1997-98 season, the team was resurrected under new ownership.
“My guess is there were ...substantial dollars lost by him as well as some other investors,” Barack said.
Worse, Norwood sold bank stock to pay for the Brahmas investment. That stock today would be worth several million dollars, he said. With that fiasco in the background, Norwood doesn’t pay much attention to hockey anymore.
Norwood’s lack of focus doesn’t surprise a former political ally, who asked not to be named for this story.
“He wants to be everything,” the source said. “He wants sensationalism, he wants to be noticed. He’s totally ego-driven. The guy just doesn’t get it.”
By 2000, Norwood was managing a failing business; dodging creditors; devoting much of his spare time to a church that welcomes high-maintenance drug addicts, alcoholics, and sex offenders; and ministering to inmates at the county jail. He was spread thin. Yet he ran for mayor in 2004, promising to be the most accessible mayor in memory.
And he was racking up legal bills that, apparently, he couldn’t pay. During the 2005 deposition, the plaintiff’s attorney grilled Norwood about his financial affairs to determine whether he had money to pay the debt. Norwood answered that he had received no income from Rothermel’s Flowers & Gifts since purchasing the business in 1998.
He said he was supporting his family on $1,010 a month — $1,000 from his church salary and $10 for serving as mayor. He also said the church pays him an additional $1,500 a month to cover the expenses for his house — appraised by Tarrant Appraisal District at $240,000, with a swimming pool and more than 3,300 square feet of living space.
Hassett wasn’t satisfied; he kept prodding for more financial information. When he asked whether Norwood had filed a personal tax return in 2002, the mayor said a CPA was then preparing his taxes.
“For 2002?” Hassett said.
“What about 2003?”
“When was the last time you filed an income tax return?”
“1999,” Norwood said.
“Why has it been so long since you filed an income tax return?”
“Because my income has not been such and the discussions with my accountant have been such that we’re working on it at this particular point in time,” he said.
Norwood recently told the Weekly that he took financial advice from a friend regarding his tax returns.
“I have a father in the ministry who kind of advised me from a tax standpoint, and he knew of some of the struggles I was having, and he told me that if you make less than $12,000 or something a year, there wasn’t a requirement for filing,” he said.
The friend, of course, was wrong.
In the interview last week, Norwood seemed momentarily depressed by the vision of voters hearing about all this — the handouts, the unpaid taxes, the failed businesses. He made it clear that he’d prefer for his personal problems not to be made public. But then he seemed to shrug it off with the stoicism of someone who regularly surrenders himself and his burdens to the mercy of his Lord.
Norwood said he is currently working to file all of his overdue returns and pay his debts to the IRS. He’s also asked a consultant to help determine what went wrong with the flower shop; the mayor said he hopes to turn the business around, show a profit, and then sell it and open an auto shop — “something I know about” — in Kennedale. Then, his business, church, and city hall could all be within a few miles of each other, he said.
It would all be so convenient.
Of course, it’s a moot point unless he is re-elected mayor, turns his business around, and starts anew. Those are big “if’s.” But he keeps smiling. After all, things could be much worse.
This isn’t the first time Norwood’s life has unraveled. He worked at an auto body shop in San Francisco in the early 1970s and made enough money to raise a family and buy a house and cars — and afford a steady stream of booze, pot, speed, and cocaine. He shared a shop with Frenchy’s adult books and became hooked on seeing graphic sex.
“The more I got into the drug scene, it contributed somewhat to an addiction to porn,” he told the Weekly in 2004.
Long days at work, late nights in bars, and drugs at all hours eventually wore him down. His hard-partying ways led to charges of public intoxication and assault on a police officer. After his wife left him and took their two sons, he ended up in the Texas hill country, where he “just kind of kicked back and smoked dope for six years and ran a little gas station in Kingsland,” he said.
He later remarried, moved to Arlington, bought a half-dozen auto body shops scattered around the Metroplex, and made a small fortune.
In 1980, he was reborn.
“That old addict and pervert died, and there was a new guy resurrected,” he said.
The new guy was still a hard-driving, obsessive personality but now lacked an outlet other than work. He found it in religion and, later, politics. Elected to the Arlington City Council in 1984, he courted controversy. A local theater was putting on a gay production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Norwood criticized the production and threatened to withhold city funding, even though the theater group wasn’t receiving any. His tirades received national attention and gave him a new persona — defender of morality.
“All through the era of this study there was no more controversial or colorful personality on the city council than Jim Norwood,” political science professor and author Allan Saxe wrote in his 2001 book Politics of Arlington Texas: An Era of Continuity and Growth.
The national publicity he gained from fighting homosexual stage productions seemed to spark Norwood. Publicity, it seemed, had become his new drug, and being a moral do-gooder with controversial methods was how he got it. Sex issues defined him as he rode with police through Randol Mill Park searching for gay people up to no good. He tried to tighten ordinances restricting adult video businesses and waged war against convenience stores selling adult magazines such as Playboy. He even challenged a man who worked for the city of Arlington because (gasp!) he wore an earring to work.
His focus on social causes earned him praise, scorn, and intense media scrutiny, and cost him his bid for re-election in 1986. Some residents felt he was over the top.
In 1987, after another unsuccessful bid for a council seat, Norwood turned to preaching. He worked as a volunteer chaplain at the Tarrant County jail’s controversial “God Pod” under former Sheriff David Williams. Drunks, prostitutes, junkies, and sex offenders became his parishioners, and he was thrilled to have a captive audience. In 1997, he was invited to speak at Oakcrest, a small church with few members. That led to a job as a full-time pastor. He invited jail inmates to become church members upon their release. Troubled souls filled the pews and demanded much of his time and patience, but he saw them as “the kind of people that Jesus would probably minister to.”
He also continued managing his auto body shops, although a dispute over franchise fees hurtled him toward a lawsuit for unpaid bills, which put his finances in a tailspin.
“The people that I minister to here are people that are in need of help,” he said. “And you know what? Sometimes I’m in need of help too.”
With the election a month away and his problems growing, Norwood realizes his political success might be threatened. The wear is showing. He looks tired and sluggish, heavier than he has in the recent past.
In what seemed like a desperate attempt to get positive publicity before the election, Norwood was Johnny-on-the-spot when police busted an adult video store on March 23. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted him as defending the legality of the city’s action: “We made sure before we came up here and strung that yellow crime tape that we did everything we could.”
Grandstanding like this gains him new fans but costs him others. Support for his opponent is growing among those who don’t appreciate Norwood’s showmanship and my-way-or-the-highway philosophy, said longtime City Councilman John Clark.
Clark wants Norwood gone because of the mayor’s desire to be a dictator rather than a team player, he said. “He is a divider within the city,” Clark said. “If you’re not doing it his way, you are the enemy. He isn’t tolerant of differing opinions. The way he has been running the city isn’t helpful long-term in moving the city forward.”
A city divided, by nature, means that many of them support Norwood. Charlie Doescher was part of a group of citizens that formed a political action committee in 2004 and helped Norwood win the election. Doescher is still firmly in Norwood’s camp. “He’s done a great deal for the city,” he said. “He’s a good honest man that’s trying to be a good mayor.”
The election is May 1. No matter what happens, Norwood, armed with his Bible, a friendly flock, and a knack for pulling himself out of his self-made problems, is likely to land on his feet and eventually, land in more controversy. He just can’t help it.
You can reach Jeff Prince at Jeff.Prince@fwweekly.com.
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