Taking on City Hall, Browning leads St. George effort

Politics has never been Norman Browning’s preferred choice of playing fields, but his latest venture has put him smack at the center of a raging political controversy.

As leader of the effort to create a new city called St. George and an independent school system, the 61-year-old father of three is pursuing a cause that could fundamentally change the shape of East Baton Rouge Parish and its politics for years to come. He’s a hero to some for giving voice to their frustration with a status quo they consider unacceptable, and a villain to others who see his effort as tearing the parish apart and disrupting continued progress in Louisiana’s capital city.

While Browning has never run for office or served on government boards or commissions, he has taken an active role in his community. He’s been content until now to exercise his leadership skills as a volunteer with the public schools, serving as PTA president and in a variety of other roles, including 15 years as a volunteer baseball coach at Woodlawn High School.

These days, Browning is the leader of the effort to incorporate the city of St. George. For the past two years, he’s served as the president of the nonprofit group Local Schools for Local Children, which fought and failed two years in a row to secure from the state a funded independent school system.

When he got started three years ago, he said, he could never have imagined how much attention he’d receive and how much work he’d have to put into the campaign. But those who have worked with him for years say it’s only natural that Browning would end up heading such an important community issue.

“He’s a natural leader,” said Jimmy Lieux, a Woodlawn High School teacher who coached alongside Browning for years. “He fights for what he thinks is right.”

Browning was born and raised in Baton Rouge. He graduated from Baton Rouge High School and attended Southeastern Louisiana University, majoring in education.

He planned to be a teacher. His dream, however, was deferred when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served four years’ active duty, rising to the rank of captain.

When he returned to Baton Rouge, he was recruited into the pharmaceutical industry, where he’d spend the remainder of his career.

“To be honest, when I came back and saw the school system and the way it was being run, I knew I wouldn’t be happy working there,” he said.

But while his professional career took him in a different direction, Browning said, his heart has always been with the school system, where he has remained an active volunteer and fundraiser.

Dustin Yates, a co-chairman of the St. George incorporation effort, met Browning in 2005 at Woodlawn High when he came to work as a teacher and coach.

Yates said Browning devoted an inordinate amount of his free time to Woodlawn, even after his three children graduated. Two graduated from Woodlawn, and the third graduated from high school while they lived in Alabama.

“He was very involved in everything, from helping coach to working the concession stand, selling jambalaya. He was always around,” Yates said. “I used to call him ‘Stormin’ Norman’ because he was always moving a million miles an hour.”

Lieux remembers Browning’s knack for event planning and organization, noting that Browning helped put on major sports fundraisers, a golf tournament and the first Woodlawn Tailgate Throwdown — an annual tailgate competition with food, entertainment and music.

“He’d be the one that goes out and gets the sponsorships and gets everyone to participate,” Lieux said. “If a kid was injured and needed a brace, he’d go buy one or get a doctor’s office to donate one.”

Schools first

Browning’s three children are all adults now, and two of them moved to neighboring parishes for better schools. They each spent at least a year at Woodlawn High, which is one of the few schools in the East Baton Rouge school system that Browning said was giving children a quality educational experience.

His children also attended elementary school at Jefferson Terrace. But after elementary school, he pulled them into private school. They spent some time at Most Blessed Sacrament School, a 2013 Blue Ribbon elementary and middle school; and St. Michael the Archangel High School, which was then called Bishop Sullivan High.

His family also left Baton Rouge for a few years as he traveled for work. They spent a few years living in LaPlace and Alabama, where his children attended Baldwin County public schools, which were considered the second best in the state.

“I saw what a good school system looked like,” he said.

Partly inspired by the success the community of Central was having creating a new school system and city, Browning and other parents began imagining their own school district.

Many people reached out to Browning because he was already an active community member with several business and political contacts.

Browning began meeting in small groups with residents, legislators and others.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, sponsored bills to create the Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System, which failed two years in a row to secure funding. Opposing legislators said the area shouldn’t have a school system because it’s not a city.

So like Central advocates before him, Browning began rallying for a new city. But creating a new city is more of a grassroots effort than creating a school system, which is done by a vote of the legislature.

Almost every day, Browning speaks to a different community group, fields media calls, organizes events or hosts petition drives to move the city effort further to the ballot.

In the beginning, the city was just a means to an end to create a new school system. But after months of campaigning and research, Browning said, he now feels strongly that the city of St. George and the new school system are entwined.

“The city of St. George coupled with the school system — they’ll go hand in hand. One will feed the other,” he said. “I recognize the importance of this now more than ever.”

Still, the school system remains his No. 1 priority.

“The city is just as important,” he said, then stopped to correct himself. “Well not just as important. The schools are the most important, but it’s very important that we do this.”

Fighting City Hall

Browning and his cohorts have to collect about 18,000 signatures on a petition in order to put the St. George incorporation to a vote of the people within its proposed boundaries. The organizers said last month they had reached about 10,000 signatures but since then have declined to disclose signature counts.

The effort is already facing intense opposition both from a grassroots group and city-parish officials who say the new city could financially devastate the parish budget. A report by Baton Rouge economist Jim Richardson estimates the new city would create a $53 million shortfall in the city-parish budget. But St. George officials argue the deficit would be closer to $14 million.

Recently, a grassroots organization called Residents against the Breakaway began raising money and campaigning about the negative impacts of the proposed new city.

But this isn’t the first time Browning has faced off with City Hall.

In 2005, he took on a similar leadership role in his community — albeit on a much smaller scale — when he attempted unsuccessfully to recall his former Metro Council member, Darrell Ourso.

Browning and a group of his neighbors were frustrated by a plan to convert the former Shenandoah Country Club Golf Course into an upscale subdivision known now as Shenandoah Estates. Browning and his fellow organizers formed an opposition group called Save Shenandoah, unsuccessfully attempting to block the new development.

The group expressed disappointment in Ourso at the time for his knowledge of the deal and lack of opposition.

They needed to collect the signatures of 8,000 registered voters in District 9 within 180 days to get a recall election on the ballot. The campaign fizzled, and Ourso finished his term.

Browning now says he doesn’t remember exactly how many signatures they got but said the time constraints made it difficult.

“The drive lost steam at the end,” he said.

Ourso declined comment, saying that as a sitting commissioner for the St. George Fire District, he shouldn’t discuss anything related to the incorporation effort.

Unlike a recall election, the petition drive for incorporating a new city has no time constraints. Browning has said he’d like to secure the signatures in time to have an election this year.

Political future

For all the leadership roles Browning has taken on, both civic and professional, he’s never run for an elected office.

But he could pass for a politician: Often sharply dressed, he speaks passionately about his convictions. He easily commands the attention of a room when he speaks and he already has the love of many of the people he’s fighting for.

He’s quick to say he has no interest in being the mayor of St. George, should the city come to be. However, he won’t entirely rule out the possibility.

“I really haven’t thought about it,” he said. “My desire was not one of political ambition.”

He said he’s been asked many times in the past to run for office but the timing or fit of the office was wrong. In the future, he said, he will keep an open mind.

Ultimately, the mayor and council members of a new city will be appointed by the governor until an election can be held. The governor will take recommendations from the local legislators of the area. White, the state senator, said Browning has not expressed any interest in being appointed to an office, but he thinks Browning would be a strong St. George leader.

“What he’s done is taken on some tough issues, and you have to admire that,” White said. “He’s willing to put himself out there, and he’s probably donated thousands of hours of planning and research in the process.”