Four months after the 2016 presidential election, Cottie Petrie-Norris — then a grassroots organizer for Women for American Values and Ethics, or WAVE — looked out over hundreds of people gathered on a Sunday afternoon for political activism training at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort in Newport Beach.
“Gazing out across that crowd and just the commitment of people in that room, that just made me go ‘Oh my gosh, we are actually going to be able to change some of these things that we’re not happy about,’” Petrie-Norris said.
A little over a year and a half later, the Democrat from Laguna Beach won her first campaign for public office: the 74th District seat in the California Assembly over two-term incumbent Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach).
“It was a special kind of moment when you go from ... being just sort of scared and freaked out to going ‘All right, I’m going to do something about it,’ to then believing, like, we’re building the momentum that could change it,” she said.
Before President Trump’s win in 2016, Petrie-Norris’ political participation consisted mainly of knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with the Laguna Beach Democratic Club.
Instead of seeing the election of the country’s first female president, as she expected, Petrie-Norris got a “wake-up call,” she said.
“At first I was a participant,” said the native of La Mesa in San Diego County. “Then I turned into an organizer.”
Within a few months, she joined the boards of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club and Orange County’s chapter of WAVE, which formed in the wake of the 2016 election. She coordinated the 48th District Action Council, a coalition of small progressive groups in the congressional district, and served as an Assembly district delegate for the state Democratic Party during Harper’s second term.
“Post-2016 election, people were devastated,” said Petrie-Norris, 43. “But we didn’t just get mad or sad or just kind of wallow. We got incredibly busy, I think, shaping an alternative vision of our future.”
As she made calls, led meetings and organized fundraisers for fellow Laguna Beach Democrat Harley Rouda’s campaign for the 48th Congressional District seat (which he won in November by defeating longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher), Petrie-Norris kept an eye on other upcoming elections. Harper’s stance on women’s issues upset her — he was one of two Assembly members who voted against the Fair Pay Act in 2015.
A year after the presidential election, Petrie-Norris decided to run for office herself.
Since winning 52.7% of the vote in last month’s Assembly election, Petrie-Norris set to work almost right away. She took a brief vacation in Sedona, Ariz., to rest from the “incredibly intense” campaign and then began scheduling meetings with local government officials and community leaders in the 74th District, which includes parts of Irvine, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods.
“Even just since she’s been elected and sworn into office … she’s done more outreach to each of the cities than our … last three representatives,” said Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley.
Petrie-Norris said she wants to understand the district’s issues and priorities as she shapes her package of bills for the legislative session. On her first official day as an assemblywoman, she introduced AB 65, a bill that would prioritize coastal conservancy projects that use natural elements to adapt to climate change. She said it would bring funding back to communities facing the threat of sea level rise.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), whom Petrie-Norris supported in his bid this month to remain speaker, announced Thursday that he had appointed her chairwoman of the Accountability and Administrative Review Committee and a member of the appropriations, judiciary, veterans affairs and revenue and taxation committees.
“She’s like a stick of dynamite, man. She’s a firecracker,” said Sue Kempf, who won a seat on the Laguna Beach City Council in November. “She didn’t waste any time.”
Petrie-Norris hopes to put environmentalism and public safety at the forefront of her two-year term. She said she wants to build more supportive housing for homeless and low-income people and reform sober-living facilities with stronger oversight.
She is “not about party politics,” she said.
“I see her working as needed [on] both sides of the aisle and see her really caring about her cities as well as the state as a whole,” said former Newport Beach mayor Evelyn Hart, a Republican. “Sometimes you have to go across the aisle when you know that somebody else can do a better job for you.”
Kempf said Petrie-Norris is a smart person who will go “right to work” on issues that matter.
“Just one indication of how good Cottie will be on the Assembly is how hard she worked on her campaign, because she was virtually an unknown person,” Kempf said.
Petrie-Norris credits her victory to her supporters and a changing political climate in Orange County and nationwide. Her supporters point to her personality and organizational skills nurtured by her nearly two-decade business career.
“As far as her campaign goes, it was like a machine,” said Gary LeFebvre, president of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club. “It was amazing how well she adapted to being a candidate.”
Petrie-Norris is a graduate of Yale University, where she studied economics and English. She spent most of her professional career in marketing. Her first 13 years out of college took her to Washington, D.C., London and Johannesburg, South Africa, working for Capital One, American Express and two start-ups.
In 2012, she and her husband, Colin Petrie-Norris, a native of Johannesburg, decided to return from London to her home state, where she would begin her own consulting business. The couple settled on Laguna Beach after stopping for lunch one gloomy June day on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Diego.
“Really and truly, as we sat down, the skies parted and the sun came out and the [Rolling] Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was playing,” she remembered with a laugh. “Our kids were frolicking in the sand as we were having lunch, and we just looked at each other and thought ‘If this really is an option, we have to try.’
“After a couple of months, we were like ‘Nope, we’re never leaving.’”