Candidate knows law, IT, insurance, physics . . .
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Chris Thornton is perhaps the most difficult Brentwood mayoral candidate to label. You can say Mark Wilson is the marketing guy and Patrick Toohey is the accountant/ banker. But to simply call Thornton an attorney doesn’t quite do it.
Thornton was earning a Ph.D. in physics when he decided he didn’t want to live in a lab for the rest of his life. So he got a law degree and joined a big downtown firm, only to be wooed away to become an IT guy, the chief information officer for a telecom startup. When the flagging economy ended that, he went back to practicing law, but also helped run an insurance agency for a few years.
Navigating through so many different arenas has required him to be a versatile communicator. He said he’s also adept at conflict resolution, a skill he expects to use immediately if he’s elected mayor.
“The most important part of communicating,” he said, “is listening.”
From Duchesne to Rolla
Chris was born in Phoenix, where his father was a student at Arizona State University. After Dan Thornton earned a Ph.D. at Mizzou, the family settled in Mount Pleasant, Mich., where Chris attended elementary school.
The Thorntons moved to St. Charles in 1980 and Chris attended Duchesne, a private, Catholic high school. He played football for four years, lettered in the triple jump and “I was actually in a play, much to my mother’s surprise and joy.” He graduated in 1986 with a desire to do scientific research.
He did well enough in his first year at Rolla University that “my recollection is that I never paid tuition again.” He changed his major from engineering to physics.
“I’m a big fan of ‘Why?’” he said. “I tried almost every engineering major and I kept asking, ‘Why?’ The teachers would eventually say, ‘Look, that’s physics,’ and I said, ‘Oh, okay, then I want to learn physics.’”
So in 1990 he received a B.S. in physics with a minor in English literature. He loves Shakespeare.
“It was unusual,” he admitted. “In high school I was one of these well rounded people and when I went to Rolla there was a part of my brain I wasn’t using and I didn’t like it.”
From physics to law
Two years into pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Illinois, he realized that the life of a physicist didn’t suit his temperament.
“I was spending a lot of time in the lab with a couple of other people and nobody else,” he said. “I was looking at a very long academic career. It’s a calling, not just a job — you do it all your life. I had to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Ever curious, he attended a couple of classes with his roommate, who was in law school at Illinois. Three years later, in 1996, Thornton had a law degree.
He had already decided to move back to St. Louis after graduating. He wanted to be close to his mother, Jeanne, who was on a waiting list for a liver transplant. She ended up getting a transplant a month before he graduated.
“Her first trip out of the hospital was to my graduation,” he said.
From law firm to telecom
Thornton worked for three years at Husch & Eppenberger, a 400-employee law firm in downtown St. Louis. Meanwhile he had been following the successes of Bob Brooks. The St. Louis telecommunications entrepreneur had built two companies from nothing, selling one for $1 billion and the other for $3 billion. One day Chris was handling a traffic ticket for a priest who happened to be in Brooks’s parish.
“The next thing I know I’m sitting in Bob’s office talking to him about joining his new company,” said Thornton. “I was something like employee No. 30.”
As the chief information officer at Gabriel Communications, Chris worked 80 hours a week and loved it.
“We had $200 million in financing and we were doing everything in the world to get it running,” he said. “I was CIO because I was good at computers and I knew how to read software contracts and we were spending lots of money on software. There were 30 of us and we were all just trying to become millionaires. We figured that if we got lucky Bob would figure out a way to sell it and make us all rich.”
But that didn’t happen, as financing dried up when the bottom fell out of the technology market. Thornton left the company in 2001 and worked as a consultant to telecom companies. It’s also when he married his State Farm Insurance agent, Brentwood-based Pam Porchey.
“A good friend of mine works for State Farm and when I was moving back to St. Louis I called him up and asked if he knew a good State Farm agent,” said Chris. “He said, ‘I don’t know if she’s any good because she’s just starting, but she’s cute.’ And I said, ‘Well I’ll take that.’ He sent me to her old second-floor office at Brentwood Square. We dated for a period of time and we kept in touch and when I was working at Gabriel we started dating again.”
Pam Thornton has since moved her office to 9202 Litzsinger Road.
Chris and Pam quickly started a family. Rowan was born in 2003, Ian in 2004 and Lexi in 2006. To help out at State Farm, Chris quit consulting and got an insurance license.
“I was Pam’s right-hand man, which allowed her to be home more,” he said.
Moving to Brentwood in 2007
As soon as first-child Rowan reached school age in 2007 the Thorntons sold their house in Ellisville and bought one on Tilles Drive in Brentwood. She attended McGrath, as do Ian and Lexi.
“I was Catholic schools educated and Pam went to public schools, so there was a bit of a rift,” he said with a grin. “Enter the Brentwood School District to end the rift. It’s a public school that acts like a private school and that was just what we were looking for.”
Chris no longer helps out at State Farm. He started a legal practice in 2005, serving mostly small businesses.
Much like his education and career, his hobbies are varied. In his spare time you might find him playing poker with friends or riding his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. But snow skiing, he said, “is my absolute favorite thing in the world to do.”
Since moving here in 2007 he has become active in the community. He and a couple of dozen other fathers of McGrath students organize and run an annual afternoon field day for students. In addition, for years he has helped run weekly summer meets for the Brentwood Gators swim team.
“Over the years I became the guy who coordinates the computers,” he said. “This summer will be the first summer I don’t do it. Swim team was like 20 hours a week. There are about 300 kids at a typical meet and we have to make sure they’re all assigned to lanes and show up at the right place. Coordinating it takes an effort from March to July.”
Site plan through P&Z
Thornton began to get involved in Brentwood government when he and his wife purchased a property on which to build her new office. The plot is at 2301 S. Brentwood Blvd., across from Starbucks, where a gas station once stood.
“We developed a site plan and had to pass it through P and Z so I got to meet everybody on the planning and zoning commission and on the board of aldermen,” he said. “I got to go to some meetings and see how things work.”
The problem, he said, is that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has made them get soil samples not once but three times. Fuel was formerly stored underground there and soil contamination is at or slightly above the recommended levels, Thornton said.
“There is some contamination,” he said. “The question is what can you do about it. The only way to remove all contamination is to dig it out, which would cost about $500,000. Nobody thinks it’s worth spending that much. So what is the risk of leaving it? We’ve removed the source of the contamination and there’s not that much risk for leaving it the way it is. Everybody would like it to be clean, but at what cost and to whom?”
The last soil samples were taken in November 2014 and Thornton is encouraged that “for the first time in three-and-a-half years the state has not asked for more data. So I’m hopeful we’re on the track to getting approval.”
Following are excerpts from The Brentwood Spirit’s interview with Chris Thornton.
Why do you want to be mayor?
My kids are one of the biggest reasons I’m doing this. But also, what I’ve seen in the past four years is a lot of division and infighting. I really think that if the people of Brentwood allow their representatives to continue to pursue the sort of petty bickering I’ve seen, they’re not holding their representatives accountable to do what’s really important. We’ve got a $20 million budget; this isn’t Mayberry. We’re in a really important location in the county. We have a lot of issues to address and if we spend all our time bickering and sniping at one another and trying to one-up each other at meetings, we’re not going to get the important stuff done.
How would you be different?
I think that somebody who is brand new, who can say to each person, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I’m going to make you this promise: If you’re willing to conduct yourself in such-and-such a way, if you’re willing to be straightforward with me and I with you, let’s figure out how to get the important things up front in the agenda.’ I’ll be honest, I don’t have a real set agenda. My agenda is for us to work together on an agenda. Once we agree on what the important things are, let’s agree to work on them. I think only a person who is new to the situation can really do that. Because the other two people who are involved in this race have, to some extent, been a part of those things and may not be able to do it as effectively as I can.
How have you dealt with groups of people who disagree?
Thornton explained how, in the mid-1990s, he had been asked to temporarily manage the IT group at Husch & Eppenberger during a search for an IT manager, and to head up a committee to move the 400 employees from a DOS-based system to a Windows environment. He said it required being a liaison for three starkly different groups: the firm’s partners, who knew little about computers and relied heavily on their secretaries but were concerned with clients who had already moved to Windows; the secretaries, who resisted the idea of having to learn a new computer system; and the IT group, which wanted to change but had fought a losing battle with the secretaries for three years.
“Into this environment steps a second-year associate with physics and law degrees,” said Thornton. “So I managed the partners by setting their expectations — that we’re going to make a change but you’ve got to finance it. Everyone told me the partners would never finance it but they did. … I also sat down with every single group of secretaries in the firm and I said, ‘This is not the IT group telling you to switch to a new program. The clients are telling us we have to switch. A few refused to do it and they retired over it. But most people were smart and wanted to do the best job they could for their partners. Once they knew why, they got behind it. It was really just communication. It’s not dissimilar to what’s going on at Brentwood City Hall. It’s a bunch of different people with a lot of different interests, and nobody is listening or explaining why we’re doing something.”
Of course, employees have to change because they’re getting paid. Members of the board of aldermen are volunteers.
I’ve also been on boards of volunteer organizations. The swim club – every single parent that helps us out is a volunteer; they don’t have to come and if they do come they don’t have to do a good job. But they’re up there for a reason and you just have to figure out what it is. You get their commitment. Everybody in city government is sort of in a volunteer position to some extent. You have to figure out what’s motivating them, appeal to that motivation and make sure they’re getting out of it what they’re seeking.
Click here to see Thornton’s campaign website.
Thornton has a well developed sense of humor. Here are a few outtakes from our interview.
“Some of my neighbors are calling me Mayor Thornton. I tell them, ‘Until two weeks from now you’re going to have to put a McCheese after that Mayor.”
On the occupation of his father Dan, who recently retired after 26 years with the Federal Reserve Board:
“He gets invited to stuff and is relatively famous for an economist. I equate him to these B movie actors who you recognize but don’t really know.”
Joking about marrying the woman who is also his insurance agent:
“Yeah, she was my agent. I said I’ve got to lock in my guaranteed rates for a while.”
On being in the group of McGrath PTO dads who organize an annual field day for students:
“We call ourselves the band. We have band practice at O.B. Clark’s.”