D.C.'s Delegate With a Cause
For district, Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton wants stronger say, spending power
WASHINGTON — WHEN Eleanor Holmes Norton was 12 years old, she remembers activist Mary Church Terrell picketing in front of Hecht's department store here in Washington.
The year was 1949, and black people could try on and buy clothes there, but they weren't allowed to use the rest room.
At the time, no one knew where such protests against segregation would lead. But in hindsight, the progression is clear: first, the small acts of defiance, then the prayer marches and the sit-ins and the galvanizing influence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and eventually a full-fledged civil rights movement.
Ms. Norton - lawyer, professor, corporate board member, and now the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives - projects that same sense of destiny about her cause: statehood for D.C., including full voting representation in the House and Senate and the right of the D.C. government to spend its money without federal interference.
Don't be fooled by the apparent nonchalance Washington residents show toward their "second-class status," she says. They are angry. When Congress debated war in the Persian Gulf, Norton spoke out against it from the House floor. But she could not vote - even though D.C. sent more soldiers to the Gulf, per capita, than most states.
A movement, she said in a Monitor interview, is "a coming together, a crescendo that needs a set of ingredients to get together in the same place."
"Not all of them are in place yet" for D.C. statehood, says the fourth-generation Washingtonian. "One of them that is in place is the democracy that is sweeping the world. I mean, the hypocrisy of our country to go to the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc and say, 'No, no - no halfway democracy!' "
Another ingredient is D.C.'s highly educated white-collar black community. "This is probably the most conscious black community in the United States," she says.
What Norton does not say is that she herself appears to be one of the "ingredients" needed to build up the statehood movement.
After a rocky entrance into Congress in January 1991, she has earned the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle - including the strongest opponents of statehood. And for the first time ever, D.C. statehood legislation is headed for its first vote on the House floor ever.
Norton almost didn't make it to Congress at all. On the eve of the 1990 primary, it was revealed that she and her husband had not paid their federal income taxes for most of the 1980s. Her husband took the blame, and Norton squeaked by in the primary. She beat her Republican opponent easily, but her marriage has ended.
When Norton entered Congress, members held her at arm's length. But she learned very quickly how things are done - not through loud floor speeches, but through hard work behind the scenes.
NE early victory, achieved with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, was to get a $100 million emergency payment from the federal government to stem the city's budget crisis.
"She's much brighter than most of the people around here," says Rep. Dana T. Rohrabacher (R) of California, a member of the House Committee on the District of Columbia and opponent of statehood.
"When you're just chatting with her, off the record, she's very friendly, not antagonistic."
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia, the committee's ranking minority member and another statehood opponent, calls her "very conscientious." "She's working harder at it than her predecessor," he adds.
At a meeting March 26 of a committee panel to hammer out the statehood legislation, committee chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D) of California essentially stated that it was the arrival of Norton that caused him to change his tactics on statehood legislation. For years, he opposed bringing legislation to the floor, for fear it would lose and set the movement back.
"That was another day and another time, with earlier representation," Mr. Dellums said.
Norton is eager for the floor vote. "I think [it] will have an anticipatory effect, a catalytic effect," she says.
The vote is expected this spring or summer. Even if the bill loses, which may well happen, it will put the issue on the map, say advocates. And if a Democrat is elected president, all the bill will need is a simple majority in both houses to become law. President Bush has promised a veto, but both Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown say they support statehood.
Norton has also made a big hit with district voters.
Normally one to operate in the global arena, she has set her sights on the most parochial of issues and is likely to turn up on the evening news dedicating new lights in a city park or holding a town meeting. A February Washington Post poll put her approval rating at 70 percent.
Other D.C.-related matters in Congress have kept her busy. She strongly opposes legislation to introduce the death penalty in the district. And she is infuriated by efforts to overturn a D.C. referendum that would hold manufacturers of assault weapons liable for how they are used.
Another bill pending is one that would allow the district to spend that part of the budget it raises itself without federal interference.
The administration traditionally uses the D.C. budget to further its own agenda - such as preventing the district from using local tax money to fund abortions for poor women.
But that's not the worst of it, says Norton.
"Once we pass our budget, then it has to go to some green- eye-shade GS-14 to see what they like or don't like - that's at the OMB [Office of Management and Budget]," she complains.
"Then to the President, then to the Senate, then to the House. Which means we cannot use our budget for months."