Norm Neverson is worried that his meeting is about to fall apart. The room he thought he’d reserved for the 72 members of his Democratic State Committee (DSC) is occupied, and he’s had to arrange for an alternative, on the top floor of One Judiciary Square. Neverson hasn’t seen the room yet, but it doesn’t faze him. He’s an optimist. He assures the grumbling crowd that the new venue will be “beautiful.”
When DSC members get to the room, they discover that it is actually pretty nice: spacious, well-lit, and quiet, with a striking view of the U.S. Capitol. It just doesn’t have any chairs. Although not all of the DSC members are present tonight, there is a large contingent of onlookers. A chairless event isn’t going to cut it. Neverson sends people out to scour the area for seats, and they come back with maybe 10. That, he figures, will have to do.
Before the standing-room-only crowd, Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the evening’s central piece of business: his bill to make the D.C. presidential primary the first in the nation. For years, the District’s primary has fallen in the spring, long after the nominees for both major parties have been decided. Playing virtually no role in selecting presidents has long been just another insult to D.C. voters, who have no stake in the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate. Vaulting the primary ahead of New Hampshire’s, argues Evans, would provide free national advertising for the District’s disenfranchisement.
Evans has every reason to expect an accommodating crowd at the DSC. After all, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and all 13 councilmembers support the primary-jumping legislation. And Neverson owes his position as DSC chair to Williams.
Shortly after Evans begins his spiel, a cop shows up. The officer doesn’t care that many of the city’s leading Democratic politicians are in the room; it’s late, he says, and the floor is supposed to be clear. He politely tells a few people that they have to leave. They politely ignore him. So he threatens to have everyone arrested.
It goes downhill from there.
The discussion devolves into a classic DSC imbroglio. Speakers interrupt each other regularly, proving the maxim that no committee should be made up of 72 ankle-biting politicos. Two women exchange dirty looks and suddenly explode, trading “fuck you”s that can be heard from across the room. Everyone is yelling. Though the cop has backed off from his initial threats, it starts looking like a good idea to have him around, just in case.
After an hour or so, Neverson calls the vote. As the ayes and nays are shouted out, it’s clear that the committee is pretty evenly splita factor that makes Neverson’s vote critical. When his name is called, Neverson abstains.
At the end of the process, Neverson gets another chance to take a position. Again, he abstains, to the consternation of many committee members. When the smoke clears, Evans’ proposal falls two votes short. Neverson later explains that he declined to vote because he didn’t understand the issue.
A while back, local pundits would have read all sorts of implications into Neverson’s fence-sitting. Why would Neverson cross Williams, the guy who lobbied so hard for him to chair the DSC? Did this reflect a new rift between the mayor and his supporters out in the neighborhoods? Did it mark the end of a campaign to make the DSC a political force?
Almost three years after Neverson seized the reins of the DSC, however, no one is asking any meaningful questions about the man or his committee. Neverson puts relationships ahead of convictions, and his allegiances are as hard to diagram as the DSC’s power structure. He agonizes not over the issues, but over how to remain faithful to his many friends. At the end of the day, he’d rather shake the hands and slap the backs of everyone in the room than risk eliciting scowls from committee members. It’s no wonder, then, that the few stances that Neverson does profess are well-nigh unassailable, such as racial diversity and, well, racial tolerance.
And his relatively content-free politics make Neverson a perfect match for the city’s leading Democratic Party organ. With no congressional representatives or senators, or even a state house, there are few elective offices for ambitious pols in this nearly 80 percent Democratic town. So sitting officeholders like to stay put. There was a reason that Marion S. Barry Jr. was known as “mayor for life.” Councilmembers, for their part, generally don’t leave office until the constituents whom they’ve grown tired of serving drag them away.
This political class has no interest in a vibrant DSC that grooms young, motivated talent bent on careers in local politics. The longer Neverson keeps the committee mumbling and bumbling toward irrelevance, the better.
Neverson has many incarnations. He often compares himself to Machiavelli’s prince, loved by the masses but hated by rivals. He has four different business cards, including one that identifies him as an “ambassador”; many of his friends and acquaintances refer to him simply as “Dr. Neverson”which Neverson says is the result of a mix-up years ago.
Ultimately, however, Neverson is a showman, relying on a set of stage skills to pay the bills. His position as chair of the DSC is unpaid, so he makes ends meet largely with hourlong talks on racial diversity, which run from $1,000 to $2,500 a pop.
Around lunchtime one Friday, Neverson has arrived at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, at 10th and U Streets NW, to provide “diversity training” to a group of about 20 aspiring construction workers. He looks dapper in his double-breasted suit, and he has tucked an ornamental handkerchief in his pocket.
After welcoming his audience, Neverson, standing in front of a flip board, starts talking, in vaguely Dominican-accented Spanish, to a Hispanic man named David; when he finishes, he switches back to English and smiles out at the crowd. “I’m gonna make you jump out of your chair,” he says. Motioning with his finger like a preacher, he launches into a semantic indictment of the culture, imploring the audience not to use the word “minority.” “On a piano,” he says, “you can only go so high with minor keys. ‘Minor…’he pauses for dramatic effect# ‘…minority.’ The word denotes less than a whole.”
Neverson then goes into a discussion of The Lone Ranger. “Tonto called the Lone Ranger ‘Kemo Sabe,’ right?” he says. “In Spanish, ‘Kemo Sabe’ means ‘he who knows,’ and of course the Lone Ranger was white. The person of color was called Tonto, which, in Spanish, means ‘someone who is stupid.’” David nods, as does the crowd, while Neverson wipes the sweat from his brow. Later, he tells them that African-American relationships are predicated on “man-to-man relationships,” whereas white relationships are “man-to-object.” To illustrate, he walks up to a black man in the crowd and shakes his hand.
“The greatest ethic for African-Americans is predicated on mutual respect,” he says. The audience members nod, though they look confused. Many of them don’t seem entirely sure what Neverson has said. Neverson smiles: “I just want to be your big brother.”
At this point, Neverson knows the name of everyone in the room, and he starts speaking to people directly. He talks to Sister Christine, then turns to Brother Alfonso; next, he looks over at Sister Angela and asks, “How you doin’, girl?”
“The system is trying to subjugate us,” Neverson says. “It uses certain things to divide us. But now that you realize the truth, I expect you to do better. Today is the beginning of your new life.” He looks out at the audience, sweat glistening on his forehead. The people give him a standing ovation.
Neverson got his first lessons in diversity and tolerance at George Washington University, where he was an All-American defensive end, as well as the school’s first black athletic recruit. An academic and athletic star at Roosevelt High School, he attended GW with many people who would become prominent local figures, including former D.C. councilmember John Ray, WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin, and D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
Neverson says there were only about 10 black students enrolled at GW when he arrived on campus in 1963, out of roughly 4,500 undergraduates. He admits that his race quickly became an issue. At a time when interracial dating was still a serious taboo, Neverson sometimes took out white women.
When he brought a light-skinned black woman to the homecoming ball, his teammates, thinking that Neverson’s date was white, became upset. The following day there was a note under the door of his dorm room asking him to see his football coach. As Neverson tells it, the coach told him, “We have to be extremely careful in how we handle our social life,” and said Neverson didn’t have to be a part of all the activities taking place at the university. Though he never referred to the dance directly, Neverson says, the coach’s message was clear: Young black men like Neverson had best stay away from the white women on campus.
Neverson didn’t listen, and resentment among his teammates began to spread. One teammate, a white student from Arkansas, saw Neverson at a dance and made it known that “he was disturbed that niggers were dancing with white girls,” according to Neverson. Neverson and a black teammate, Gary Lyle, confronted the student in his room. The Arkansan defended himself, saying that he liked Neverson, but that where he grew up, “hugging a colored lady would get you beat for two days.” Neverson says he told the student that he understood, but that he wasn’t in Arkansas anymore. Furthermore, he said, if the student ever said anything like that again, he’d beat his ass and send him home.
Football gave Neverson the confidence he needed to get by in a white-dominated environment, and he soon began branching out. He joined the NAACP and also pledged at TEP, a Jewish fraternity that was one of the few on campus that was integrated. Other black students followed. According to Plotkin, TEP soon had an intramural basketball team that was better than the all-white team GW put forward for intercollegiate competition. “It was four black guys and one white Jewish guy,” says Plotkin, laughing. “And they were good.”
Neverson would play football against a number of nonintegrated schools during his tenure at GW, including Furman University, Mississippi State University, and the Citadel. He would also do well academically, going on to earn a master’s degree in international affairs. After he left school, Neverson was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, but he decided to turn down the Packers’ offer and take a teaching job instead. The Vietnam War was raging, and while teachers got draft deferments, football players did not. Neverson ultimately taught social studies at Coolidge High School from 1967 to 1972a job he got by working the connections he had built up at GW.
He had come a long way. Neverson grew up in Farmville, Va., a rural, prototypically Southern town a few hours from D.C. Life there wasn’t easy: Neverson’s grandmother, who ran the household, had little money, and her house had no electricity or indoor plumbing. She couldn’t afford shoes or much clothing for Neverson and his siblings, so they went to school only two or three days a week. The children spent the rest of their time chopping wood to supplement the family’s income.
Virginia’s schools were still segregated in the ’50s, and Neverson spent four years at the all-black Mercy Seat School, a dilapidated three-room shack. Among his duties were washing the windows, oiling the floors, and keeping the outhouse clean. In fifth grade, Neverson went to the former R.R. Moton School, which had been built to house 180 students. At one point, it had 450, and fed-up students held a strike to protest “separate and very unequal classroom conditions.” The strike gave rise to a lawsuit that was eventually bundled in with the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which desegregated schools nationwide.
The decision didn’t help Neverson. Upon learning of the ruling, Virginia undertook a policy of self-described “massive resistance” to court-ordered desegregation, and in 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors abolished public education. The county used public money to send white children to private schools, and for five years African-American students were deprived of schooling and told to fend for themselves.
Neverson was 13 at the time. He was used to the racism in Farmville, but he hadn’t really been stung by it. “We were allowed to play with the white girls, but we knew we weren’t supposed to touch them,” he says. Neverson used to bring notes from his grandmother into the white-run general store down the street, asking for “salty fish, pinto beans, flour, and lard.” The owners would always give the items to him on credit, even though it sometimes took years for his grandmother to pay them back fully.
“We were all real close,” says Frances Swalley, the daughter of the previous owners, in a distinctive Farmville drawl. She now runs the store and speaks fondly of the Neverson family. “The blacks,” she says, “were our friends and our neighbors growing up.”
But Neverson knew that he had to get out of Farmville. On Aug. 18, 1959, he set out for D.C. on foot, against his grandmother’s wishes. Although he got a few rides along the way, he had to walk for much of the 180-mile journey. He got to his aunt’s house in Brightwood about 18 hours after he left home. Arriving unannounced, Neverson explained to his aunt that he wanted to live with her so he could go to school. She looked him over and took him in.
Over the years, the DSC has gained fame as the place where old politicos who’ve failed to reach the D.C. council go to die. If so, Neverson should be designated chair emeritus.
Here are the highlights of Neverson’s political past:
•In the early ’70s, as an ambitious young teacher, he was defeated as a candidate for the District school board. Around the same time, a controversy over ballot-stuffing prevented Neverson, a Republican at the time, from attending the 1972 GOP convention.
•Two years later, he joined a field of 16 candidates to run for D.C. Council in Ward 4a race in which he came in third.
•He ran for Ward 4 councilmember again in 1979, coming in second to Charlene Drew Jarvis. Upon learning of his loss, Neverson filed a petition alleging that Jarvis had not lived in the District for a full year prior to the election, as required by D.C. law. The petition failed.
•As president of the Ward 4 Democrats in the early ’80s, Neverson had to beat back an effort to oust him by a coalition alleging “flagrant violations” of bylaws on his part.
•In 1984, he orchestrated one of the shortest-lived council campaigns in home-rule history. Having come close in 1979, Neverson was regarded as a serious contender. One day into the campaign, though, the Washington Post alleged that Neverson had “testified…#in a workers compensation case that he is disabled and destitute, and, according to sources, that he is running for city council primarily to become better known so he can attract a job offer.” The story went on to detail allegations by Xerox, his employer from 1972 to 1982, that Neverson’s claims of having a job-related “foot deformity” were entirely bogus, as well as Neverson’s admission that he had “misrepresented employment information to a credit agency.” Neverson maintains that he made “no mistake.” The incident, however, effectively kept him from seeking political office for the next 15 years.
Neverson’s repeated political failures didn’t sidetrack him from other pursuits. By the late ’70s, Neverson had settled in with his young wife, the former Angela Peterson, whom he’d met while working at Xerox, and the couple went about raising their two children, Grea and Carl. Neverson’s courtship had been blunt: During one of his first conversations with Peterson, he had asked if she was looking for a husband. When she said she wasn’t sure, Neverson said, “Look, if you’re [23 years] old and you’re still living at home, you’re looking for one, OK? So do me a favor: Let’s talk about it sometime soon.” They were engaged a few months later.
In 1998, politics once again beckoned. Then-Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams was looking into a mayoral run, and he asked Neverson to help out in Ward 4. Neverson did, Williams won, and the two became close political allies.
At rallies, Neverson added a touch of big-city politicking to an often sleepy scene. Whenever his patron entered a meeting or reception, Neverson, in grandstanding fashion, took to booming “Tooo-neee!” “Tooo-neee” would help Neverson to victory against incumbent Ronnie Edwards for the chair of the Ward 4 Democrats organization. The move was critical for Neverson, because the Ward 4 chair gets a birth on the DSC, which Neverson intended to take over. Once again, however, controversy followed Neverson: Edwards and others accused him of voter fraud and harassment, and he was not seated for six months.
His supporters, many of whom have known Neverson for years, say the scandals are the work of jealous political rivals.
“Norm is unbelievable,” says Frank Wilds, the chair of the Ward 5 Democrats. “He’s the kind of guy who can get people motivated about something. He cares about people, and I know if I need him, he’s going to be there for me. I just think very highly of him.”
Gwendolyn Hemphill, who recently stepped down as the state committee’s executive director after an investigation into her practices with the Washington Teachers Union, also has kind words for Neverson.
“He really pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and I admire him for it,” says Hemphill. “He’s very intelligent, and he has a wonderful way about him. He’s also one of the most trustworthy and loyal people you’ll ever meet.”
Neverson has refused to abandon Hemphill, despite her alleged involvement in the well-publicized financial misdeeds of the union, where she worked as executive assistant to the president.
Williams’ recent assessment of Neverson was somewhat muted. “Neverson’s the party chair, and we want to work with the party chair,” he says.
But despite their often public disagreements, Neverson tirelessly defends Williams, whose own tenure has been pockmarked by various ethical and management lapses. “I don’t turn my back on my friends,” says Neverson.
He does, however, go after his enemies. After the Edwards incident, Neverson vowed to target the 10 committee members who had opposed his being seated. When they ran for re-election in 2000, not one of them secured another term, according to Neverson. With the support of Mayor Williams and his “Action Democrats” coalition, Neverson also defeated Edwards ally Paula Nickens in a battle for the chair of the DSC.
Neverson and his cohorts, who had been hand-picked by the mayor’s office, were supposed to bring some stability to the DSC, which had historically been fraught with infighting. But his tenure has been rocky, with committee members chafing against what they call Neverson’s autocratic style and unwillingness to do what it takes to make the body more relevant. They argue that he is more interested in rewarding his friends and building relationships than doing the hard work needed to make the committee run more smoothly.
“The institution of the Democratic State Committee has been diluted under his leadership,” says Barbara Lett Simmons, the D.C. party’s national committeewoman. “[Neverson] would rather engage in phony, polysyllabic forms of communication than allow an issue to be discussed on the floor. Nothing of substance ever gets done.”
When Neverson’s detractors refer to his “substance-free” reign, they’re indirectly citing his personal style. The chair’s politics are simple: He likes to touch people. He’ll rub your forearm as you sit next to him, or come up from behind and place his huge hands squarely on your shoulders; if he hasn’t seen you for a while, he’ll hug you and let one arm linger around your body, holding you close. Everybody gets a business card, and everybody has to promise to call.
Neverson is also inclusive: He calls everyone “brother” or “sister,” regardless of race or relationship, and offers a warm, almost passionate greeting to everyone he meets. His voice is big and booming, his diction precise and lyrical. He rattles off phone numbers effortlessly, and he remembers the names of people he hasn’t seen in 20 years. He’ll refer to a good friend as “the greatest human being on the planet.” He’s not afraid to go to great lengths to show his affection.
“He’s the only straight man I know,” says John Ralls, Evans’ chief of staff, “who’ll kiss me on the lips.”
When DSC member Philip Pannell ran against Neverson for the chair of the party in 2002, Pannell released a seven-page platform detailing his goals and positions; Neverson did not release a platform at all, but instead focused instead on strengthening his allegiances on the committee. Neverson ultimately eked out a victory.
Some suggest that the nature of the DSC itself has made it nearly impossible for him to be a success. In a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1, the traditional role of a state committeeto energize party members to go to the polls and beat opposition-party candidatesis significantly undermined by the weakness of the opposition.
“The D.C. Dems have a much harder time because this is such a one-party town,” says MaryEva Candon, who is on both the Democratic State and National Committees. “It’s tough to define a role.”
One high-ranking city official, however, details a laundry list of issues the party should be addressing, among them supporting voter registration, endorsing and raising money for candidates in the primaries, and providing voter education. When the DSC tried to hold a candidates’ forum last year, before the mayoral election, only fringe candidate Faith showed up, and Neverson called off the event before giving her a chance to speak. The party’s two major fundraisers last year actually lost money, and, in the 2002 primary, less than 33 percent of the city’s Democrats voteda paltry percentage in a year when the incumbent mayor, Williams, seemed vulnerable after a highly publicized campaign scandals.
“Elected officials know they only have to pay lip service to the state committee,” says the official.
While part of the blame lies with Neverson, the DSC has long been hobbled by the incompetence, aggression, and apathy of some of its members. Some seem perpetually combative; others sit quietly, seemingly uninterested in whatever insignificant issues are on the table. One member hasn’t attended a meeting in more than two years. At a June 2001 meeting, a free-for-all erupted in which members screamed and hurled invective at one another and a scuffle broke out.
There have been concerted movements among elected officials to put a group more willing to work together on the committee, but many fear that a state committee built from above would simply rubber-stamp decisions made by those in power.
As it stands, the committee does nothing and looks bad in the process. Neverson seems to realize that the DSC is doomed to continue running in place, and so, instead of pushing for reform, he falls back on his smile and his swagger, stays loyal to his friends, and fights to remain just slightly above the fray.
Neverson was an angry football player, the kind of guy, he says, who liked to knock people’s teeth out. But it wasn’t his first love: Neverson had dreamed of being a baseball player, standing on the freshly cut grass and laughing with his teammates. And that attitude really hasn’t changed. Today, the former linebacker would rather disarm his adversaries with a handshake than square off with them in battle.
“Norm is a charming, gregarious, bighearted person,” says Plotkin. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. But to some extent, he’s been a victim of where he grew up. He’s not a sellout, but, as an African-American in this city, he had to learn to play the game. So he always takes the middle ground, and he always holds back, and sometimes it makes him look weak and without principle. He just wants everyone to like him. He’s not interested in being out there or alone.”
Pannell, who has known Neverson since 1975, thinks that attitude has hurt the party.
“I think [Neverson] is a great guy,” says Pannell. “He knows how to make people feel good in his presence, and he’ll charm you to death. But he won’t crack the whip and do what it takes to make people on the committee more responsible, because he doesn’t want to alienate anyone.”
Neverson is proud of his malleability and says he would have voted for the “three-fifths compromise,” the constitutional clause decreeing that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person, because “to produce a republic you have to make sacrifices.” He argues that, as a politician, he must put his own convictions aside.
“As chair of the party, I have to do what is best for the party,” he says. “Sometimes it can be frustrating.”
Nowhere was that more apparent than at the March 6 meeting of the D.C. chapter of the NAACP. Neverson had come to represent the Democratic Party’s position regarding Evans’ bill to move the D.C. primary. Sean Tenner, the white, 25-year-old executive director of the D.C. Democracy Fund, had come to the meeting to speak in favor of the proposal, and he squared off with Neverson.
Neverson discussed his support for statehood and voting rights, and then outlined why moving the primary was a bad idea: It would hurt the national party, he said, because it would upend the party’s hallowed primary schedule. Collateral damage, he continued, would come in the form of national exposure of D.C.’s traditionally low voter turnout, which would embarrass the city.
Tenner, speaking after Neverson, responded with arguments in favor of the bill. It was an awkward moment for Neverson, who was essentially appearing before the NAACP to take a position against a movement designed to bring voting rights to the city’s largely black electorate.
“There was a great obfuscation about what was evolving,” says Neverson, spinning his appearance in his typically obfuscating way. “I was simply there to explain the Democratic Party’s position.”
The primary debate showcased Neverson at his worst. Because his friends had lined up on both sides of the issue, Neverson sounded compromised every time he spoke up about it.
A different Neverson appears when all his friends agree on an issue. That was the backdrop on April 1, when Neverson held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court. It was the first day of arguments in the landmark University of Michigan Law School affirmative-action case, and Neverson stuck out in the crowd of thousands of young protesters, who chanted and marched throughout the gray, rainy morning. Strangers came up and asked to take their picture with Neverson, and a crowd slowly began forming a circle around him. Neverson had not brought a bullhorn, like many of the protesters around him; he didn’t really need it.
He spoke to the crowd as Ward 5’s Wilds held an umbrella over his head.
“We say today we must propagate and promulgate affirmative action,” Neverson bellowed into the steadily increasing rain, toward the end of his remarks. “Thank you and we love you!”
The crowd cheered. Neverson introduced Lorraine Miller, the president of the D.C. NAACP, who had overseen the meeting where he had debated Tenner the week before. As she spoke about racism, Neverson chimed in at the top of his lungs. “Yes, yes, yes!” he said, drawing out each word. “Hey, hey, hey!”
Neverson introduced a few more of his allies. He then took over again.
“We must continue to fight,” he shouted, his hand extending into the air. “We must, we must, we must!” Radio reporters, including one from the BBC, came over to interview him, positioning their big microphones in front of his face. Strangers continued to photograph Neverson once the reporters left, and he insisted that his friends be in the pictures with him. Then he put his arms around his allies and smiled for the cameras. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.