A smile flickers on U.S. Rep. James P. Moran’s face as his opening statement on D.C. financial affairs thunders in the cavernous recesses of the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room. It’s not that Moran thinks he’s surprising anyone at the May 22 subcommittee hearing by trashing the Clinton administration’s rescue package for the District. Or by opposing another measure to slash federal taxes for D.C. residents. Moran’s sheepishness more likely stems from the fact that he’s tweaking the panel’s most volatile member.
“I am concerned…that these approaches will become the fiscal equivalent of Michael Jackson’s moonwalking: They will give the impression that the District is moving forward, while in fact it is standing still,” the four-term Democrat from Alexandria says, trampling on the turf of subcommittee colleague Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
As Moran finishes, the District’s elected delegate to the House of Representatives, perched a few seats away, flips on her microphone switch. “Since the gentleman chose to attack my bill…,” she begins.
Just as Norton fires, Rep. Tom Davis, the panel’s good-natured chairman, interrupts to remind her she shouldn’t debate a colleague’s opening remarks. He’s too late.
“The purpose of the federal tax cut is not to lower taxesit’s to give people an incentive for remaining in the District,” Norton snaps. “It is as well, sir, an alternative to the commuter tax that you and other members have unjustly denied the people of the District of Columbia, who subsidize your much more affluent constituency with our services. So you have your nerve attacking us for trying to get what we deserve. We are looking for alternatives. I am certainly willing to put a commuter-tax bill in, because that is definitely what we deserve.”
It’s a hellacious comeback, but Norton is just getting started. She rumbles on into her standard don’t-tread-on-D.C. spiel.
“We have no representation in the Senate of the United States, as you do, and we do not have complete representation here, and yet the residents of the District of Columbia, sir, are second per capita in federal income taxes,” she says. “We make no apologies for seeking a reduction in our income taxes, particularly when four territories which have full home rule pay no taxes whatsoever.”
Norton’s bare-knuckled offensive doesn’t raise many eyebrows, even against the stuffy backdrop of a congressional hearing. Most who witness it today are already familiar with what WAMU-FM political commentator Mark Plotkin calls the “wild-woman routine.”
“We don’t have many defenders and people who will go off the handle,” says Plotkin.
Norton’s scrappy nature explains in part why she’s the city’s most popular elected official. She represents a city whose residents are routinely insulted by both Congress and by the city’s legendarily incompetent officials. So when the delegate upbraids Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials for mismanaging city resources and tolerating substandard services, she serves as the megaphone for the outrage of her 543,000 constituents. And when she shouts at representatives like Moran, she becomes the conduit for the outrage of a majority-black population weary of domination by white outsiders.
“My view is, ‘Thank God for Eleanor,’” says Greg Rhett, a Marshall Heights community activist. “Because if it wasn’t for her, I’d be giving my tax dollars to [Prince George’s County Executive] Wayne Curry, like everyone else.”
But when Norton, 60, turns off the microphone and heads into the back rooms of Capitol Hillwhere the deals are madeshe morphs from wild woman into negotiator, one with no leverage over her colleagues. The shouts and tirades turn into supplications and nods. She skips all the personal bombast about the city’s third-class political standing and focuses instead on whatever concessions she can wring from Republican lawmakers, who will decide just how much help the federal government will give the city to surmount its financial and social crises.
A generous D.C. recovery package did not seem far-fetched earlier this year. Both the White House and the Republican congressional leadership, after all, have placed the District on their bipartisan list of five priority issues. However, the grandiose proclamations of leaders like Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott lost some steam when the price tag for saving the city became clear. Norton routinely stomps into their offices in a campaign to hold them to their word. At the end of the day, though, her lack of juice is crippling: Norton’s adversaries have the right to vote on the floor; she doesn’t.
The results clearly reflect the District’sand by extension, Norton’spowerlessness. Last week, the House government oversight subcommittee on the District came forward with a bill that included substantial Medicaid assistance, pension relief, and help for D.C.’s corrections burden; it also contained a half-billion-dollar cut in the federal payment to the District.
Norton’s objections about the attack on the federal payment were all but forgotten as Davis’ bill hit the street, even though the package clearly fails to address the long-term revenue needs of the city. But when the plan was announced, the wild woman was nowhere in sight. The delegate’s response was reasoned and measured in the extreme. The endgame was clear: She could continue to throw rocks or get on board. She got on board.
Expectations were running a lot higher during a mid-May shindig at the Hart Senate Office Building. As the hearing room begins to fill up with D.C. residents, a few men decked out in suits slowly travel down the side and middle aisles, reaching out to grab hands, schmooze, and flash their practiced smiles. Republican Sens. Connie Mack and Sam Brownback are not fishing for votes, howeverD.C. residents couldn’t cast a vote for senator even if they wanted to.
The event for which Mack, Brownback, and their Democratic colleague Sen. Joe Lieberman have assembled revolves around the only person on the Hill whom D.C. residents can call their ownNorton. She is throwing a coming-out party for the Senate version of her bill to slash federal taxes for D.C. residents.
“This bill has not been introduced in the House and the Senate simply to give folks some money,” Norton tells the audience. “It has a very serious purpose: to stop [the] lethal flight [of the middle class] from the District of Columbia.”
While it’s no small coup to have Mack, Brownback, and Lieberman praising her bill, the real treat occurs halfway into the event, as Lott pops in. He all but gushes about Norton’s proposal: “This is something that can work in the District of Columbia and then…work all across America,” Lott says. “Then I’m going to say to y’all, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this in Mississippi.’”
No mystery there. Republicans adore income-tax cuts. Seldom, though, do they have a black, liberal, female, urban lawmaker as their secret weapon. Brownback, while glad-handing members of the audience earlier, even tells a D.C. resident questioning the bill, “Well, this is Delegate Norton’s proposal, you know.”
Norton has met her Republican counterparts halfway. Ever since the GOP barrelled into town after the 1994 elections, Norton has crafted friendships with the city’s newly empowered congressional overseers. The tack has given the delegate a prominent seat for the negotiations on Davis’ attempt to brew a GOP version of Clinton’s D.C. rescue plan and on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer’s own tax-cut proposal for District residents.
“She’s a very intelligent woman who has a point of view that we need to hear…before we make a decision,” says Davis. “She’s got leverage, because if you’re trying to help the city, it helps to have the city’s elected representative on board. It doesn’t help you to have the elected representative of the city out there bashing us….If you’ve got Eleanor on board, you don’t worry about the mayor and council.”
To most of the federales who oversee D.C., Norton is the District. To a great extent, the city’s fortunes have risen and fallen on the bets she has made on its behalf. Not all of them have worked out; Norton has consorted enough with congressional Republicans to alienate her fellow Democrats in the White House. The intraparty enmity came into public view last year, when Norton introduced her tax plan. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta dismissed the idea out of hand as preferential treatment for the District, and Norton retaliated with some choice words on the city’s unique predicament. It came as no surprise, then, that the White House excluded Norton from deliberations on its District rescue plan.
Norton was left to fume while her fellow party members in the Clinton administration came up with their version of a rescue plan. And what popped out seemed more like tough medicine than tough love. Norton is at a loss to explain why Clinton has exacted such a dear price for federal assistance. “He was all over the District; then he retreated,” Norton says about the president. “I don’t know if historians will hypothesize why he did that and whyÉnow he’s all over the place again. It ill behooves me to try to describe his motives.”
In other cities, Norton’s alliance with congressional Republicans would be an enormous liability, come election time. Stalwarts within her party would hammer her for consorting with their adversaries, and Republican opponents would dismiss her as a phony. Her ability to cross party lines with impunity is a function of the District’s one-party status, where adopting the Democratic label means only that you want to get electednot that you ascribe to a certain set of beliefs and policies.
Of course, Norton’s goal in the current session of Congress is by nature nonideological: She wants to bring home both a D.C. tax break and some version of Clinton’s federal bailout. And her Republican buddies know she’s ready to negotiate.
On a short walk from a hearing to her Longworth Building offices, Norton pauses long enough to reflect on what brought her to this place and this debate. As an adolescent, she learned early on that you didn’t have to settle for how things were.
“Hearing the afternoon chime ring that told us that the principal was going to come on the address system,” she says, framing the memory from her junior year of high school as she rushes to a scheduled appointment. “He said, ‘The schools where you now sit have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States.’ Nobody expected the Supreme Court to do that. I did not expect segregation ever to end.”
That moment, Norton says, stoked the activism that would eventually land her in the midst of civil rights sit-ins, demonstrations, speeches, and several long summers deep in the Mississippi Delta.
“She, myself, and Frank Smith worked together in voter registration mobilization in Greenwood, Miss., on Freedom Day in 1963,” says Lawrence Guyot, a D.C. political activist who crossed paths often with Norton during the civil rights movement. “We brought hundreds of people in to register into Greenwood. That was fraught with danger, and tension, and stress, and she performed superbly,” he adds. While doing her part to dismantle institutional racism, Norton managed to earn a law degree and a master’s in American Studies from Yale University.
D.C. financial control board member Joyce Ladner shared an apartment with Norton in the summer of 1963 in New York, where Norton was organizing civil rights protests. “There are two sides to Eleanor,” says Ladner. “One is the side that’s no-nonsense and serious-minded all the timeand tough. The other side of her is warm, outgoing, loves-to-have-a-good-time party person.”
Norton’s civil rights credentials earned her a post as head of the New York City human rights commission and, under President Carter, as chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She stayed in D.C. after that appointment and took a position teaching law at Georgetown University, which she kept through the late-1980s. Norton also dabbled in local politics as an adviser on Barry’s 1982 transition team after he won re-election.
Norton made the leap from activist to player in 1990, after several of her friends talked her into vying for the seat vacated by Delegate Walter Fauntroy, who had been the District’s federal representative ever since Congress had created the post in 1971. In the crucial Democratic primary for the delegate’s seat, Norton was in a tight race against longtime At-Large Councilmember Betty Ann Kane. A news leak just before the September vote revealed that Norton’s household had not filed D.C. income tax returns between 1982 and 1989, and Norton’s explanations for the lapse satisfied only her supporters. Still, her persistent campaigning and background as civil rights warrior propelled her to a 7,600-vote win. Her former husband, Ed Norton, whom she divorced in 1992, eventually took the blame for the couple’s seven-year tax holiday, which he settled by sending nearly $90,000 to the District government.
Norton arrived in Congress in 1991 to find, in the words of a congressional staffer around at the time, “the perception…that she was a tax evader. People thought she was well educated and had to have known.”
Instead of retreating into the woodwork, Norton got out front and stayed there, pulling down an extra $100 million for the D.C. government in her first year. Two years later, she won the rightpreviously reserved for senatorsto recommend nominees to the U.S. District Court and U.S. Attorney’s office for the District. She also engineered a change in House rules to allow the five congressional delegatesherself and the four from U.S. territoriesto vote in the powerful Committee of the Whole, which votes on legislation prior to the final roll call.
Her most notable achievement remains forcing a vote on D.C. statehood at the end of the 1993 session. While the measure failed, her success in winning a majority of Democrats, including nearly all the House leadership, garnered the most attention the D.C. statehood movement has ever seenand may ever see.
Norton is the kind of workaholic who manages her staff even while it’s sleeping. Each morning at around 6 a.m. she gathers a stack of newspapers and fresh coffee and begins to call the office answering machine. She sounds groggy early on, talking out ideas, doling out tasks, and reminding about deadlines. As the morning progresses, her messages become more focused. By the time she’s done, there might be 10 or 15 minutes of morning talk on the machine. Staffers get a pretty good idea how the day will go by checking the tape on their way in.
Then there are calls to staffers’ homes, which can come at any time of the morning or night. She fires questions, requests favors, nags.
“Sometimes,” says a former staffer, “it’s just kind of a brain dump.”
Current and former Norton staffers paint a picture of a representative who is everywhere at once, looking over everyone’s shoulder in search of a typo here and a missing file there. She insists on repeatedly editing any document that leaves the office bearing her name.
“She’s involved in every aspect of the office,” says Stacy Palmer Barton, who worked in Norton’s Longworth office from early 1993 to late 1994. “She has a hand on everythingwhether it’s constituent mail or the language of a bill. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her relaxexcept for the office Christmas party,” Barton says. In spite of the demands, Barton says she would do it
all over again.
But Norton’s energy and flair for micromanagement make for a tension-filled office that generates “high turnover even by Hill standards,” according to another former staffer. “It’s a very volatile work environment,” the staffer says, noting that Norton and top aide Donna Brazile create a “bunker mentality.”
“When they’re not yelling at us, they’re yelling at each other,” the staffer contends. “It’s a very complex, very contentious relationship. They’re both control freaks. They’re dueling control freaks.”
Although Norton’s swarming style tests her employees, it also makes her a ubiquitous presence on and off Capitol Hill. On a Tuesday in early June, for example, Norton plowed through three appointments in the morning, several post-lunch House floor votes, a committee markup, an interview with me, and a late-afternoon appointment with a group of local ministers. And after dinner she attended a community event.
Her tirelessness shows up in benchmarks of legislative productivity. Norton ranks among the top 25 of the House’s 440 legislators in bills sponsored, co-sponsored, and enacted. She co-chairs the Congressional Women’s Caucus, sits on the executive committee of the policy-making Democratic Study Group, and serves on two committees and various subcommittees, including the D.C. panel. A former staffer says the delegate’s schedule and “omnivorous mind” have a downside: “It’s hard for her to focus on one issue,” says the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous.
In a city where citizens rarely get what they pay for from elected representatives, Norton is clearly a bargain at $133,600 a year. District voters, even the ones who don’t find much to like in her positions, like the fact that she is always doing something. Aside from her narrow 1990 win, Norton has never faced a primary challenger and never taken less than 85 percent of the vote in her three re-election campaigns. Her 1996 campaign won her 90 percent of the D.C. vote, outpacing Clinton’s 85-percent tally. Norton even won a glowing endorsement from the archconservative Washington Times, which called her “a clear, reasonable voice in Congress on matters affecting the District.”
Prior to the GOP’s November 1994 congressional sweep, Norton enjoyed more prerogatives on the Hill than any elected leader in the city’s history. She chaired a House subcommittee on civil service and had won voting privileges in the Committee of the Whole. The vote enabled Norton to participate in the rites of congressional politicshorse-trading and coalition-buildingand acquire leverage for her local agenda.
Norton’s exalted status on the Hill, though, was one of the first casualties of the Republican “revolution.” She lost both her chairmanship and her Committee of the Whole vote. And her political debasement couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune momentjust as the dimensions of the city’s financial crisis were emerging.
In a post-election newsletter to her constituents, Norton pointed out that a Republican Congress plus a bankrupt District spelled doom for the home rule charter.
“If the city runs out of cash, it will be the Congress that assumes control,” she wrote. A few paragraphs later, she outlined four courses of action, one of which was a proposal to create a mechanism to “enforce fiscal discipline such as an independent financial control board.”
The proposal was a classic example of the realpolitik that defines Norton’s tenure as delegate. Thanks to the early-’90s recession, overspending, and the incompetent Kelly administration, the newly installed Barry administration found an insurmountable $722-million deficit and a credit rating that had fallen to junk-bond status. It was no longer a question of whether the feds would intervene, but how deeply the intrusion would go.
When Gingrich met with Barry in February 1995 at former Rep. Jack Kemp’s downtown office, the Speaker presented the mayor a control board outline that carried Norton’s signature on the bottom line. Barry, up against the most popular national and local politicians in town, backed down quietly. “Norton became the absolute critical element,” says an observer of the proceedings.
Within days, Norton had proposed legislation to establish a control board and moved immediately to head off criticism of the idea. “The course I have outlined is the only one open to the District,” she told the Washington Post.
“By supporting it, I put myself in a position to help shape it,” she now says. “If I had not stepped forward, then of course the Republicans would have gone off and written the bill by themselves.”
Norton’s support helped the legislation sail through Congress, allowing the control board to come into existence in May 1995 with a minimum of public resistance. She takes credit for the smooth transition back to autocratic government in the District.
“One thing I was sure is that it shouldn’t come from [Gingrich], shouldn’t come from [Davis], shouldn’t come from some white Republicanor my constituents would never believe [in] it,” she says.
Norton and her GOP counterparts haven’t always been on the same page when it has come to remedies for the city’s problems, though. She found herself outflanked by a measure in the fall of 1995 to tack 40 controversial amendments onto the District’s appropriations bill. The nettlesome amendments would have phased out rent control, required the University of the District of Columbia to operate self-sufficient programs, and mandated privatization of many public-school services. Home rule advocates rightly viewed the amendments, which were authored by Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), as an affront to District self-governance and a relapse to the bad old days of Dixiecrat oversight of D.C. affairs.
The surprise amendments, however, left Norton with few options other than to run to Gingrichwho eventually wiped the amendments from the appropriations bill.
“I don’t think she had her sea legs on the whole thing,” says a close observer of the goings-on.
The battle against Walsh’s amendments encapsulated the frustrations of working in Congress as a member of the minority party and representing a jurisdiction that every blowhard in town has a plan to revive. In the two years since, Norton has developed alliances with the various Republican D.C. overseers in an attempt to avoid being blindsided in the future. To that end, her relationship with Gingrich has been crucial. She tempers, but does not hide, her admiration for the Speaker, the man who abolished her vote in the Committee of the Whole.
“There have been lapses, but I have to tell you that for the most part he has stuck by me,” Norton says of Gingrich, adding that even prior to the GOP takeover, “I always had difficulties. I have to tell you, it was no bed of roses under the Democrats.”
Perhaps, but every Capitol Hill go-’round on District finances seems to provide a fresh supply of indignities for Norton. Just a few weeks ago, she watched almost helplessly as a $52-million request by the control board for school repairs and police pay raises got downsized to $31 millionand eventually got squashed altogether. In that fight, she faced serious opposition from both the Clinton administration and from new House Appropriations D.C. subcommittee Chairman Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). While the administration’s opposition was founded on a practical desire to keep its version of a D.C. rescue plan on track, Taylor clearly wanted to bury the request by submitting 32 pages of amendments meddling in D.C. affairs. With targets as small as the mayor’s security detail on the chopping block, Norton was forced to abandon the funding request, despite having lined up support from Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, Taylor’s Senate appropriations counterpart, and Gingrich.
Turning to folks like Gingrich and Faircloth for a lifeline underscores what D.C. political pundit Sam Smith views as Norton’s weakness: a penchant for negotiating until fundamental rights have been frittered away.
“I think what you’re dealing with is a corporate habit of compromise. You wake up in the morning and [say], ‘What kind of deals are we going to make?’” argues Smith, who broke with Norton over her support for the control board.
Norton spent over a year attempting to make her tax-cut bill the centerpiece for congressional deliberations on saving the District; the message has come via press releases, press conferences, and appearances before every D.C. community group that can convene a quorum: Her plan is the best hedge against urban flight.
Norton’s proposal would apply a 15-percent federal tax rate up and down the income scale in D.C. and eliminate federal taxes altogether for many lower-income individuals and families. It would leave mortgage holders, pensioners, and Social Security recipients unpunished, and institute capital-gains tax breaks on city investments by D.C. residents. Although not all agreed that the plan would work miracles for the city, even skeptics conceded that it would figure into the calculus of D.C. residents contemplating a move to the suburbs. An upper- and middle-class in-migration, drawn by D.C.’s status as a tax haven, was not out of the question.
Norton was careful to hold her fire in January, when the Clinton administration announced its blockbuster proposal to acquire huge chunks of the District’s municipal portfolio. But after Vice President Al Gore and budget chief Franklin Raines pitched the administration’s plan at a White House press conference, Norton reminded a pack of reporters that her plan remained the sine qua non of a D.C. renaissance.
However, the declining fortunes of her signature legislation on Capitol Hill this spring underscore a sobering tradition in D.C. politics that not even Norton can undo: Politicians from other stateswho are usually Southern white maleshave ultimate authority over the District’s destiny.
Archer, a Texas Republican, is now proudly carrying the tradition forward. He has floated an alternative that offers smaller tax breaks limited to five District neighborhoods with at least 35 percent of their residents in poverty. Also included in the proposal is a capital-gains tax
cuta GOP favoriteand various business
tax credits. All told, Archer aims to cut the
heart out of Norton’s focus on helping middle-income taxpayers.
And since Archer chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, his bill also happens to have supplanted Norton’s flat tax as the starting point for talks on D.C. tax relief.
Norton is game nonetheless. “You don’t see me trashing this bill, because it’s a tremendous breakthrough for us,” she says. “Mr. Archer was against federal income-tax relief for the District. He has moved right now, so I’m just going to have to work with what I have to try to see how much further this movement can be.”
A Senate tax plan introduced last week that included elimination of capital gains on commercial property and a $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers also fails to include any of her initiatives, but she responded enthusiastically.
Norton’s pragmatism springs from a lack of options. In addition to having no vote and no leverage over her colleagues, she is pimping a plan that would raid the U.S. treasury of several hundred million dollars a yearenough to make even a Republican blink.
“Let’s be clear,” says Norton. “The greatest barrier to my getting this bill is its cost.”
Watching D.C. proposals authored by other politicians advance through Congress is becoming routine for Norton. The Davis plan that is currently moving is built on the Clinton administration’s District rescue plan, not a Norton initiative.The bill’s most significant provisions would up the federal share of the District’s Medicaid tab from half to 70 percent and make the feds responsible for pension outlays for all D.C. retireesincluding the pre-home rule retirees Congress dumped on the city after having granted home rule. Each provision would mean a drastic cut in D.C. government expenditures.
Although she is arguing some of the finer points, Norton makes it clear she doesn’t want to step too heavily on Davis’ toes.
“It’s not the usual deal,” she notes. “A deal is usually [that] you’ve got something and the other side has got something….I’m not used to being unarmed.”
Norton has the equivalent of a water pistol in a room full of assault rifles. And judging from the legislation on the verge of passing this year, she’s not scaring anyone. The Archer bill, for starters, sets forth a solution to a problem that simply doesn’t exist in the District, whose malaise stems from the erosion of middle-class neighborhoods. Any plan aimed exclusively at the poorest D.C. neighborhoods overlooks the most telling statistic in the city’s decline: In 1990, the city’s 300,000 unemployed residents were supported by 300,000 taxpaying residents; by 1996, the number of unemployed residents held steady at 300,000 but were supported by only 250,000 employed residents, according to data compiled by the D.C.-based MBG Information Services.
And the provision in both the White House plan and the Davis bill to reduce the federal payment has made skeptics of control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and a number of D.C. councilmembers.
Instead of stepping outside the process and decrying the bills, though, Norton stays on the inside, negotiating, backpedaling, and compromising to maintain a place at the table and a finger in the negotiations over the bill’s final form.
“What table does she want to sit ata table of scraps or at the full table?” asks local AIDS activist Steve Michael, who wants Norton to spend her clout fighting for traditional home rule goals like full representation for D.C. in Congress. Norton thinks talk about those battles in the current political environment is only so much foolishness.
The program for the awards dinner at the District of Columbia Building Industry Association lists D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton as the guest of honor. But the audience that came expecting to hear from the delegate gets the wild woman instead.
Norton starts low-key, thanking the association for supporting her tax bill. But a few minutes into the speech, her tone takes a detour into a tiradeat one point, she’s contending that anything less than her tax bill is not enough.
“We won’t come back a little at a time!” Norton shouts into the microphone. “You can do that if you want to do that! That’s not the city that taught me to fight segregation and taught me how to stand up to all the racists! My city is the city that said, ‘Do something visionary! Get up out of this hole! Get up out of it quick!’”
Her high-decibel finish generates a thunder of applause. But the audience titters with nervous laughter afterward, wondering what motivated Norton to bark at a roomful of pliant, smiling developers.
“[It’s] displaced aggression” toward congressional Republicans, muses Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. “[The Republicans] have made her life difficult. And instead the anger is directed at [local politicians].”
But Norton says it’s actually the reverse: Her main frustration on the Hill is answering to the Republicans for incompetent District officials.
“What the Congress said they wanted…was a [District] government that looked a lot better,” she says. “I am sitting at the table without a government that looks a lot better, and that is the source of much of my impatience.”
Her critique includes the city’s mayor, with whom she has a close working relationship.
“I spend most of my life defending the D.C. government up here, but I’m not going to be put in the position of defending the indefensible,” says Norton. “I haven’t said this publicly, but I wouldn’t mind saying it [to Barry]: ‘Cut your own security detail, because if you don’t there’s some folks over here that are going to do it.’”
“She takes on friend and foe alike if it looks like it’s against the District’s interests,” confirms Barry, who has known Norton since the civil rights years.
The nonstop haranguing from her Longworth office at times makes Norton more drill instructor than ally in the eyes of city officials. Ask Williams, who is still nursing the bruises he got when Norton’s office discovered his role in assisting Taylor in developing his controversial amendments last month. Norton said Williams’ conduct “border[ed] on insubordination.”
And she tagged City Administrator Michael Rogers earlier this year for failing to move faster on hooking the District up to a federal phone system that could save millions.
“Look,” Norton told Rogers, “follow-through is my middle name. This is money.” Later she reminded him and others she has peppered for information, “I am taking these down, you all. Do not let me have to call youcall me.”
The most curious target of her prodding also happens to be her most recognizable creationthe D.C. control board.
“What you’ve had is a control board that has in fact not produced because it has not had a plan and goals on how to produce,” Norton steams during a recent edition of WAMU’s Friday political talk show, criticizing Brimmer’s embrace of the idea of installing a city-manager form of government in D.C. Norton says her message to Brimmer is simply, “Do your job.”
“Politically it may seem wishy-washy, but now that the control board has been overstepping its bounds, she’s stepping out of the box again,” says Marshall Heights activist Rhett, who believes Norton senses that residents are wondering why the control board has not made greater strides in its two years of existence. “It’s ahead of its time. It’s a smart political move.”
Norton knows enough not to keep the flame so high that it burns. She encourages the D.C. Council by saying it’s playing a new “constructive role.” She recently met with Sam Jordan, a vehement critic of the control board, to work together against efforts to bring the death penalty to D.C.
“She makes no permanent friends, no permanent enemiesit’s just D.C.’s interests,” says Brazile. “She holds no grudges. She loves the city. I’ve reduced it to that.”
Norton doesn’t have to exert much effort to establish her local credentials. She just gets behind the wheel of her Buick and heads out to a meeting with concerned residents, buzzing through the streets with a cabbie’s instinct for the best route from Point A to Point B. She usually manages to arrive on time, as she does for a recent meeting of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly. Norton delivers a friendly one-hour talk spiced with anecdotes from her travels on the Hill.
“I have to tell you that I have become fast friends with Sen. FairclothI talked with him awhile, and actually right now I’m absolutely dependent on him because it is Lauch Faircloth who is holding back an attempt to violate home rule,” she says, detailing for the rapt listeners her struggle against Taylor’s amendments.
But as familiar as she may be to her constituents, Norton’s comments blur where she stands. She argues that losing the District’s federal payment in exchange for elements of the Clinton rescue plan isn’t as bad as it sounds, even though it eliminates the possibility that D.C. will have the funding to be truly independent. Her message prepares them for the news a few weeks later that Davis’ plan includes a vastly reduced federal payment.
“I was going to try to keep as much of [the payment] as I could,” she says, explaining her negotiating posture. “But I wasn’t so sure….I am not convinced that that was a bad tradeoff. I am not convinced that that was a good tradeoff…”
As convoluted as her account comes off, the audience nods approvingly. Her substantial political skills have prompted boosters to tout Norton as a mayoral candidate.
“She ought to seriously think about something revolutionary, like running for mayor,” says Phil Mendelson, a Ward 3 activist and former council candidate. “I think she should think about whether it would be better for the city for her to switch jobs.”
Don’t hold your breath. While Norton considers the idea flattering, she prefers to do her political work in Congresswhere she can speak out on national issuesrather than at 1 Judiciary Square. The man who currently holds the job thinks she would be a fool to take on his portfolio and the baggage that goes with it.
“Her whole posture is to fight for the District,” says Barry. “And unlike mayors and governors, who have to sometimes bite the bullet on very unpopular things, most of what she chooses to get involved in from a constituent’s point of view has very little negative consequences….Like the [D.C.] budget cutsshe didn’t have to make any decisions on cutting this budget like I do, like the city council does.”
Barry’s suggestion that Norton lives a life beyond political consequence rings true. In a city where pols get hammered to bits for the slightest inconsistency, Norton can be all over the map and still maintain credibility with the press, and by extension, with her constituents.
In a recent hearing, for example, Norton wondered aloud whether the city should decide if it really wants to have an elected school boarda home rule staple she had vigorously defended until it became evident that the school system’s terrible conditions warranted the control board’s November 1996 takeover.
Norton’s willingness to fold on bedrock home rule issues rings alarm bells among the few who still think statehood is a possibility. They fear that her support for the control board was the first straw in extinguishing the dreamand that her support for the Clinton rescue plan and tax break for D.C. residents will be the last. George Washington University political studies professor Dwight Cropp, who doesn’t support statehood himself, says the worries are probably valid.
“Moving in the direction of the president’s plan and the tax revision…would in fact obviate statehood,” he says. “It would so link the District to the federal government that statehood would be impractical.”
“She has destabilized everything that we know about politics in Washington, D.C.,” complains Guyot. “All in the name of trying to save it, and trying to control it.”
Norton protests that she has not abandoned the drive for statehood, only delayed it in favor of more pressing practical concerns.
“It’s not as if we’re making a free choice that we want to give up state functions,” she says. “We are dead without giving up these functions. Now, if we are in a position to make a free choice once again, a really free choice, I have no doubt that we will choose equality with all American citizens.”
Right now, the District is up against the wall, and “equality” is not on the table. Norton may or may not press for statehood sometime in the futureit all depends on the climate she is working in and the alliances she can form. When you’re a dealmaker like Norton, everything is negotiable. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.