D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton spent most of 1995 forging a working relationship with the new masters on Capitol Hill, particularly House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and House D.C. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.). But Gingrich and Davis might have thought they had encountered Norton’s evil twin had they wandered into the Howard University Medical School auditorium last Saturday morning.
Norton transformed a perfunctory, low-key campaign kickoff, emceed by her amiable younger sister, Portia Shields, into a spirited rally by unleashing an all-out assault on “the radical Republicans” for meddling in D.C. affairs. She ticked off a series of declarations of why “I run” for a fourth term, building the cadence to an emotional peak.
“I run, like David, slingshot in hand, to fight the Republican Congress,” Norton declared. “I run to fight them and help chase them back into the 40 years of political oblivion.”
That brought the rather listless crowd of about 100 to its feet. Her supporters punched fists in the air and shouted back at Norton: “Run! Run! Run!”
Norton was speaking not only as a candidate but also as the newly named chairwoman of President Clinton’s re-election campaign in the District. “His fight with the radical Republicans is our fight,” she announced.
Norton’s kickoff speech focused largely on last year’s fights to prevent federal receivership for the District and block congressional intrusion into local affairs. But she also outlined her own goals for this election year, which include winning passage of her “progressive flat tax” for D.C. residentsa big federal tax rebateand persuading Congress to kick in another $300 million annually to pay its share of D.C.’s unfunded pension liability.
Norton pointedly did not mention the commuter taxaka the “nonresident income tax.” Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer suggested last week that such a tax could raise needed revenues for the District. The pragmatic Norton has long scoffed at the idea of a commuter tax; she has advised D.C. residents and officials to stop pushing it because it is poison on Capitol Hill.
The crowd at Norton’s rally was notable for its absences. Conspicuously missing were D.C. government workers, though she had successfully exempted them from the second federal shutdown. Also MIA were many D.C. activists and union leaders who had stood beside her at her three previous campaign kickoffs.
Only three of the 13 members of the D.C. Council turned out: At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason, Ward 4 Democrat Charlene Drew Jarvis, and Ward 5 Democrat Harry “He’s Everywhere” Thomas. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans sent his regrets and a pledge of support. And all but one of the 11 school board members stayed away; the lone exception was Ward 4 member Sandra Butler-Truesdale.
But Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and first lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry did come out to back Norton. “Twenty-eight inches wouldn’t have stopped me from getting here,” Barry declared, poking fun at his disastrous two weeks after the blizzard.
“Thank God for the rain!” he added, to laughter from the audience.
Depicting Norton as the city’s “warrior” on Capitol Hill, Hizzoner said, “Eleanor has a finger that doesn’t bend because she keeps it in somebody’s face.”
“I talk to her seven, eight, nine times a day,” Barry added. If that’s true, their relationship contrasts sharply with that of Norton and former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. By the end of Kelly’s one term as mayor, she and Norton barely spoke eight or nine times a year.
But the mayor’s comment smacked of typical Barry hyperbole. On Jan. 10, the third day of the blizzard, Norton, who was answering the phone in her office, was telling constituents that the mayor had not yet returned her phone calls from the day before. She was attempting to reach Barry to convince him that D.C. needed federal help for snow removal. It took Norton until the following night to persuade Barry that step was essential.
Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin also made an appearance at the Norton shindig. Rivlin said she was speaking for Clinton in endorsing Norton. But Rivlin refused to comment on Norton’s flat-tax plan or efforts to win more federal money for D.C.
The skimpy attendance at Norton’s kickoff does not indicate that her re-election is in doubt. Quite the contrary. She arguably remains the city’s most popular politician, particularly after Barry’s snow fiascoes. What the turnout did reflect is the nonchalance of D.C. politicians and activists. Norton’s re-election is seen as a foregone conclusion, and she is not likely to face serious opposition in 1996.
Norton’s lack of a credible opponent does not mean that she is universally beloved. Many D.C. residents, including past Norton supporter Lawrence Guyot, have complained that she acquiesced too easily to the creation of the control board. But Guyot lately has softened his criticisms of Nortonan indication that their bitter feud may have ended.
The subsiding enthusiasm toward her on the council stems from a feeling among some members that Norton sides too quickly with House Republicans and doesn’t always level with city officials about Hill goings-on. “I don’t think she’s always been forthright with us,” commented a councilmember absent from last weekend’s event.
And school board members complain privately that Norton “sold us out” during D.C. school-reform fights in the House, particularly on the volatile issue of school vouchers. The Senate has blocked the D.C. appropriations bill for months because of objections to a House plan to spend $42 million on vouchers.
Norton claims she opposes vouchers and predicted again last weekend that the voucher provisions would be stripped from the bill in the current negotiations between the House and Senate.
But others doubt her assessment. They believe that Congress will only approve an appropriations bill if it includes some voucher provision. Opponents of vouchers claim the chance to defeat the voucher plan was lost last fall when Norton failed to condemn it vigorously on the House floor.
“She wasn’t going to oppose the speaker,” says a disheartened lobbyist of Norton’s efforts.
But Norton has a much larger legion of admirers than critics. Many D.C. residents praise her as “realistic” for trying to work with the control board instead of resisting it, as Barry often has done. The business community, led by banker Robert Pincus, has rallied behind her flat-tax proposal, and has hired Republican lobbyist David Carmen to steer it through Congress.
Unlike GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes’ flat-tax proposal, Norton’s would still allow deductions for mortgages, charitable contributions, and business investments within D.C. And her plan reportedly will allow D.C. taxpayers to decide, when filing returns, whether they want to use her plan or stick with the current system. Norton’s proposal has won the backing of D.C. activist Marie Drissel, on hand last Saturday, who is trying to build citywide support for it.
With her own victory all but assured, Norton may be deployed this fall as a free-agent campaigner, attacking Republicans wherever the president sends her to do battle.
While endorsing Norton on Saturday, Barry pledged to give the maximum contribution to her re-election campaign. “What is the maximum?” he inquired.
“A thousand dollars,” WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin shouted from the audience.
“Oh, I can’t give a thousand,” Barry blurted out.
This from the politician who wants to raise the current $100 limit on donations to D.C. campaigns.
Barry finally said that he and his wife would each contribute $500….
Unnoticed on stage at Norton’s kick-off was Bill Simons, former head of the Washington Teachers Union and the on-again-off-again head of the D.C. Democratic party. Simons’ election to the latter post was thrown out in August by the Democratic National Committee on a technicality. The Democratic State Committee, the local party’s ruling body, has deadlocked over whether to restore Simons to the job.
Not that anyone else seems to want it. The 70-member state committee tried twice this month to hold a new election, but couldn’t get a quorum. Another attempt is scheduled for next Thursday, Feb. 1. Since election procedures require a roll-call vote, a majority of the party’s leaders have been staying away to avoid taking a public stand on Simons’ tenure. So the party remains leaderless in an election year.
Simons certainly doesn’t radiate a commanding presence. Norton had finished speaking and the crowd was dispersing before he finally got acknowledged last weekend….
Lawyer William Lehrfeld, whose clients include the Heritage Foundation, fears for those whom the D.C. government claims owe back taxes (See “The Mail” in this issue). To raise needed revenues, the Barry administration is preparing to sell its tax liens to outside investors, who then will attempt to collect the debts. But some supposed debtors may not owe the city a dime. The Heritage Foundation, for example, is on the city’s current list of deadbeats even though the conservative think tank won a 1993 lawsuit seeking tax-exempt status.
“If some damn fool invests in that lien list and then comes searching for tax money, they’re going to be very embarrassed,” said Lehrfeld, who learned that Heritage was still on the list after reading it in this column two weeks ago….
City motorists and pedestrians may have loathed the District’s inability to cope with the snow, but criminals apparently loved it. The number of muggings and break-ins soared in the Capitol Hill neighborhoods north of Lincoln Park as robbers on foot preyed on snow-clogged streets where the police could not respond quickly. At one point, the crime wave became so serious that police officials asked for the National Guard to help clear side streets.
“It was a field day to steal,” reports Maryland Avenue NE resident Sally Byington, who has been compiling the crime statistics….
When Mayor Barry arrived at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library last Monday, Jan. 15, for a holiday program honoring the slain civil rights leader, Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington, the mistress of ceremonies, gave him an effusive but unwanted introduction. “I just want to thank Marion Barry for plowing out Ward 8 first,” the naive Whittington gushed to the live audience and TV cameras.
Those standing near the embattled mayor reported hearing an audible gasp from Hizzoner and detecting a noticeable shudder. “Eydie, I put all eight wards first,” Barry responded quickly, trying to undo the political damage….
Speaking of snow removal, city laws allow D.C. to fine private snowplowers who clear streets but don’t haul away the snow. Department of Public Works officials report that no such fines were levied for the Blizzard of ’96.
That seems just, since private plowers saved the city from total gridlock. CP