The wooded footpath in Northeast Washington had become a nest for muggers, and here stood Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, hands on hips, listening as a park ranger proposed little more than putting up a couple of warning signs.
“I’ll tell you what won’t do: ‘Park Is Closed,’ ” Norton said, her voice suggesting impatience.
Where’s your supervisor? Norton wanted to know. Why isn’t she here?
“What are you going to do about this?” she demanded.
In the political hothouse that is Washington, mayors come and mayors go, along with senators, House members and presidents. But Norton, in her 11th term in Congress and seeking another on Nov. 6, is a fixture, her exalted stature infused by her years as a feminist, academic, constitutional lawyer and civil rights activist.
Yet, for all her acclaim, Norton represents the District without the accoutrement that adds power to swagger — a vote on the House floor — a fact that makes her the object of sympathy, admiration and no small amount of ridicule.
“The fake congresswoman” is how Stephen Colbert has introduced her to his television nation.
What Norton possesses is her voice, one that she has used to press a broad spectrum of causes, whether organizing blacks in the deep South during the civil rights movement or defending former Alabama governor George Wallace’s right to hold a rally in New York City in 1968.
In Congress, she has crusaded for statehood and voting rights for her home town, an effort that has yielded few results and exposed her to criticism that she is ineffective. But what everyone agrees on is that Norton is capable of mixing eloquence and withering outrage, like on that day in 2007 when she answered a colleague who tried to interrupt her on the House floor, a moment replayed on YouTube no fewer than 10,000 times.
“I will not yield, sir!” Norton bellowed, her diminutive frame seeming to vibrate behind the rostrum. “The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding to the people who would deny them the vote! I yield you no ground!”
Or there was that moment in 2011 when a federal budget impasse threatened to shut down the District government and Norton looked straight into a television camera and said: “It’s time that the District of Columbia told the Congress to go straight to hell.”
With Norton, 75, what you see is often what you get. Her home phone number is listed, and she drives herself to and from events in a Ford hybrid, license plate EHN1.
She can be decidedly old-school, referring to her refrigerator as the “icebox.” But she uses Twitter to communicate with more than 7,500 followers, letting them know one day, for example, that she was “Grooving to Beyonce!” After the second presidential debate, Norton used a less-than-delicate euphemism to pronounce Mitt Romney the loser. An aide erased the tweet after some readers chastised her for being crude.
Norton’s voice has made her something of a legend among the politicians and staffers who have endured her finger-pointing diatribes, which even admirers say seem more fitting for a sailor than a Yale Law School graduate.
“I used to tell our staff that you haven’t lived in Washington, D.C., until you’ve been cursed out by Ms. Norton,” said David Miren, a former senior aide to then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va).
A former adviser to then-Mayor Marion Barry recalled that Barry once put Norton on speakerphone so that the aides sitting around his conference table could hear her robust use of profanity. Asked about the call, Barry, who has known Norton since they were in the civil rights movement, giggled and said, “I don’t recall the specifics, but we’ve had major disagreements.”
Donna Brazile, a Democratic political operative who served as Norton’s chief of staff for 10 years and considers her a personal hero, cackled during a phone interview while recalling her boss’s capacity for fury. Once, she said, Norton complained that Brazile was pushing her too hard with a packed schedule.
“She said I was a white slave owner the way I drove her and the staff,” Brazile said. “She could cuss you out while chewing bubble gum.”
Hanging on the kitchen wall in Norton’s Capitol Hill rowhouse is a framed illustration of a burly African American woman who resembles Aunt Jemima, as captured on the cover of a 1940 Saturday Evening Post. The portrait is there, Norton said, to remind her that “that’s the America I was born into.”
A few feet away, in another frame on another wall, is her great-grandparents’ 1872 marriage certificate. Her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, was a slave who walked off a Virginia plantation and made his way to the District. Her grandfather was among Washington’s first African American firefighters.
“I am deep D.C.,” Norton said.
Her parents were Roosevelt Democrats; her father was a law school graduate who worked for the city’s housing department, and her mother was a teacher. The oldest of their three daughters, Norton was her parents’ enforcer.
“She was in charge and very definite about what the rules were,” said her sister, Portia Shields, president of Tennessee State University. Norton, she recalled, would report her and their youngest sister to their parents if they misbehaved. “She was the model of authority.”
Norton grew up in segregated Washington — not the kind of city with “Colored Only” signs, but one in which blacks knew where they could and could not go. In 1954, she was a junior at all-black Dunbar High School when the principal announced on the intercom that the Supreme Court had ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and had outlawed segregation. Her teachers, she said, wept.
Norton attended Antioch College and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participating in sit-ins and traveling to Mississippi, where she worked with Medgar Evers. Hours before Evers was assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963, he drove Norton to a bus depot, where she set out for the Delta.
“It just froze me,” she said, recalling when she learned the next day of Evers’s death.
After law school, Norton joined the American Civil Liberties Union, where her caseload included a sex-discrimination case brought by female reporters against Newsweek, then owned by The Washington Post.
“Ladies,” Norton told the women, trying to fire them up, “you have to take off your white gloves.”
Her clients also included George Wallace, on whose behalf she sued New York Mayor John Lindsay for trying to stop the Alabama politician from holding a rally at Shea Stadium in 1968. Her belief in the First Amendment trumped her disgust with Wallace and the segregationist ideas he stood for.
Norton won the case, and Lindsay turned around and appointed her chair of New York’s Human Rights Commission.
As her prominence grew, Norton and her then-husband, Edward, moved to Harlem, where they planned to raise their children: Katherine, who was born with Down syndrome, and John. But they returned to Norton’s home town in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter made her chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she drafted the country’s first regulations on what constituted sexual harassment.
In 1990, after Del. Walter Fauntroy announced that he would not seek reelection, Brazile persuaded Norton to run for his seat representing the District in Congress. She hired David Axelrod, a media consultant who would eventually become Barack Obama’s political strategist, then found herself facing revelations that she and her husband had failed to file D.C. tax returns for seven years.
Edward Norton took the blame, and Norton won the Democratic primary. It was her last difficult election. Two years ago, she captured nearly 90 percent of the electorate, her 117,990 votes more than those won by any candidate in the District seeking citywide office.
At a fundraiser hosted recently by former House speaker Thomas Foley at his home near Capitol Hill, Norton struggled to recall the names of the candidates challenging her. (For the record, they are Bruce Majors of the Libertarian Party and Natale Lino Stracuzzi of Statehood Green Party).
“What counts,” she said, “is that D.C. can’t name them.”
In a perfect world, as rendered by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nation’s capital would be a state, and its congressional representatives would have a vote on the House floor.
Yet a paradox simmers beneath Norton’s vision.
As a full-fledged member of Congress, she would be much like the other 435 voting members, toiling in relative obscurity without a purpose that sets her apart. Yes, she would still get the $174,000 yearly salary, the parking spot and the staff.
But would Colbert have invited her on his show as often as he has? Would he have introduced her as “my old nemesis” and compared her to a “fly that keeps buzzing no matter how often you swat it away”?
Would strangers approach her on the street, as she says they do, and offer their best imitation of her saying, “I will not yield, sir!”
Norton understands the paradox.
“If I represented a traditional district,” she acknowledged one afternoon in her office, “I might not find Congress as interesting as I do.”
As the District’s voice in Congress, Norton can defend the disenfranchised, much as she did when she was traveling around the South for the SNCC.
“I am most comfortable when I’m in a fighting-for-justice mode,” she said. “Here is the unattainable. Let’s see if we can get there.”
As much as she’s known for her impassioned oratory — her acolytes refer to her as the “Warrior on the Hill” — Norton thinks of herself as a pragmatic negotiator, someone who can forge alliances with conservative Republicans such as Newt Gingrich when he was House speaker.
As examples, she often points to the benefits she has helped capture for District residents, including a $5,000 tax credit for home buyers and a $10,000 tuition-assistance grant for students attending public colleges anywhere in the United States.
“She can fan the outrage when she needs it,” said Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican with whom Norton worked closely when he was in Congress. “But when the chips are down, she’s not out there getting arrested. She’s out there getting a deal.”
By any measure, she has not gotten very far when it comes to empowering the District. In 2007, the House passed a law granting the District voting privileges, but the initiative died in the Senate. Several years later, Democratic leaders abandoned another voting-rights bill when Republicans threatened to attach provisions weakening the city’s gun-control laws.
At the moment, Norton’s cause appears to be of little importance to her party. President Obama, who voiced support for D.C. voting rights as a candidate, has been largely silent on the issue in the White House. The organizers at last month’s Democratic National Convention did not give Norton a turn at the podium, the first time since 1992 she hasn’t spoken.
Ralph Nader, the consumer rights advocate and statehood activist, said that Norton has curtailed her sense of what’s possible for the District and that she lacks a viable strategy. “The autocrats have ground her down,” Nader said. “She no longer aspires to be a transforming, mobilizing leader for District residents.”
Mark Plotkin, a political analyst for WTTG (Channel 5) and longtime advocate for statehood, said Norton’s rhetorical fire can be useful. “But when it comes to charting success, she should be embarrassed,” he said. “This ‘Warrior on the Hill’ is a misnomer. She takes credit for crumbs.”
Norton’s defenders say she is operating in an environment in which political gridlock stops much of what Congress tries to accomplish, a reality made only more difficult for a delegate who has served in the minority for most of her tenure and cannot trade votes on the House floor. They also point out that it took Alaska and Hawaii half a century to achieve statehood.
“To be fair to Eleanor, you have to imagine if there was someone else who could make statehood happen over the past two decades,” said Jamie Raskin, a law professor at American University. “Given the configuration of political forces in the country, it’s hard to imagine someone being able to do that.”
For her part, Norton said any suggestion that she’s not pushing effectively for statehood is “absurd.” But she said she understands that change comes slowly.
“I am not put off by the lack of instant response to justice,” she said. “It has been the story of my life.”
A 12th term in Congress? She’s ready. A 13th term? A 14th?
The delegate sees no end to her narrative.
“If you’ve spent your life fighting man-made barriers against your rights, why would you go anywhere you couldn’t do that?” she asked. “Since this job isn’t done, I stand here until it does get done, or I can no longer stand.”