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.”
The power paradox
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.”