Eleanor Holmes Norton walked the marble halls of Congress, trailed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey. It was Tuesday, the day before an important House vote, and she was standing in the narrow lobby to the office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), her foot all but tapping as she waited for someone -- anyone -- to greet them.
Norton, the District's non-voting delegate to Congress, a tenured Georgetown University law professor and the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told a young DeLay staffer in a pink sweater that she could not keep the mayor waiting. "Not to mention the police chief. He should be out catching criminals," Norton said, visibly impatient.
"Yes ma'am, I understand," the staffer said. Twice.
By 3:15, Norton had slipped into DeLay's inner lobby to see whether anyone would be available to hear their impromptu pitch on beating back an effort to repeal the District's gun laws. But it was clear they would not be heard. At 3:25, she crooked her finger and wordlessly signaled the others to follow her out.
And with that, mission accomplished.
For days, predictions were that the House probably was going to pass a bill repealing the District's gun laws, making it legal to carry semi-automatic weapons and handguns in public at a time when the headlines are full of juvenile gunshot victims. (The bill passed yesterday, with 198 Republicans joined by 52 Democrats to pass the measure, 250 to 171). But Norton (D) was going to make them pay for their vote.
Norton already had successfully lobbied Senate colleagues to stop similar legislation from getting to the floor, at least for the time being. But she had a purpose in lobbying the House, even though the ultimate outcome seemed a given.
"You've got to make it difficult for people to cast that vote in the House. The easier you make it, the more you invite this kind of outrageous interference with the city and, frankly, with the lives of its residents," said Norton, adding that defeat in the Senate was not guaranteed. "I always operate off of the worst-case scenario. I'm always looking for the unexpected."
Norton, 67, blunt, media-savvy, disdainful when she wants to be, sprang into action on the gun issue this month, but hardly for the first time. She escorted mothers of dead children into Senate offices, held hastily arranged news conferences, rallied allies and orchestrated stinging editorials in her opponents' hometown newspapers.
She described the gun legislation as the latest affront to the District and its right to govern itself. In doing so, she reaffirmed her reputation as a fierce advocate for the District on a variety of issues and a passionate fighter sometimes so sharp in her diatribes that she wounds her allies.
"Eleanor's elbows are pretty sharp, and at times that ruffles people on the Hill, and so be it. We aren't going to get anything by being nice," said Ray Browne (D), the District's unpaid, locally elected statehood lobbyist, or shadow U.S. representative.
Browne, who stood on Independence Avenue yesterday morning with a homemade sign urging Congress not to repeal the District's gun laws, has tangled vigorously with Norton in the past. He thought the city should accept a single seat in the House or the Senate as a preliminary step toward full representation in Congress, and she did not.
"She called me on a cell phone from Georgia on a Sunday night. I just hope she wasn't driving," Browne said. "We talked for 90 minutes."
Over the years, Norton has learned when to take her stands. She came out of the civil rights movement, where leaders had to fight for everything, and became an expert in the art of negotiation, even earning kudos for her grass-roots advocacy from Newt Gingrich, the former Republican leader in the House.
"That hard edge, she can soften when she needs to," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), an ally in the gun battle and chairman of the Government Reform Committee on which Norton sits. "I think she's very effective. She's a lot more effective than some people up here who have a vote."
Whether it's school vouchers, needle exchange programs or the death penalty, Norton has relied on various tools precisely because she has no vote on the floor and the District has no senators. Plus, she believes in the causes.
She helped fight an effort by Congress to impose the death penalty in the District in 1992 by asking for 15 minutes of airtime on WOL radio each night for several weeks. The referendum was defeated 2 to 1.
Norton does not always win. Several years ago, when Congress wanted to restrict funding for a needle exchange program, Norton fought for the program and lost. Proponents of school vouchers, which Norton opposes because she believes they would harm public schools, tied legislation to a spending bill, held the vote open and passed it last year by one vote.
"We almost won," said Iris Toyer, chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, which opposes school vouchers and the repeal of the gun law. "But Eleanor was not willing to play dead just because we don't have a vote in the House."
Norton has both an "in your face" style and a collaborative one, Toyer said. "You need both," she said. "I don't think you can be successful in that arena if you're willing to play the Sunday school teacher, because those guys come loaded for bear."
In some ways, not having a vote is beside the point. The important thing, Norton said, is to send a message.
"The intrusion into our local home rule is not simply about the pride of self government," she said. "It has meaning for how we live, up to and including whether we live. You can't fight that too hard. You can't fight that too hard."
Eleanor Holmes Norton described the House action on gun legislation as "outrageous interference with the city and, frankly, with the lives of its residents." She vowed to carry the fight against the repeal to the Senate.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, with representatives of Citizens to Save D.C. Gun Safety Laws, said the problem is more than congressional "intrusion into our local home rule. . . . It has meaning for how we live, up to and including whether we live."