The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two hope to unseat Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate for 31 years

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), pictured at a December news conference about a lawsuit over the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, is seeking her 17th term in Congress. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When Wendy Hamilton stops passersby at D.C.’s farmers markets and tells them she is running for Congress, she hears one response a lot: “You’re running for Eleanor’s seat?”

“With all due respect,” Hamilton answers, “this is not Eleanor’s seat. This is the people’s seat.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, 84, has been D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress for 31 years — long enough that D.C. residents tend to equate the office with the person. While D.C. does not elect a voting member of Congress or senators because the capital city is not a state, the District’s delegate gets to fulfill other duties of a member of the House, like serving on committees and introducing bills.

Running for reelection every other year, Norton has faced a smattering of challengers over the decades, but none have come anywhere close to defeating her. Former Obama administration official Kim Ford got the closest, winning just 23 percent of the vote in the 2018 primary.

This year, two people are taking on the challenge: Hamilton, a pastor and former Hill staffer who is campaigning energetically under the banner “Rev. Wendy,” and Kelly Mikel Williams, a podcast host whose campaign is focused primarily on the issue of homelessness.

Both argue it’s time for a change after 16 terms of the same leadership. Norton, of course, disagrees: “The reason that’s not a good idea is that in order to get things done in the Congress, you need seniority,” she said in an interview. “To build seniority is to build power in Congress ... It may be in other occupations that being young matters. In the Congress, the House and the Senate, that is not the case. The opposite is the case.”

As a longtime member, Norton now chairs the Transportation subcommittee on highways and transit, a position that gave her a large role in passing the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, a landmark piece of President Biden’s economic agenda and among the most significant legislation passed this Congress.

Norton said she has more she wants to accomplish, such as an update to one of her proudest achievements, the Tuition Assistance Grant program that gives D.C. youths money to attend public universities anywhere in the country. The maximum annual grant amount of $10,000 hasn’t changed since Norton got the law passed in 1999; she would like to increase it to $15,000 in her next term in office.

Norton has vastly outraised her opponents, bringing in more than $125,000 so far to Hamilton’s nearly $30,000. The difference is almost entirely due to Norton’s fundraising from political action committees; while Hamilton has come close in individual donors, she has no PAC contributions. According to Federal Election Commission data, Williams has just three campaign donors who have given him $1,750 outside of his own contributions of more than $6,000 to his campaign.

Hamilton, a 53-year-old alumna of Howard Divinity School, has been campaigning for months, telling anyone who will stop to listen that she believes she could use the role of D.C. delegate more effectively than Norton, who she views as overly focused on achieving D.C. statehood at the expense of all other issues.

“We’re not a one-dimensional city. We can be working on other issues while we’re waiting on statehood to manifest. Eleanor got statehood through the House as far as she could. But now it’s really in the hands of the Senate, and Manchin and Sinema can’t remember which party they’re in right now,” Hamilton said, referring to Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), both moderate Democrats unlikely to support statehood for the District.

Hamilton has had an eclectic career: pastoring a church in Maryland, serving as a chaplain for Georgetown students and hospital patients, working for the NAACP, and most recently serving as truancy counselor at Brookland Middle School. That job has shown her the needs of D.C. residents up close, she said. “I’m working with families telling me every day, ‘My car broke down.’ I’ve got to hustle and get them SmartTrip cards so the baby can come to school.”

As a congresswoman, she said, she would write legislation, even if she can’t vote on it. After she worked as director of spiritual and cultural outreach for Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign and learned about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support for a universal basic income, she said creating such a program would be her top legislative priority.

She said she would also open a constituent services office in every ward, focused on the ways in which D.C. residents interact with the federal government. Having trouble getting your mail? Hamilton said she would call for a hearing on the U.S. Postal Service.

She said Norton should have flagged problems at the D.C. jail long before the imprisonment of Jan. 6 defendants led the U.S. Marshals Service to write a scathing report on conditions there. “Where was she? I would have been standing on top of the jail,” Hamilton said.

Norton called that criticism “kind of ridiculous.”

“I spend a lot of time on D.C. prisoners,” Norton said. “I don’t know how much more time I could spend on it. She’d have to cite examples. Whoever she is, she would have to cite examples of how somehow there’s been some failing there.”

Williams, who once worked for former D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange and hosts a podcast called “Black Politics Today,” said his top priority would be to join congressional committees from which he could steer more federal money toward vouchers for housing people who are homeless.

It’s personal for Williams, 55: Fifteen years ago, he was homeless himself, sleeping in his car with his 3-year-old son. He was able to get on his feet thanks to his pastor, who offered him a job.

“I see the federal government as the linchpin to being able to deal with [homelessness],” he said, since the problem is national, not unique to the District. “Every representative up there will understand me trying to pass a bill or trying to get funding or trying to create a program. It’s going to be in their backyard, too.”

He said he is undaunted by Norton’s long tenure. “If I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I commend her for her time in service … I think after 32 years, it’s certainly time to pass the baton.”

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