Eleanor Holmes Norton has been in Congress so long she can’t immediately recall how many terms she has served. But she knows one thing: She will win another one this year.
And that’s part of the problem, according to Kim R. Ford, a 37-year-old former Obama administration official running an underdog campaign to challenge Norton for the Democratic nomination in the June 19 primary.
“Yes, there was a time when we needed a warrior on the Hill to start the fight, to elevate the fight, but now we have to win it,” Ford said of statehood, pounding her fist on a table.
Ford is channeling the frustration of some District residents who have seen zero progress on statehood in the generation since Norton, who is 80, took office.
Although largely unknown, Ford has the backing of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, has raised $106,000 — a little more than half of Norton’s war chest so far — and is building a network that could position her for a win — someday.
Norton, who is seeking a 15th term, and her supporters say now is not the time to elect someone new. If Democrats win control of the House in November, seniority would enable Norton to chair a subcommittee or even a full committee, although the District’s delegate does not have full voting rights in the chamber.
A leadership post could also give Norton more clout to bat down persistent GOP efforts to limit the District’s power.
“She’s been remarkably effective at defending D.C.’s interests even without a vote on the House floor and without partners in the Senate,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a longtime friend. “D.C. delegate is elected with one hand tied behind the back, but she has been a powerful voice for the District.”
Under Republican control, Norton has played defense against GOP measures to block city laws and policies related to legal marijuana, guns, assisted suicide, abortion for low-income women and even sewer-clogging disposable wet wipes.
“Boy, you know what, D.C., if you wanted to get rid of me, this wasn’t the year to do it!” Norton said last week, sitting at the National Democratic Club and sipping a cup of green tea with lemon.
Norton is proud of legislation she carried to reclaim land from the federal government for development throughout the city, including at the Wharf in Southwest Washington and in parts of NoMa. She also preserved the $40 million D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, which helps D.C. residents pay college tuition and is credited with keeping middle-class families in the city. And she shepherded along the deal that allowed President Trump to develop the Old Post Office into a luxury hotel, saying it was worthwhile for the tax revenue it brings the city, despite how most residents feel about Trump.
She was interrupted by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who thanked her for joining a recent a meeting of Japanese and Korean legislators who had visited while Congress was on recess and other lawmakers had returned to their home districts.
Then Takano turned to a reporter and gushed about Norton, saying that as a teenager he would listen to her regular commentary on NPR.
The interaction shows why Ford is in the uncomfortable position of challenging Norton, a veteran of the civil rights movement and the first woman to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Norton, who is immortalized on Ben’s Chili Bowl’s mural with former president Barack Obama and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, consistently wins more than 80 percent of the vote.
“Privately, there is lots of jumping up and down,” Ford said of those who tell her behind closed doors that they are excited about her campaign. “Publicly, it’s, ‘Well, she’s a civil rights icon; I can’t really get out there against that.’”
Racine is the exception.
“I’m not going to be an incumbent who tells her I support her in silence,” Racine said, referring to Ford. “I’m going to support her by being shoulder to shoulder with her — and that’s not to say I don’t revere the congresswoman. She’s done an extraordinary job. But I know our city needs youthful energetic leadership in the future. Kim Ford is that.”
Norton declined to respond to Racine’s comments.
A native Washingtonian, Ford attended Shepherd Elementary in Northwest before her mother — who was appointed by President Bill Clinton to a job in the General Services Administration — sent her to the elite private school Sidwell Friends.
She earned an international business degree from Vanderbilt University and worked at Nissan North America before earning a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.
Back in Washington, she joined the Obama administration to help implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and 18 months later led neighborhood revitalization efforts around the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Frustrated by regulations that she said shut out local residents from jobs, she went to work for the University of the District of Columbia and was eventually put in charge of workforce development.
After five years, she was recruited by the U.S. Education Department to lead an office in charge of community colleges and adult, career and technical education.
From her 11th-floor office in Southwest, Ford watched the development of the Wharf and lamented what she saw as the lack of local workers and businesses integrated into the shiny new buildings. She quit on Nov. 3 to challenge Norton.
On a recent day, Ford stood in a Chevy Chase living room where French doors framed a leafy green backyard and wowed a dozen potential donors with her plan to remake the District’s reputation in Congress in 10 years or less.
She wants to limit the federal government’s role in the city’s criminal-justice system and volunteer the District to pilot programs such as loan forgiveness. Every Hill office and federal agency should have a D.C. resident as an intern year-round, she said.
If elected, Ford would form a capital regional caucus and encourage regional cooperation on projects to avoid multiple local bids, as has happened with Amazon’s second headquarters.
She said Norton is not doing enough to engage with constituents; many don’t know Norton has local offices on K Street in NoMa and in Anacostia.
“Other members go on recess and go home and have town hall meetings . . . and they are out in the communities,” she said. “When was the last time we saw that?”
When Ford finished, Herta B. Feely thrust her hand into the air and said, “I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m on board!” Others asked how they could donate.
At first, Ford was vague, a rookie mistake Racine could not abide.
From the back of the room, he said, “With all due respect, I think you didn’t tell the people what they really need to know.”
Feely explained she and her friends had email lists, social media lists and all sorts of lists of would-be donors. “How can we help you, basically, is my question?” she said.
Ford explained the maximum federal donation is capped at $2,700 for individuals but that political action committees can give $5,000, which is how Norton raises most of her funds. Ford will use donations to pay for a staff of seven, targeted mailers and social media.
“Better?” she asked Racine.
“Excellent,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, Phyllis Eisen said she supported Norton in the past but likes Ford’s energy.
“I just think she should retire with dignity,” Eisen said, referring to Norton. “She’s not going to do that. She’s going to run again, of course, but Kim is going to get a lot of name recognition over whatever time it takes because she has got ‘it.’ ”
Mark Plotkin, a longtime political commentator and D.C. statehood advocate, supports Ford as an alternative to Norton, whom he has criticized over the years.
“She defines failure as victory,” he said, referring to the growing number of Democratic lawmakers who support statehood while the legislation goes nowhere. “I’ve called it a con job, giving us a feeling that we’re doing well, when we’re failing miserably.”
In response, Norton said while Republicans are in control of Congress and the White House, her strategy has been to win over Democrats. She will try to get a statehood bill through the House if Democrats take control next year.
“I did get a vote on D.C. statehood my first term in Congress because Democrats controlled the House,” she said. “I got it once; I can get it again.”
Norton said she has never considered retiring from Congress and, on the contrary, considers her job more important than ever in the Trump era.
In November, Ford got a taste of that feistiness when she called Norton to tell her she was running.
Norton said, “Welcome — if you’re ready for a fight.”