DCist Interview: Eleanor Holmes Norton
||Tuesday, September 14, 2010
It's Primary Day, the day when District residents -- well, mostly Democrats -- get out to the polls and exercise their right to suffrage. So on a day when the ballot is king, who better to talk to than a person who has done more to fight for voting rights in the District of Columbia than anyone -- Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Delegate took the time to answer a few of our questions about the city, her reelection campaign, the mayoral campaign's racial divide and its effect on the city's future, parks, budget autonomy, and, of course, her continuing struggle in Congress to make the District's general elections in November more than a simple coronation of the already-elected Mayor or Council Chair.
Let's start with your reelection campaign: you have had massive support at straw polls, you've been endorsed by pretty much every media outlet and appear to be coasting in your campaign for -- if my remedial math skills serve me -- your 11th term as Delegate. What has been the biggest challenge for you this reelection campaign?
I think if you would have asked me this question about Congress, I would have said Republicans. [laughs] But the biggest challenge of this campaign has been that [in my last term] I could touch voting rights and had it slip away from me. I was really looking for it to be my tenth term, my twentieth year, with voting rights having gotten both through 60 votes in the Senate and overwhelming support in the House. I will go back to the House. I'm not going to leave it on the table.
D.C. has always gotten everything its gotten quite incrementally. First, they said we could elect our school board. Then, they said we will appoint a mayor for you. And then they said, only because people continued to struggle for it, okay, you can elect your mayor. But as you can see this year, I'm having to get us budget autonomy, because you still didn't have the same rights that everybody else in the United States does. So I resign to incrementalism, and I've learned to work incrementally. I've been able to things done, even when Republicans [control the Congress]. You've got to say "how can I deal with them? I may have to deal with them again."
Speaking of incrementalism, there was a large uproar in April, when you said you were willing to compromise on the gun amendment to the Voting Rights Bill, especially considering the decision's proximity to the mass shootings on South Capitol Street. Do you have any regrets about the way that was handled?
I don't have any regrets at all, because I had a way to do it. I tried for over six months to negotiate with the NRA, to no avail. So the question became -- with Utah going away -- are we going to leave voting rights on the table? There are ways, if all they do is write out your gun laws -- horrific as that is -- where it would leave you still with federal gun laws. But we need, in the nation's capital, stronger gun laws. The decision has been made by the people -- that also protects the federal government.
But if all they had done was to just wipe away our gun laws -- I know how to get back gun laws, gradually. That I know how to do. That is not what they proposed. I was ready to go with [the former option], that is what passed the Senate. I said, "okay, I know what to do, I know how to get it back." So I said I will lose it forever for the District, I'll take it. Then I met with the leadership, who were all on board. Then they showed me the piece of paper. We had something tipped up to the stratosphere...in addition, there were add-ons that made it impossible to accept. You could carry guns in the District of Columbia, open or concealed -- I don't think you want to do that in the nation's capital. The District of Columbia could not keep guns out of District-controlled buildings. Buildings downtown, in the District, you're the property owner -- you could not keep people from having guns in your building.
At that point, they gave me an offer that I had to refuse.
Any thoughts on the midterms in the Congress?
I'm not going to make any assumptions that we're not going to lose this House -- and I'll tell you one of the reasons I'm not. I realize we're going to lose seats -- but I'll tell you many of my good friends, the core Democrats, they have voted to protect themselves. They voted against climate change, they voted against health care, they voted against financial reform, they voted against the stimulus. But they would have voted for voting rights.
After the most recent setback to the Voting Rights Bill in April, you said in a lengthy statement, "I will return to the trenches where I have always fought for my hometown to do all I can to turn back these aggressors. At the same time, I am full of promising ideas about how to move forward not only on voting rights but on every right D.C. residents are entitled to as American citizens.” Then, in a July op-ed in the Washington Post, you wrote, "[I]f I am reelected, I will introduce a series of bills in the next Congress that include not only the pending House-only approach but also the other bills that I have put forward in previous years: bills for statehood and for votes in both the Senate and the House." Certainly, these "aggressors" will trot out the same arguments we have always heard about the District. What strategies are you prepared to use to combat such aggressors, and what do we have to do to prove to the Congress that we're not just a federal city?
First of all, I always put in bills that we're entitled to. If we can't get the House bill, then, you know, we're not going to hop over and get statehood tomorrow. But I said when I pulled down the House bill, I'm going to have neighborhood conversations so that I can get everybody's ideas about moving forward. And people came up with very thoughtful ideas, some of which I think are beyond the pale -- for example, becoming part of Maryland. That's beyond the pale, not only because I think most residents don't want it, but Maryland doesn't want it. You don't force yourself, especially if you're for Home Rule, on another jurisdiction. But I've introduced these other bills, and people came forward with these bills that I had never introduced. So I said I'm going to introduce them all to give you a platform to talk about things, so we can actually gauge what is practical and what is possible. I have them with the ANC Comissioner in the area, or any local person. They have been very, very good meetings -- we have them in coffeehouses, we have them in rec centers, we have them outdoors.
Depending on one, whether we keep the House and or Senate, and two, what their makeup is, I have to attune myself to them. Talking about strategies, I certainly wasn't contemplating that we would have an election that may be as close as this. I don't know how close it will be, but this has been a kind of turning on Democrats, where we're not getting credit for financial reform to save the country, we're not getting credit for health care, we're not getting credit for the stimulus bill. Above all, what I have been in the Congress is a strategist. More than anything else, I just never could have gotten stuff done during the time the Republicans were in power. I was playing the same game you play when you play chess. I will look at what's on the board and I will try to get it. Meanwhile, this is what I'm doing: every little bit of thing I can get -- this has always been my strategy -- while you're in the majority, get every piece that you can. That's why I went for statehood when I first came to Congress. I look at every little piece, everything from the statue bill to budget autonomy. The budget autonomy is big, and I have every reason to believe we're going to get budget autonomy.
So you believe the budget autonomy bill will pass the Senate?
I do. It's not going to pass the Senate by us saying we want budget autonomy, but I know how to get things out of the House and the Senate. I believe that we will do that [with budget autonomy]. The way it is going, I have every reason to believe that we will get it. I've tried to snatch every little bit that I can; that's what you've got to do. The way in which I approach being the Delegate is that everyone wants to hold up that we're entitled to statehood, but I'll be darned if I left voting rights on the table because I can't get statehood. You have simply got to pry things loose, because that's what it takes.
In 2008, you said that "we should all be ashamed" of the state of the National Mall. You sponsored legislation and there is now a vision plan to revitalize the Mall. Do you still maintain that sentiment or do you think things have gotten better?
I walk the Mall every summer, ever since there were six muggings out there about six years ago. Almost every year, I had found continuing problems. Usually, some bulbs burned out, trees that shade the lights. Park police has been pretty good. The root cause of the problem there was lighting. So this time I went, and first I was a little disconcerted, because I saw lights come on one side of the Mall before the other side of the Mall, we found a few lights burned out near the Mall, that kind of thing. We found almost none of the trees shaded, dirty bulbs. I talked to a Smithsonian guard -- did not get to see a policeman while I was down there, saw one on the other side and couldn't catch up with him -- and he said [police] come by every half-hour, and she reported no crime at all. We know of no significant problems. So I think that the Mall -- probably -- can claim back its crime-free status. That's what it was in the early nineties. when the District had the highest crime rate and all the gun shootings. If it can be free of crime in the midst of that holocaust, I don't understand why it couldn't happen all over again. Now, the new administration and the President have seem to taken that to heart. Since the National Parks Service owns our other parks, I do plan to go to the other parks this fall. They usually do a good job of keeping them up, that's why I believe its best for them to remain with the National Park Service.
You have been highly visible over the last couple of months when it comes to issues of safety in the District, especially after the tragic murder of Neil Godleski near Sherman Circle in Petworth. You've been working with Councilmember Muriel Bowser to try and bring extra lighting to that Circle. Is that something that you will continue to make a priority if you are reelected?
Oh, yes. We came to Sherman Circle, and though it didn't occur in Sherman Circle, it was an opportunity to look at the lighting -- if he had gotten to the park, he wouldn't have been much better off. They don't have the money in their budget, I believe, to better light Sherman Circle, [but] it could be done out of money that NPS has in the Senate appropriations. So I'm going to try and get the money. I've got Department of Transportation, NPS, my office and the cops sitting in meetings -- MPD, as well as Park Police -- trying to figure out how to get the money.
You have sponsored legislation which would make the District a tax haven for insurance reserves. In his economic plan, Vince Gray has endorsed this legislation and said he would pursue it. Mayor Fenty has not made such an embrace to date. Do you believe that if he is reelected, the Mayor will endorse such legislation?
I don't know. This bill, with some support from insurance companies around the country, says why not keep [money] here? Keep this money here and give the District of Columbia, a federal city, that tax status. I see no reason why the Mayor would not go along with this. It has nothing but upside for the District of Columbia. If we are a federal city, why not let us be the place where these tax funds are housed, so we can reap the benefits of it?
This year's race for mayor has been incredibly polarizing, especially along a racial divide. Going forward, how do you feel this will affect the city and the way you interact with the city?
It's very urgent to remedy it. I have found one of the great advantages of being in the Congress but also representing the people of this city in the Congress is that you have conservative, white people or liberal black people or Hispanics or whatever. I never have to wonder whether my white folks will be for what my black folks are for. It has been an extraordinarily wonderful thing. To represent a progressive city, which does not know policy differences on major issues -- there's no difference on environmental issues or transportation issues, there is not once can I think of a vote I've taken in committee or on the House floor where I have to say, well, "one side of the city...". Recognizing that they are in very different circumstances, I don't get any different votes from Ward 3 than I do from Ward 8. The reason for that is really the fact that when it comes to policy, there are not essential differences. You really have to understand how weird that is.
To have a city that comes together on policy the way that we do, split? Along racial lines? It is unnecessary and an outrage. And it must be cured immediately. It must be. It's a breach that is a false and artificial breach, but it can be brought back together. Whether Fenty wins or Gray wins, that's the first thing they've got to do -- either is capable of it. They must understand that before you get to do this, that and the other, make sure everybody understands that we're one city again, like we always were -- or like we were certainly in recent years.
During one of these roundtable discussions, you spoke about same-sex marriage, and how it was an issue that was an example of how difficult it was to work within the microgovernment of the District of Columbia. Now that it has passed, what do you think that says about the process of getting things done?
There were some racial differences there. Let me give you a good example of why I think that it was: look at HIV/AIDS, when the black churches stayed away from the whole notion, for some years, of doing nothing much about this condition, because it was associated with gay men. They have learned to put aside their religious differences and I can only think that marriage does have some divide in the city, but not nearly as much as you think. There's no question that there are African-Americans that are not for marriage. But there's also, in the African-American community, a live and let live tolerance that you often do not see in other populations. The best example of that is abortion. Most blacks are Baptist, a fairly fundamental religion. But black women get abortions at a rate of four times of white women; that's too bad because there are other ways to keep that from happening, but that's the practical reality of it.
[Gay marriage] is new. The President doesn't embrace gay marriage, and so we don't even have a role model up there. I do believe that over time -- just like the greatest tragedy during my service in the Congress, which has been to see black gay men who essentially chose to die, rather than become openly gay and protect themselves -- I will say that I see that having changed. And if it can change on that score, over time, I think it can change on other scores.
Have you talked with Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) about his assertion that there should only be one D.C. statue in Statuary Hall?
Oh, I've talked with him alright. [laughs] I mean, did you hear his comments? We pay taxes here. And Lundgren is, by the way, I wouldn't call him a moderate, but I serve with him on the Homeland Security committee, and I find him more reasonable than most Republicans. He was the ranking member, and he is carrying the order for the majority -- the "just say no" majority. He is not open to any changes and I'm not going to be able to get this bill through on this one unless I do some curly Q's. Isn't that pitiful?
I think we joked and said that we were ready to write the headline "Rep. Lungren Keeps Frederick Douglass Out Of The Capitol."
Well, how about refusing L'Enfant! Maybe we should just move them in during the middle of the night.
Maybe we should just put them on our backs and pull them over. Speaking of civil disobedience, your main challenger, Doug Sloan, made some waves earlier this year when he suggested that "to get Congress' attention, there's about six or seven bridges between D.C. and Virginia. You take about 40 or 50 concrete Jersey barriers and you shut those bridges down for a day."
Well, why don't we do a takeover of the federal government. Did you notice he said that once and never again?
That is correct, to my knowledge.
Take it from a practiced agent of civil disobedience -- the first thing I could think of was, let's see, all four of the regional senators were for the Voting Rights Act. So why would we want to inconvenience them? I don't have any beef with the region. My beef is with Republicans, outside of the reach! [Laughs] The thing with civil disobedience is that it has to be strategic -- when I was in the civil rights movement, we knew exactly what we were going to do.
The internet is apparently trying to get Stephen Colbert to host a rally on the Mall like Glenn Beck did. Is it safe to say you two would reconnect if that rally happened?
Let us email Stephen. Do it, Stephen. You will get even more people to the Mall.
I think he would.
Steve Colbert has done more for voting rights than anything we have ever done. For putting me on and making fun of me, as somebody who doesn't have any more power than a student council president, he has done more to make the world, and certainly the country aware. People come to our office, and they say they are from Timbuktu, or someplace in Texas -- and they say, "can we have our picture taken with Congresswoman Norton? We saw her on the Colbert Report!"