Eleanor Holmes Norton wants D.C. to have a vote.

How D.C.’s “Warrior on the Hill” Is Fighting for a Vote in Congress and a Star on the Flag

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Placemakers: Oct. 24 2016 2:02 AM

The Warrior on the Hill

Show notes

Washington may be the political center of the free world, but its 670,000 residents don’t have a say in the national legislature. What they do have is a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. Eleanor Holmes Norton can introduce legislation and vote in committee, but she can’t vote on the House floor. Over the course of 13 terms, the “Warrior on the Hill” been fighting to change that.

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Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.


Eleanor Holmes Norton

Eleanor Holmes Norton is Washington’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.

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Rebecca Sheir: I don’t know if you watch a whole lot of C-SPAN, but if you happened to be tuning in on April 19, 2007, and you caught the network’s gavel-to-gavel coverage from the U.S. House of Representatives, you might have witnessed what, I would call, a truly spectacular moment.

Eleanor Holmes Norton (on House floor): … and gave us home rule—

Man: Will the gentlewoman yield? Will the gentlewoman yield?

Norton: I will not yield, sir! The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding! The people who would deny them the vote, I yield you no ground! Not during my time! You have had your say, and your say has been that you think that the people of who live in your capital are not entitled to a vote in their House. Shame on you!

Sheir: This “not-yielding” woman is Eleanor Holmes Norton. She represents the people of Washington, D.C., myself included, in the House. And yet, as you heard her just say, we don’t actually get a vote there. Because, you see, there are serious limits to what Norton can do for her 670,000 constituents.

Norton: Well, I can represent them in every fundamental way except that which is emblematic of their citizenship: the final vote on the House floor. I get to vote in committee, I get to speak whenever I want to speak, I can do whatever any member can do. When you pull that lever that says how you vote, I don’t get to do that even when the matter affects only the District of Columbia!

Sheir: And for more than two decades, our nonvoting delegate—that’s what she’s technically called: a nonvoting delegate—for more than two decades, she’s tried time and again to change things. Like in that C-SPAN clip we just heard, where she was introducing a bill to grant D.C. a vote in Congress.

Norton: … and gave us home rule—

Man: Will the gentlewoman yield? Will the gentlewoman yield?

Norton: I will not yield, sir!

Sheir: And that’s not the only time Norton’s gotten downright feisty on D.C.’s behalf. Check out what she said in 2011, when the federal government was threatening to shut down, a situation which would put D.C. in a bind, since, as we’ll hear about later, Congress basically oversees the city

Norton: It’s time that the District of Columbia told the Congress to go straight to hell!

Sheir: So, it’s no wonder people around these parts have taken to calling Eleanor Holmes Norton the “Warrior on the Hill.” She was first elected in 1990 and has been in office for 13 terms. In that time, she hasn’t just tried to win full representation for the people of Washington, D.C., in Congress; she’s tried to win us our own star on the American flag, as the 51st state.

I’m Rebecca Sheir and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them. Today: Washington, D.C.’s ongoing battle against “Taxation Without Representation”—you’ve seen our license plates, yes?—and the woman who’s been duking it out on our behalf for more than two decades, our Warrior on the Hill, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

It’s not hard to get an opinion from Washingtonians about our situation in Congress.

Monty Albert: I feel deprived. I feel inadequate. I feel like it’s wrong.

Sheir: I recently strolled around a street fair and asked folks how they feel.

Haley Rabic: Like, what gets done in D.C. doesn’t matter because we don’t have accurate representation. What about the people that live here?

Charles Allen: I’ve got two little kids. As they get older, I’m going to have to try to explain to them that they have every responsibility of an American citizen. Yet their country does not respect them and give them the same rights.

Jonathon Rogers: What we really need is to kind of end this embarrassing, dirty secret that the center of the free world, we don’t have democracy here.

Sheir: And that last point? About this “embarrassing, dirty secret?” Eleanor Holmes Norton says the “secret” part is true, but it has nothing to do with shame.

Norton: My greatest frustration is what the polls tell me: that most residents of our country, most Americans, think we have the same rights as they do. At the same time, when they learn we do not, they strongly embrace full and equal rights for the American citizens who live here. But for them to do this, they have to know we don’t have it at all in the first place!

Sheir: A few other things “most Americans” might not know about D.C., Norton says, well, how about the fact that our gross domestic product is higher than that of 16 states? Or, that our population is larger than two?

Norton: There are two jurisdictions, Wyoming and Vermont, that have fewer people than we do.

Sheir: And, what’s more, if you reside in the nation’s capital, as I do?

Norton: You pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the United States of America. That is a little known factoid! So it is a particularly tough burden, when Uncle Sam takes from you everything he wants and does not give you the one quid pro quo to which you are entitled.

Sheir: In other words: representation in the national legislature. And get this: Of all the capitals of all the democracies in the world, D.C. is the only one without full voting rights. Now, Eleanor Holmes Norton is just the latest to carry the torch in what’s been a very contentious fight to gain these rights. Not just contentious—

Sheir: So, can you fly us through the history of D.C. and take us through the most, um, salient and important moments in these struggles?

Sheir: —but long!

Chris Myers Asch: It just depends on how far into the weeds you wanna get!

Sheir: This is Chris Myers Asch.

Asch: I’m the editor of Washington History and the author of the forthcoming book Chocolate City: Race and Democracy in Our Nation’s Capital, with my colleague, Derek Musgrove.

Sheir: And Chris says to understand D.C.’s situation, we have to go back, way back, to the year 1783, in the city, of Philadelphia.

Asch: And a group of Pennsylvania militiamen came to demand a bonus from the Pennsylvania Executive Council, which was meeting in the same building as what passed for the U.S. Congress at the time.

Sheir: As many as 400 soldiers mobbed the place, blocking the door and refusing to let the delegates out. So you can probably understand why the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, as it came to be called, made a whole lot of federal leaders ...

Asch: Men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton ...

Sheir: ... well, it made them freak out.

Asch: Because here is this group of armed militiamen basically taking a government body hostage almost, so it seemed. And they were worried about the prospect of the federal government being held hostage by state forces of some kind, and so they thought it would be important as they were thinking about devising this new national government, they thought it would be important for the federal government to have its own place, its own home, its own seat where it would not be under the control of any particular state.

Sheir: So, they made it official, by writing it into the United States Constitution.

Asch: Article 1 and Section 8.

Sheir: Which said they’d create a purely federal district, over which Congress would, and I quote, “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever.” Now, as for where this district would be located, they’d put it along the Potomac River. Maryland would donate a few square miles on one side of the river, Virginia, on the other, and they’d called the district “Columbia,” which, at the time, was a patriotic way of referring to the United States. But, as Chris Myers Asch points out, unlike the people who live in the District of Columbia today?

Asch: The people who came to live in Washington between 1790 when the site was selected and 1800 when the federal government moved there, those folks who lived in what became the District of Columbia still voted!

Sheir: Yup! They were actually represented in Congress back then.

Asch: If they were on the Virginia side of the Potomac, they voted in Virginia. If there were on the Maryland side of the Potomac, they voted in Maryland.

Sheir: But that state of affairs did not last long. See, about what the framers wrote in the Constitution, you know, how Congress would “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over” this new federal district? Well, in 1801 Congress made good on that promise. It put the District of Columbia under its control and also took away the residents’ right to vote for local or federal representatives.

Asch: Right away there’s protests. Because they did not assume that when they moved to the district that they would therefore relinquish all rights as American citizens. The thought wouldn’t have entered their heads! I mean, these are people who lived through the Revolution. Right? They fought over taxation without representation. They were not interested in losing that right.

Sheir: Now, Congress did throw D.C. something of a bone not long after.

Asch: By the next year in 1802, it does establish a form of self-government where you have an elected city council and then an appointed mayor.

Sheir: Appointed, by the way, by the president of the United States. And both the council and mayor were at the mercy of Congress.

Asch: Congress has a veto over everything.

Sheir: That system held for a few years, until 1820.

Asch: Then Congress relents again and allows the mayor to be an elected office.

Sheir: But, by the 1870s, when America was experiencing its whole “Go West, Young Man” westward expansion thing, Congress decided to change things up yet again, and give D.C. what we’d call a “territorial government.”

Asch: D.C. is treated like a territory—you know, the way western lands before they become states are called “territories.” Like Utah Territory.

Sheir: And this territorial government had, instead of a mayor, a governor. And he was appointed by, you guessed it! The president of the United States! Which is kind of funny, because D.C. couldn’t even vote for president until 1974! But, I get ahead of myself. Going back to the 1870s, we had this territorial government, right? And our governor, a guy by the name of Alexander Shepherd, well, let’s just say he messed up. Big time.

Asch: He takes charge and goes on a spending spree. He’s very much into development and infrastructure. And so Congress gives him $6 million and he spends $20 million.

Sheir: Now, to be fair, Shepherd was spending this money on some pretty important things: paving roads and sidewalks, setting up sewers, gas mains and water mains, creating the city’s first public transit with horse-drawn streetcars, Nevertheless, says Chris Myers Asch:

Asch: Congress is appalled by this extravagant spending, and in 1874, largely because of the fiscal irresponsibility of Shepherd and the Board of Public Works, they dismantled the territorial government and dismantle all self-government actually in the district.

Sheir: In its place they installed this three-man commission, who was appointed by, any guesses? Anyone? Yup! The president! And that is how things stayed. For nearly 100 years.

Asch: That is called “disfranchisement” in D.C. history, right—it’s where D.C. residents lost their right to vote. They couldn’t vote for anything. They couldn’t vote for alderman. They couldn’t vote for Board of Education, anybody.

Sheir: And part of the reason why? Well, it’s something we haven’t really talked about yet: race. Remember the name of the book Chris Myers Asch is working on?

Asch: Chocolate City: Race and Democracy in Our Nation’s Capital.

Sheir: See, at the time of disfranchisement, in the 1870s, black people made up roughly a third of D.C.’s population. Thanks to something called the Negro Suffrage Act, which passed in 1867, if you were a male over 21 years of age, and you’d lived in the city for at least a year, you could vote. Regardless of your race. And that made certain powers-that-be nervous.

Asch: And this fear, this specter of Negro domination is part of what’s driving the disfranchisement efforts. And it’s part of what undermines any efforts in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries to bring back the right to vote. I mean, you hear this all the way up into the 1940s and ’50s. So even before black people become a majority of the population, which doesn’t happen until 1957, long before that, race is the primary factor in driving opposition to suffrage in D.C.

Sheir: And this brings us all the way up to the civil rights movement. The movement’s leaders tied D.C.’s inability to govern itself to the civil rights agenda.

Asch: And they find a very sympathetic audience, a very sympathetic president in Lyndon B. Johnson. You know, before Johnson, presidents had called rhetorically for D.C. suffrage, but they hadn’t done anything about it. Johnson actually did something about it.

Sheir: Indeed, he did! He started pushing for self-government in the District. But, Congress pushed back. So Johnson took what steps he could and replaced the three-man commission running the city with a presidentially appointed city council and mayor.

Asch: And appointed a black man, Walter Washington, to serve as that mayor. He very much saw this as a step toward home rule. He saw this as part of his civil rights agenda. And he believed that this was part of the effort to make democracy real in the nation’s capital and across the country.

Sheir: That was in 1967. More progress came in 1970, when D.C. residents got the right to elect a delegate to the House of Representatives. A nonvoting delegate, as we now know, but hey: Things were moving along. All this momentum culminated in 1973, when Congress finally, finally, passed something called the Home Rule Act.

Asch: You had elections in 1974 for a city council and a mayor.

Sheir: Real elections. None of this appointed-by-the-president business. Though, as Chris Myers Asch explains, there was a reason some skeptics referred to Home Rule, as “Home Fool.”

Asch: Because Congress still essentially has veto power. And many members of the Congress who voted for the bill saw it as an experiment. They said, “OK, we’ll test this out, but if it doesn’t work, we’re going to take back control. You know, we can strip it away if it doesn’t work out.”

Sheir: Not long after we got home rule, we tried going even further, and amending the Constitution to get voting rights in Congress. That effort failed. Only 16 states signed on. We needed 38. But this push for voting rights, in the 1970s and 80s—it wasn’t the only kind of suffrage movement going on. You also had people fighting for D.C. to become the 51st state. People like:

Sam Smith: How are you doing?

Sheir: I’m really well. How are you doing, Sam?

Sheir: Sam Smith. I called him up in rural Maine, where he lives now. Back in 1970, he helped found the D.C. Statehood Party.

Smith: It should have been obviously clear that the United States didn’t need a colony, and that’s essentially what Washington was: it was a colony.

Sheir: Smith’s party rallied the troops and got D.C. to write up a state constitution and petition Congress to let them join the U.S. as a state. They were following a model set by other territories, like Tennessee, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Smith: Back then, as I recall, D.C. was the size of, I think there were three states that were smaller than D.C. in the country. So there was no logical reason why it shouldn’t have equal standing.

Sheir: Yet nothing came of that petition. Nor of the statehood bills later introduced in Congress. So, by the time 1990 rolled around? And we elected our second nonvoting delegate? A third-generation Washingtonian by the name of Eleanor Holmes Norton? Well, she had quite the uphill battle ahead of her. We’ll hear how she armored up and took on the fight, after the break.

From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. This week we’re in Washington, D.C., talking about the capital city’s fight for voting rights. Because, even though the District of Columbia is the political center of the free world, its 670,000 people don’t have a say in our own national legislature. Myself included. What we do have, is a single nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives: Eleanor Holmes Norton. She can introduce legislation, she can vote in committee, but she can’t actually vote on the House floor. And that handicap has brought Norton her share of respect, of sympathy, even a bit, of ridicule.

Stephen Colbert: I’m going to nail you here. I checked your voting record. You have not voted once while you’ve been in office. You want to defend that?

Sheir: Comedian Stephen Colbert took to calling Norton “the fake congresswoman” when he was still doing his conservative-pundit shtick on The Colbert Report. She first appeared on his show back in 2006.

Norton: Our government is imposing taxes on the residents of the District of Columbia without giving us a vote in the House and the Senate.

Colbert: Isn’t that for states? You’re not a state.

Norton: We’re not a state. It’s in the Constitution.

Sheir: But all joking aside, when I visited Norton’s office on Capitol Hill, the “nonvoting” part of her title was made abundantly, and audibly, clear. As she and I were chatting.

Norton: We wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money all at one time. [Buzzer sound.] That would be up to the council and the mayor.

Sheir: Every now again I would hear …

Norton: Our bill wouldn’t decide! [Buzzer goes off again.]

Sheir: … this …

Norton: When your fiscal year should occur. [Buzzer goes off again.]


Sheir: [Buzzer goes off.] Does that happen a lot?

Norton: A fair amount. They’re just at the end, almost at the end of the day’s session.

Sheir: Oh.

Norton: So they’re taking a lot of votes that I can’t vote on!

Sheir: These bells, buzzers, I don’t know what you’d call them, but they alert House members about quorum calls and, yes, pending votes. Of which Norton gets, you know, zero. And it’s been that way since she took office, 13 terms ago. But, interesting fact: Before then? Eleanor Holmes Norton had no intention of holding an elected office. She says the idea came from a good friend of hers: Donna Brazile, who you may know as a political pundit and interim chair of the Democratic Party.

Norton: I was more like her mentor; I was trying to persuade her to go to law school or maybe not even law school but to do something else with her brilliant mind. And this seat became vacant. I then was a tenured professor of law having just gotten tenure. And she said, “Eleanor, you ought to run for Congress. You’re a native Washingtonian.” I said, “You’ve got to be joking!”

Sheir: Norton is the granddaughter of one of the District’s first African American firefighters and the great-granddaughter of a runaway slave. And it occurred to her that representing the disenfranchised people of Washington, D.C., it made sense.

Norton: Well, it helps to grow up in the District of Columbia, which was a segregated city. I went to segregated schools. It helps to grow up in a city which had no local government, no mayor, no city council. It helps to be a child of the Civil Rights Movement and to have the opportunity to go south to Mississippi, to have been a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Sheir: It also helped that Norton had argued and won groundbreaking cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, including a sexual-discrimination suit dozens of female staffers at Newsweek filed against their employer in 1970. Maybe you’ve heard of, or seen, Good Girls Revolt? The new Amazon TV series about that case?

Joy Bryant (as Norton): What do you want? Use that voice of yours. What do you want?

Woman 1: Who is that?

Woman 2: Eleanor Holmes Norton from the ACLU.

Woman 1: Oh!

Sheir: After the ACLU, Norton became head of New York’s Human Rights Commission. Then President Jimmy Carter named her the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she drafted the country’s first set of regulations defining sexual harassment in the workplace.

Norton: All that helps to transfer that experience to my role as a member of Congress representing the only Americans who pay full federal income taxes, have no representation in the Senate, uh, have—poor dears—only me in the House.

Sheir: And Norton hit the ground running, to change that. In 1991, she reintroduced the D.C. statehood bill, but it died in committee. In 1992, the country elected a Democratic president, the Democrats held a majority in the House, so Norton thought hey, why not introduce the bill, yet again?

Norton: I believe that the good people of the United States do not support the present condition of the residents of the District of Columbia. I believe they would want you to vote as I am asking you to vote this evening, to make the District of Columbia the 51st state of the United States of America.

Sheir: During the floor debate, you heard a lot of passionate support from the left side of the aisle. Here’s one of my favorite moments, care of the late Lucien Blackwell of Pennsylvania:

Blackwell: Mr. Speaker, as I observe the debate here tonight on statehood for this District, I’m reminded of something that W.E.B. Du Bois said when he cried out in anguish: “Why did God make me a stranger in my own land?” Here we have people who come into the city of Washington, enjoy everything that they have here, create all the problems and then go home and then tell these people how to run Washington! There’s something wrong with that! Something bigoted about that! You would not tolerate that in your state, and you know it!

Sheir: The bill was voted down: 277 to 153. But Eleanor Holmes Norton? She considered it an achievement just to get a vote in the first place. At the press conference, she was quoted as saying: “I’m ready to declare victory.” That didn’t sit well with some people.

Mark Plotkin: If you were at that press conference, we had lost. We’d lost badly.

Sheir: Mark Plotkin is a longtime political analyst and columnist in Washington. We met in the courtyard of one of D.C.’s power-breakfast spots: the Four Seasons.

Plotkin: She was taking credit for getting 60 percent of the Democrats to vote for this bill. That’s meaningless! We got 152 Democrats. We needed 218. And we had overwhelming majorities. And that’s what’s wrong, we settle for crumbs. That we just got a vote was in itself considered a victory. No! You play for keeps!

Sheir: That’s why Plotkin says he believes that Norton’s nickname, the Warrior on the Hill, it’s a misnomer.

Plotkin: She gets points for trying. And I’m not interested in trying, nor should the citizenry.

Sheir: But that’s not what’s going on with Eleanor Holmes Norton, says history professor George Derek Musgrove; he’s Chris Asch’s co-author on Chocolate City.

Musgrove: If you look closely at what Eleanor Holmes Norton has done, she’s a gradualist.

Sheir: An incrementalist, working her way toward one particular goal:

Musgrove: Statehood. And she has a strategy for gaining statehood. It is to get tiny little bits of self-determination and to hope that they’ll add up over time. She’s kind of like operating as a lawyer in a court. She wants to set really small precedents until she builds toward a large case that gets her what she wants.

Norton: Well, I certainly can’t be all or nothing. I’m trying to get whatever I can get every moment I have. I’m trying to get budget autonomy. That’s probably the central ingredient of statehood, which is at least for your own money, nobody ought to be able to tell you how to spend it and when they say you can’t spend money on abortions for poor women, that’s what I mean by having control over your own money.

Sheir: What Norton’s talking about with the budget is something that’s happened many times in D.C.’s history. Even with home rule, Congress has final say over D.C.’s budget. So federal legislators have tried several times to stop the District from using its own money to subsidize abortions for low-income women. Not only that, but Congress has tried to prevent D.C. from using its own money to fund a needle exchange. This was in the late 1990s, when our city’s rates of HIV and AIDS were through the roof. Norton had a lot to say about the needle-exchange ban on the House floor in 1999.

Norton: Mr. Speaker, this is the most inflammatory and heartless of the harshly anti-democratic amendments before us today. It says “drop dead” to the people I represent.

Sheir: In the end, President Bill Clinton vetoed the ban, calling it an “unwarranted intrusion into local citizens’ decisions about local matters.” But, that’s the thing about home rule, or, again, “home fool,” as some people would call it. We elect our own mayor, and city council, but, as Eleanor Holmes Norton is quick to point out:

Norton: While the mayor and city council get to do virtually everything, if members of Congress decide they want to intervene, they can do so and they try very hard to do so.

Sheir: But of all the times members of Congress have butted into our business, if you ask Eleanor Holmes Norton which one pained her the most?

Norton: You wanna know why Eleanor sheds tears from time to time?

Sheir: She’ll tell you it happened in 2007, when she introduced the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act—the one we mentioned at the start of the show. The one that would give the D.C. representative an actual vote.

Man: Will the gentlewoman yield? Will the gentlewoman yield?

Norton: I will not yield, sir!

Sheir: The thing about this bill was: It wouldn’t just grant a voting House seat, a most-likely-Democratic seat, to Washington, D.C. The bill also added a seat for another jurisdiction, several time zones away:

Norton: Utah, perhaps the most Republican state in the Union.

Sheir: The way Norton saw it, the Democratic seat for D.C., and the Republican seat for Utah, they would, you know, cancel each other out:

Norton: One for you and one for me.

Not unlike when Alaska and Hawaii entered the union in the 1950s.

Norton: One was a Republican, and one was a Democrat.

Sheir: And initially, things were going really well for Norton’s bill in 2007. It cleared the House, eventually it cleared the Senate. But, as she painfully recalls, in the end? We did not get our first full seat in Congress.

Norton: The only reason we don’t have it now is because the National Rifle Association was able to persuade its allies in the Congress to attach a bill that would’ve allowed us to have that vote, in return for wiping out every single gun law in the District of Columbia.

Sheir: Every single law. Like our ban on semi-automatic weapons. Our penalties for unregistered firearms. And what’s more? It would eviscerate our ability to pass future gun laws.

Norton: And for what? It’s for a trophy to take back home to people who have nothing to do with us.

Sheir: In other words—

Norton: We are a political football when they want it; we are a puppet when they want it.

Sheir: Only this time, she says, it was worse than ever.

Norton: This was, perhaps, the saddest moment of my career in the House. It was impossible to look my residents in the face and say, “I’ve given up your safety for your vote.”

Sheir: What an awful decision to have to make.

Norton: I think there is no hardest decision. It’s like having two children and saying which one, well, you couldn’t give up either of them. But I had this in hand and had to give it up, or open the nation’s capital to the intolerable.

Sheir: So, she gave it up. The legislation never made it out of Congress. And, again, that failure really ticked off some of her critics.

Plotkin: Eleanor Holmes Norton tactically went for the wrong thing.

Sheir: Like our spirited political analyst, Mark Plotkin.

Plotkin: Norton should have taken even the odious horrible anti-gun control amendments because at least it was an incremental stage that we could have accepted.

Sheir: But, she didn’t.

Plotkin: Eleanor Holmes Norton is a major, major—I said that, I’ll say it again—major obstacle, because she lulls: a sense that something is being done when it’s not being done.

Sheir: And Plotkin’s not the only one who feels this way.

Tim Krepp: She gives a good floor speech, and you know, she’s our happy Warrior on the Hill, and she’ll go up there and she’ll fight for us. And that’s what we expect from our delegate is to fight for us; we don’t actually expect to win.

Sheir: Tim Krepp is a tour guide and author here in D.C. Full disclosure: He ran against Eleanor Holmes Norton, as an independent, in 2014. He got about 5 percent of the vote, to Norton’s nearly 84.

Krepp: She’s had the seat for life. I mean, to be utterly frank, she’ll probably have it for life. But we as a city need to start thinking and demanding what we want to have, and planning for a post-Norton era. I mean, at some point, we will have a new delegate. And my big fear is that whoever comes next regards this as a D.C. politics emeritus position: that you just go to the Hill, and you get to stick there, and nothing’s expected from you.

Sheir: But Eleanor Holmes Norton, she begs to differ.

Norton: One of the reasons I had to consider whether I wanted to become a member of Congress was that I come out of the civil rights movement. I come out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “Freedom now”!

Sheir: But, you know: “now” is pretty hard to come by when you’re jammed up in the political gridlock of Congress. Especially when a) you’ve served in the minority for most of your career, and b) you can’t even vote on the House floor. Eleanor Holmes Norton still insists that real rights for D.C., be it voting representation in Congress or all-out statehood, they are within reach. It’s not some fool’s errand. She points to other movements that took a lot of time, and patience:

Norton: You would have to have talked to the Suffragettes, who were the first Abolitionists. They saw black men get the vote, such as it was. It took them, what, a hundred and fifty years to get their own rights. Well, if somebody had said this is a fool’s errand, especially to the twentieth century Suffragettes, I’m afraid that those women, those polite women, might have found a dirty name to call them!

Sheir: Norton says when it comes to D.C.’s rights, she sees signs of real progress, right now. Statehood for D.C. is now part of the 2016 Democratic Party platform. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed in the Washington Informer saying if she’s elected, she’ll fight to make the District of Columbia the 51st state.

And this year, the city of Washington drafted a new state constitution. On Election Day we’ll vote on whether we should ratify that constitution and petition Congress to enact a statehood admission bill—you know, just like the states I mentioned before: Tennessee, Hawaii, Alaska. This summer, D.C.’s mayor called a constitutional convention.

Muriel Bowser: I’m Muriel Bowser, I’m the mayor of Washington, D.C., and I’m calling to order the constitutional convention for the 51st state!

Sheir: And among the first speakers Mayor Bowser introduced?

Bowser: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton!

Sheir: During Norton’s speech, she talked about her quarter-century battling for D.C.’s rights, and how this new effort could, and should, be different.

Norton: There can be no more pauses. No more ups followed by downs. No more episodic fights, no more delegated home rule that Congress takes back at will, piece by piece, law by law.

Sheir: No, she said. This time, we must dedicate ourselves to starting a real movement—not just across the city, but across the country.

Norton: And this time we must not stop, until the District of Columbia becomes the 51st state of the United States of America!

Sheir: And this long-fighting Warrior on the Hill hopes she’ll be there, to see it.

Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.

For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at placemakers@slate.com. You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.

Coming up next time on Placemakers:

You’ll find a Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in many cities across the U.S. And even though the thoroughfare is named for a man who gave his life to uplifting communities, it often runs through a part of town that’s suffered through decades of disinvestment.

Voice: Right now as you can look around this abandoned buildings and boarded up buildings and that’s not what Dr. King stood for. He stood for beauty.

Sheir: We’ll head to St. Louis, Missouri, where this man, and many others, are working to eradicate urban blight, from the outside in.

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