The District’s representative to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1991, DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is facing something she has seldom seen in the 14 elections after her initial hard-fought win: an opponent in the Democratic Primary.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, the candidates’ campaign schedule has included several public forums, among other campaign events.
“The main point was about statehood and why is it taking so long,” said Charles Wilson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats. “Congresswoman Holmes Norton, because she has experience, said this is not an easy road and that it takes votes, experience, and cooperation from Republicans and Democrats.”
Ford contends that Norton, a veteran of the civil rights movement and law professor who turned 81 last week, hasn’t taken the necessary bipartisan approach.
“She refuses to work across the aisle, and [statehood] will not happen without bipartisan support,” Ford said in an interview. “This approach of ‘We have to wait, wish and pray that the Democrats all get in office and that is what’s going to do it’ is an incorrect approach.”
Ford — who served in the Obama administration, was a dean at the University of the District of Columbia Community College and grew up in DC — says statehood is possible with what she calls “tangible outcomes on the road to statehood.”
“We need to be proactive in our legislation. We need to get full budget autonomy,” she said. “We need a much stronger alignment between the delegate’s office, the council members and the mayor.”
Still, many DC residents remember when Norton was able to get a House vote on DC statehood in 1993 and approval of a congressional voting rights bill through the House in 2007 and the Senate in 2009, though the momentum fell part due to a proposed amendment that would have overhauled local gun laws. For Candace Tiana Nelson, the president of Ward 4 Democrats, to hear Norton cite the prospect of another vote on statehood was exciting.
“It was the biggest moment for me when she refreshed my memory,” Nelson said. “I would be elated if we could flip the House and have that opportunity.”
Though Norton hasn’t achieved passage of a DC statehood bill for residents, she has a lengthy legislative record. They include two 2011 measures that set the stage for development of The Wharf along the Southwest waterfront by establishing DC’s ownership and redesignating the Washington Channel to open it to more boating and waterside activities. More recently, Norton also helped convince Congress to put $40 million in this year’s budget agreement for the DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program despite the Trump administration’s opposition.
These accomplishments are not lost on voters.
“Congresswoman Norton has a great deal of support in the Ward 8 not because of what she will do but what she has done and what she has accomplished,” Wilson said.
After the debates, Wilson announced the Ward 8 Democrats’ support for Norton with 75 percent of the vote and 21 percent in support of Ford.
At the Ward 4 Democrats meeting, Norton reminded DC residents that, given her seniority, she would have the opportunity to chair a subcommittee or full committee if the Democrats regain control of the House. As she paced back in forth, she discussed why chairing a committee is critical.
“I have never been able to chair because for most of my time I have been in the minority,” Norton said. If that changes after November’s elections, Norton promised that she’d focus on statehood, drawing applause and cheers from the partisan crowd.
“When I first came to Congress, I got us a vote on DC statehood. If we get back the House once again, I will ask for another vote,” she said to cheers and applause from the crowd.
Statehood, of course, is not the only issue on voters’ minds. In her response to a questionnaire by DC for Democracy, Norton highlighted her work against Republican amendments that would have eliminated more of DC’s gun laws and eased the way for people to carry concealed guns in the District.
For her part, Ford cited a need to codify language protecting DC from federal government shutdowns and to remove federal government involvement in the District’s court system. She also said she would work with regional colleagues to get full funding for the St. Elizabeths campus.
Norton’s years of experience prompt her supporters to draw a contrast with Ford’s readiness for the job, saying that she’d have to learn how the House works and wouldn’t have the perks of Norton’s seniority.
“This is a critical time, and I think that is why people are leaning toward maybe it is not Ms. Ford’s time,” Nelson said.
Despite concerns about lack of experience, Ford has the support of DC Attorney General Karl Racine — who cites her youthful energy — and as of May 30 had raised over $123,000, with nearly $35,000 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Meanwhile, Norton had raised $218,000 and has $56,000 on hand, with another $10,000 in contributions reported since then, according to ProPublica. She has also been working to raise more as the primary draws near, including a fundraiser at the Ward 4 home of former Democratic Party chair Donna Brazile, who managed Norton’s first campaign (against at-large DC Council member Betty Ann Kane) and went on to serve as her chief of staff for a decade.
In the November general election, the Democratic nominee is likely to face Bruce Majors of the Libertarian Party and Natale (Lino) Stracuzzi of the DC Statehood Green Party for the post; there is no challenger listed on either party’s ballot. No candidate for delegate is listed on the Republican ballot.
This post has been updated to state that Ford’s quote comes an interview, not her comments at the Ward 8 Democrats forum.