News & Politics

Sympathy for Eleanor Holmes Norton

DC's Congresswoman is under fire for a fundraising voicemail. But are her critics missing the point?

Normally I very much enjoy the Conversation, a feature of the New York Times' opinion section in which David Brooks and Gail Collins are collectively clever about some pressing issue. This week, however, their gasps of horror over a fundraising voicemail Eleanor Holmes Norton left for a donor, seem a little, well, prissy. That Norton left the voicemail is ultimately not very smart, and the product of some bad staff work—someone should have been sitting there with her as she made the calls, and should have known better than to let her leave it. And the voicemail itself is kind of crass. Norton says:

I was, frankly, uh, uh, surprised to see that we don't have a record, so far as I can tell, of your having given to me despite my uh, long and deep uh, work. In fact, it's been my major work, uh, on the committee and subcommittee it's been essentially in your sector.

I am, I'm simply candidly calling to ask for a contribution. As the senior member of the um, committee and a subcommittee chair, we have (chuckles) obligations to raise, uh funds. And, I think it must have been me who hasn't, frankly, uh, done my homework to ask for a contribution earlier.  


But the idea that some kind of hideous violation has occurred here is a little silly. Brooks writes "She could have said, 'I’m simply corruptly calling to ask for a contribution….' Or 'I’m simply venally calling to ask for a contribution…' Candidly sounds so much nicer." And Collins calls it "particularly disgusting" that she cites specific building programs she's working on in making the pitch. But Norton's asking for legal contribution, rather than kickbacks or anything else inappropriate. She is in leadership, and therefore part of her job is to raise said contributions. Is it really more horrifying to be up-front about it than to pretend you're just asking someone to an insanely expensive fundraising dinner where you'll pretend to listen to them?

And one thing I think Brooks and Collins seem to forget her is that this kind of aggressive pitch may be necessary given that Norton represents DC, and probably has to sell herself harder to donors since she doesn't get to vote on final passage of legislation. It's not that Norton doesn't work—I covered a subcommittee she sits on for several years, and she's informed and quite tough in hearings—it's just that she's got to sell and explain her relevance to donors. Should she have left the voicemail? No. But should she be pilloried for fundraising in a system that demands it and makes it part of her job? I don't particularly think so. The Washington preference for charming rogues over plain-dealing villains is particularly tiresome in situations like this one.

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