News & Politics

What Made Made: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

DC’s representative on talking versus giving a speech, finding happiness in small things, and Newt’s big surprise.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

THE MENTOR: Fresh out of Yale Law School, I went from protesting for civil rights in Mississippi to clerking for federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham in Philadelphia. He was a top African-American jurist, a tall, imposing workaholic. “You can’t just talk,” he told me when I helped research his speeches. “If you want to say something, expand your knowledge base and tell people things they don’t hear every day. Find new information. Surprise them.”

THE TURNING POINT: I was quite happy teaching at Georgetown Law in 1990 and had no interest in political office. My friend Donna Brazile suggested I run for Congress. I asked, “Are you crazy, girl?” I made her promise to be my chief of staff if I won. Without Donna, I would not be here.

THE JOY: My first child, Katherine, was born with Down syndrome. A doctor told us, “We can help you place the child.” I was flummoxed by the suggestion. Katherine is 43 now and still the center of my life. She taught me how to find joy in small achievements.

THE LESSON: When Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, I made a point of getting to know him, and when Congress shut down the federal government in 1995 and ’96, he agreed to keep the city open. He was always willing to work with me. What I learned from working with Newt has guided me every day since: “Do not stereotype Republicans.”

This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Washingtonian.