News & Politics

Eleanor Holmes Norton Talks DC Statehood, the Vibe in Congress, and Her Future

A conversation with Washington’s non-voting member of Congress

Photograph by Lauren Bulbin

Last year, the House okayed a measure admitting DC to the Union as a full-fledged state. The vote was unprecedented—but it was also doomed, because the Senate and White House were both controlled by statehood foes. So now that Joe Biden is President and statehood supporter Chuck Schumer leads the Senate, should we start sewing a 51st star onto our American flags? We checked in with the would-be state’s non-voting member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose newest statehood bill had picked up 210 cosponsors by late January.

“If you have [210] cosponsors, you know you have the votes to pass the House,” Norton says. She’s less certain, though, about what would come next. Even if it managed to win every Democratic vote in the Senate, the measure—like so much else about Biden’s agenda—would be subject to a filibuster.

All the same, Norton says, the politics of statehood have changed in the 30 years since she was elected. During her first year in Congress, she sponsored a bill that was rejected despite a much larger Democratic majority than currently exists. “Now fast-forward,” she says. “There’s an entirely different Congress.”

Another thing that’s evolved: the District’s national image. Norton arrived on the Hill at perhaps the nadir of the capital’s reputation as a mismanaged, crime-ridden place. Today it’s generally seen as a well-run city, making it a smaller target for the statehood foes who used to trot out former mayor Marion Barry as a boogeyman. The city’s demographics have also shifted, with a Black majority giving way to a roughly even racial balance.

The changes, it turns out, have shifted the politics of statehood—on both sides. Proponents once described a majority-Black population’s lack of statehood as a civil-rights issue. Today you’re just as likely to hear a partisan argument that making a state out of DC would help adjust the scales in a Senate stacked in favor of rural red states.

Meanwhile, the thinly veiled racial animus of some opponents has given way to more convoluted ways of slamming District residents. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, for instance, explained why he thinks Wyoming, with a smaller population, is more deserving than DC: Wyoming, he said, is “well rounded” with “three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction.”

“Well, I almost rejoice in that because that means they have nothing,” Norton says. “When you fall to such trivialities, as if states came in based on their industry or any other such factor, then you know that they are really out of arguments.” In fact, she adds, the antis are motivated by the same thing as some of the pros. “Whether it’s Black or white, it turns out to be a mostly Democratic city. That’s really the abiding fear.”

In the meantime, Norton has her hands full with the sort of challenge that isn’t applicable in places that have actual state governments—the fallout from the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which has prompted new schemes to fence off chunks of her city. “We do not want any fortifications like this,” she says. “It’s a tourist economy. Tourism is second only to the federal government. So it is in our best interest to get back to normal and yet to be protected.”

She’s surprisingly sanguine, though, about the culture of the Capitol itself, despite the attention given to right-wing radicals like Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who made a video purporting to show herself illegally carrying a Glock on a DC street. “This is a new one,” Norton says. “And she’s acting like one.”

Norton had a good relationship with Newt Gingrich dating back to the 1990s and says most members remain genial: “When I’m sitting in committees or walking in the hall, you know, my colleagues who will be against DC statehood and everything else important to DC will be very cordial and friendly, because the House is not a hostile environment.”

So how long does Norton, 83, plan to stick around this genial environment? For a while: “I’ve just been overwhelmingly elected in the District of Columbia. I’m in good shape. What in the world would I do?”

How about become a senator from the 51st state? Says Norton: “That’s why I’m staying in the Congress.”

Michael Schaffer
Former Editor