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Eleanor Holmes Norton Carries Passion for Civil Liberties into Congress


Eleanor Holmes Norton is a third generation Washingtonian who says she was shaped by her hometown. "My great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, was a run-away slave."

Born in 1937, Norton grew up in a racially segregated Washington where black and white children did not attend the same schools. She says she was raised by her parents and community to regard people who would segregate as flawed. "We were taught to love all people, but to pity those whose ignorance led them to believe in segregation." She says what whites didn't understand about what was wrong with segregation is that all people have the obligation to treat one another in the same way, no matter the color of their skin.

Norton went on to Antioch College and Yale Law School. As a young lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1960s, Norton argued for equal rights under the United States Constitution. Among her early cases was one that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In it she defended a white supremacist group, which had been denied the right to speak at a public gathering. "It came very easily to me that the First Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] and the Bill of Rights applied to everybody."

Norton made that point by arguing the case and winning. Her work with the ACLU attracted the attention of the mayor of New York, who hired her to chair the city's Commission on Human Rights.

In 1977 the Carter administration brought Norton back to Washington to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "I was able to have the rare experience of taking what I was marching in the streets for - namely a law to protect people based on race and gender - and literally enforce such a law."

When President Carter left office in 1981, Norton became a law professor at Georgetown University, where she still remains on the faculty. Her switch to politics came in 1990 when she was elected to represent Washington, the District of Columbia, in the United States Congress, a job she had never considered when she was growing up.

She says during her youth Washington had no mayor or city council. "This place was ruled like an actual colony by three commissioners appointed by the president of the United States. It is one of the most shameful chapters in American history."

Washington, D.C., is a federal district. It is not a state and does not have the same constitutional rights of congressional representation that the 50 U.S. states enjoy. In her role as Washington, D.C.'s elected delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Norton can introduce laws, serve on house committees, even chair one, but - unless the DC Voting Rights bill now under consideration in Congress is approved and enacted - she cannot cast a vote for passage of any law. She has been unwavering in her support for statehood for the District of Columbia and full representation for her 550,000 constituents.

She's even had the American Revolutionary War slogan "Taxation without Representation" printed on every Washington, DC., license plate. This is Norton's battle cry: "The people that I represent and their ancestors fought in that war, the war that established the republic. They have paid federal income tax ever since we've had that obligation, and we still don't have equal rights with other Americans."

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a woman of many passions. With the Democrats holding a majority of seats in Congress since last November's elections, she's assumed the chairmanship of a congressional subcommittee, which, among other things, oversees the upkeep of federal buildings.

Up for discussion this day is a law that would place photovoltaic panels to generate solar electricity on the roof of the U.S. Department of Energy. "The model will stimulate others to do the same thing," she says. After the session, Norton raced to two committee hearings and then drove herself to a community center for an HIV/AIDS conference, where she delivered a speech. She says her job requires that she often shift among local, national and global issues, a task she clearly enjoys. "The fact that you have the great and wonderful opportunity to work on the smallest and the largest [issues] at the same time, is like having your dinner and desert at the same time."

Norton says making laws in a democracy depends a lot on compromise, which means finding common ground with the loyal opposition. "Sometimes (it) doesn't move as quickly as we would want, but I tell you, it makes you understand that you are in a great democracy when it doesn't collapse every time there is a disagreement."

Eleanor Holmes Norton is in her 9th two-year term as the Congresswoman from Washington, the District of Columbia.

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