If reelected this November, D.C.’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton would enter her 16th term in office. But before the general election, Norton will face two younger challengers in this June’s Democratic Party primary. While this isn’t the first time that other candidates have challenged Norton, an accomplished politician and formidable defender of D.C. statehood, this primary contest has stark implications for the District’s democracy.
Norton’s 31-year career has made her synonymous with the office she occupies, but placing D.C.’s already meager representation in the hands of one person has backfired. No politician remains in office forever, but Norton’s insistence on continuing to serve in Congress has strengthened her own position at the cost of her inevitable successor. Though extremely popular, Norton’s hold on power demonstrates that D.C. voters cannot imagine a future without her. D.C. shouldn’t let one person, however benevolent, define its government in perpetuity. Facing younger challengers with new ideas, Norton should drop her reelection bid in an effort to pass on the baton of democratic representation.
Norton, 84, is one of the oldest members of the U.S. House of Representatives at a time when voters are increasingly aware of how poorly Congress reflects the nation as a whole. But Norton’s age alone is not a reason to call on her to step down from public life. Instead, Norton’s and her colleagues’ age underlines how poorly Congress reflects the people it serves. Americans 65 and over make up about 35 percent and 53 percent of members of the U.S. House and Senate, respectively, but 2019 U.S. Census data indicates that the same age bracket only makes up about 16 percent of the population. For comparison, the 21 to 44 age range accounts for nearly 32 percent of the population, but only 31 members of the House and one senator were born after 1980.
Norton’s challengers in the Democratic Primary – Kelly Mikel Williams, 55, and Rev. Wendy Hamilton, 53 – are from a different generation than Norton. Even though Williams, Hamilton and Norton all have similar progressive ideas, their platforms are notably different. Norton remains focused on achieving D.C. statehood while leveraging her position on House committees to steer more funding for the District. Williams, a podcast host and former D.C. Council employee who was once unhoused, hopes to address homelessness, reduce crime and encourage job creation. Hamilton – a former adviser to Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign – holds a focus similar to Norton on D.C. statehood but also wants to address inmate abuse and facility neglect in the city’s jails and test out a universal basic income program.
Whether you agree or disagree with Williams and Hamilton, their ideas are new. And while novelty alone is no reason to vote for a candidate – and this is certainly not an endorsement of either of them – it demonstrates that Norton may not be as in touch with what her constituents really want or need from their representative.
Despite Williams’ and Hamilton’s efforts, Norton will likely cruise to reelection because of her incumbent status and past history of electoral success. Key to Norton’s campaign is her seniority, a result of her 15 terms in office, which allows her more access and influence among her Democratic colleagues within the House.
But Norton isn’t just the city’s representative – she’s its only representation at the federal level. Her role as D.C.’s sole congressional delegate has effectively prevented new political talent from rising. With every year and every term, Norton’s seniority increases and her incumbent position solidifies, making potential challenges less likely and less successful.
Norton knows this. When Kim Ford, a then-37-year-old former Obama administration official, challenged Norton in 2018, The Washington Post quoted Norton as saying, “D.C., if you wanted to get rid of me, this wasn’t the year to do it!” But if not 2018, 2020 or 2022, when precisely can the city’s voters remove Norton from office if they see fit? Norton has proven to be so vital to the District’s representation, especially in times of crisis, that she knows voters won’t remove her from office.
I know Norton cares deeply about the District and its residents, but the idea that she is too important to lose her election feels like a patently undemocratic boast. In 2022, Norton’s attitude remains unchanged if not strengthened. Norton dismissed Hamilton as “whoever she is” in a Washington Post article earlier this month.
D.C.’s marginal representation in Congress has allowed Norton to consolidate her office around herself to the point where the two are inseparable. The District’s reliance on Norton to fight its battles has weakened its democratic institutions and resulted in the loss of generations of potential leaders.
After an extensive career in public service, the time has come for Norton to bow out of this year’s election. Ripping the band-aid off will be painful, but it is necessary. Norton’s successor may have to deal with a likely Republican-controlled Congress without her experience and connections, but D.C. voters deserve to truly assess their politicians, not just rubber-stamp their reelection.
I have immense respect for Eleanor Holmes Norton, but I respect the office she occupies much more – no matter how much she has done, the office of D.C.’s congressional delegate is more important than any single person in the city. D.C.’s public offices belong to the people – not the politicians they elect.
Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.
This article appeared in the April 25, 2022 issue of the Hatchet.