The wooded footpath in Northeast Washington had become a nest for muggers, and here stood Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, hands on hips, listening as a park ranger proposed little more than putting up a couple of warning signs.
“I’ll tell you what won’t do: ‘Park Is Closed,’ ” Norton said, her voice suggesting impatience.
Where’s your supervisor? Norton wanted to know. Why isn’t she here?
“What are you going to do about this?” she demanded.
In the political hothouse that is Washington, mayors come and mayors go, along with senators, House members and presidents. But Norton, in her 11th term in Congress and seeking another on Nov. 6, is a fixture, her exalted stature infused by her years as a feminist, academic, constitutional lawyer and civil rights activist.
Yet, for all her acclaim, Norton represents the District without the accoutrement that adds power to swagger — a vote on the House floor — a fact that makes her the object of sympathy, admiration and no small amount of ridicule.
“The fake congresswoman” is how Stephen Colbert has introduced her to his television nation.
What Norton possesses is her voice, one that she has used to press a broad spectrum of causes, whether organizing blacks in the deep South during the civil rights movement or defending former Alabama governor George Wallace’s right to hold a rally in New York City in 1968.
In Congress, she has crusaded for statehood and voting rights for her home town, an effort that has yielded few results and exposed her to criticism that she is ineffective. But what everyone agrees on is that Norton is capable of mixing eloquence and withering outrage, like on that day in 2007 when she answered a colleague who tried to interrupt her on the House floor, a moment replayed on YouTube no fewer than 10,000 times.
“I will not yield, sir!” Norton bellowed, her diminutive frame seeming to vibrate behind the rostrum. “The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding to the people who would deny them the vote! I yield you no ground!”
Or there was that moment in 2011 when a federal budget impasse threatened to shut down the District government and Norton looked straight into a television camera and said: “It’s time that the District of Columbia told the Congress to go straight to hell.”
With Norton, 75, what you see is often what you get. Her home phone number is listed, and she drives herself to and from events in a Ford hybrid, license plate EHN1.
She can be decidedly old-school, referring to her refrigerator as the “icebox.” But she uses Twitter to communicate with more than 7,500 followers, letting them know one day, for example, that she was “Grooving to Beyonce!” After the second presidential debate, Norton used a less-than-delicate euphemism to pronounce Mitt Romney the loser. An aide erased the tweet after some readers chastised her for being crude.
Norton’s voice has made her something of a legend among the politicians and staffers who have endured her finger-pointing diatribes, which even admirers say seem more fitting for a sailor than a Yale Law School graduate.
“I used to tell our staff that you haven’t lived in Washington, D.C., until you’ve been cursed out by Ms. Norton,” said David Miren, a former senior aide to then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va).
A former adviser to then-Mayor Marion Barry recalled that Barry once put Norton on speakerphone so that the aides sitting around his conference table could hear her robust use of profanity. Asked about the call, Barry, who has known Norton since they were in the civil rights movement, giggled and said, “I don’t recall the specifics, but we’ve had major disagreements.”
Donna Brazile, a Democratic political operative who served as Norton’s chief of staff for 10 years and considers her a personal hero, cackled during a phone interview while recalling her boss’s capacity for fury. Once, she said, Norton complained that Brazile was pushing her too hard with a packed schedule.
“She said I was a white slave owner the way I drove her and the staff,” Brazile said. “She could cuss you out while chewing bubble gum.”
Hanging on the kitchen wall in Norton’s Capitol Hill rowhouse is a framed illustration of a burly African American woman who resembles Aunt Jemima, as captured on the cover of a 1940 Saturday Evening Post. The portrait is there, Norton said, to remind her that “that’s the America I was born into.”
A few feet away, in another frame on another wall, is her great-grandparents’ 1872 marriage certificate. Her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, was a slave who walked off a Virginia plantation and made his way to the District. Her grandfather was among Washington’s first African American firefighters.
“I am deep D.C.,” Norton said.