There’s a rectangular patchwork quilt that hangs above the doorway leading into US Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office that’s easy to miss. It overlooks the doorway into the busy walls in the waiting room of her congressional office—walls littered with various framed mementos from her long career as the lone, non-voting delegate representing Washington, DC. The “non-voting” descriptor is obvious throughout her office: nearly every memento is a not-so-subtle reminder of the District of Columbia’s 231-year struggle for equal rights and representation. A framed Washington Post poll from 2007 on support for statehood sits above a 2011 mailer from the DC statehood advocacy group DC Vote warning Congress not to tread on District affairs. Even the patchwork quilt, frayed at the edges and showing its age, dons Norton’s de facto office mantra: “STATEHOOD 4 DC NOW.”
The quilt, each square its own funky pattern of loud textures and cool earth tones, is so old Norton, 83-years-old herself, can’t remember when she got it. “It’s been years,” she says with a chuckle. “Someone just made that for me, and I said, ‘I gotta find someplace to hang that.’” The sentimentality and the bold but worn patterns reflect the tenacity and, sometimes, tedium of her career: For three decades, she’s haunted the halls of Congress as the District’s sole delegate, only the third person to ever hold the position. She’s spent those years not just as a tireless advocate for the District but often a thorn in the side of any member of Congress who dared to meddle in DC’s affairs, like when Maryland’s Republican Rep. Andy Harris waged a war to challenge DC’s marijuana decriminalization law. “If he wants a free ride—a free propaganda ride, a free messaging ride—on the backs of African American youth in my city, well, he’s going to hear from me,” she fired back at Harris in 2014. She’s the national face of DC statehood, partially thanks to her frequent appearances on The Colbert Report as the faux nemesis of Stephen Colbert’s smarmy Conservative idiot character, where he once joked that her position in Congress has “less power than a student body president.”
Her decades-long work may finally be paying off. In early January, she yet again introduced her bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia—something she has done for each of the past 14 sessions of Congress—except this time it came with 202 cosponsors and a Democrat in the White House who would sign the bill. After several sessions of spirited debate on the House floor, it passed in late April with universal support from House Democrats. It’s expected to eventually get a full hearing and floor vote in the Senate—the farthest a DC statehood bill has ever gotten. Whether it will actually pass that floor vote, though, is a different question altogether, as not even all 50 Democrats in the Senate have said they’d support it—let alone the additional 10 Republicans that would be required to overcome a filibuster.
Still, for Norton to have gotten this far—despite decades of bad-faith opposition from Republicans and hollow gestures of support from fellow Democrats—is no small feat. Fifty-four percent of American voters support DC statehood according to a recent poll, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and President Joe Biden have both issued full-throated support. “The kind of support we have now is unparalleled,” Norton says with the utmost confidence.
Which is why I found her comments to the Atlantic earlier this winter so surprising, as she urged Joe Biden to not push statehood for the District. “If he jumps DC statehood ahead of the two or three issues that have priority, people will think he’s crazy,” she said. “We’re not ready to have him jump the issue on DC statehood yet. We have to do more homework in the Senate.” After reaching a pinnacle moment, Norton is playing a careful game that might backfire: championing the progress made, but cautioning her constituents to be patient until 2022, when she’s certain Democrats will gain a larger majority and finally have the will to act. But it’s the Democratic Party’s inability to forcefully fight to boost representation—while Republicans use their power in state houses to roll back voting rights—that just might doom Norton’s cause for at least a decade or more.