This June, congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton will face her first challenger in the primaries in eight years: former Obama administration official Kim Ford.
A month before the primary, Ford and Norton debated for Ward 8 Democrats on issues like voting rights and gun laws, and Norton secured the group’s endorsement. The two candidates have similar goals, such as statehood and economic development. Yet their campaigns differ on how to get there. When asked about her decision to challenge Norton, in a conference room peering over Chinatown’s lunchtime rush, Ford clarified: “I don’t think it’s running against Eleanor, per se. I think it’s running for the delegate to the House of Representatives.” Eight years ago, Douglass Sloan, a senior political analyst, ran for Norton’s seat—he got 9.2 percent of the vote. Can a race against a 14-term incumbent be a race for, and not against?
When Ford was a child, she wandered the halls of the Longworth House Office Building, watching the two parties solve issues together, she remembers. Her mother was a public servant as well, a Clinton administration official. (From tree, to apple, Ford laughed.) After 27 years, Ford says it’s time for a change in strategy—a bipartisan approach to Statehood.
Norton will introduce the Statehood bill only when Democrats take the House. Andria Thomas, a DC activist running for shadow senator, said Norton’s stance aligns with the coalition for Statehood’s five-year strategy—she wouldn’t “waste our valuable resources now in trying to win over other Republicans,” without all Democrats on board.
Norton has pursued Statehood in Congress ever since she took office. In 1993, she created the “New Columbia Admission Act,” which was ultimately defeated in the House. Fifteen years later, her “District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007” was thwarted by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Some say her efforts aren’t sufficient—this motivated Sloan’s campaign. John Capozzi, former Shadow U.S. Representative, told Hill Rag that “all approaches [to Statehood] are good as long as we involve more people” and that both candidates “have the ability to break people into the fight.”
The Congresswoman said she’ll ask for a vote with a Democratic majority in the House, and will introduce a Home Rule package, including bills for budget and legislative autonomy for the District. “I have made more progress on Statehood than ever,” she said. Norton, according to Bo Shuff, Executive Director of D.C. Vote, has been a “driving force behind both the efforts on DC Statehood and the efforts to turn back Congressional interference,” with DC Statehood having more co-sponsors now than ever before.
Norton’s partisan strategy, Ford contends, means DC will have to “hope, wish and pray” that the Democrats will take back Congress. “The problem with this is that has happened three times in the last 27 years.”
The Wharf, the Workforce
Before Ford quit her job to run for delegate, she worked on the Department of Education’s 11th floor, overlooking the Wharf. She watched “them tear down the old Wharf and build this new shiny thing.” But she wasn’t seeing many DC residents or businesses involved in the construction, or neighboring residents benefiting.
Norton boasted about the development of the waterfront, in which she acquired federal land for DC. Mayor Bowser made the Wharf hire at minimum 51 percent DC residents, 20 percent from Ward 8. Dorothy Brizill, Executive Director of DC Watch, referenced Ford’s remarks about the Wharf, following her research on the candidate. “That’s a nice useful image to create. But she never goes beyond that. What would she have done differently?”
With similar goals, the candidates diverge in means. While Ford focuses on jobs and workforce— DC residents interning on the Hill, student loan forgiveness—Norton focus on land and building developments, though also mentions her efforts against spiralling college costs, spearheading DC Tag.
Next term, Norton will have seniority. With a Democratic majority, she could chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, acquiring jurisdiction over the Metro, where, she said, “we’re in the fight for our life.” Voters don’t want to start all over again with “somebody who has not much knowledge of the circumstances of the kind you’d have if you had been a DC official,” she explained. Norton’s seniority would be a “major benefit to the District” with a Democratic house, Brizill noted, as opposed to Ford, who would have a “tremendous learning curve.” Regardless, Ford believes transportation shouldn’t be the priority at all—she’d join the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. She mentioned DC giving back federal funding, in reference to the city returning affordable housing resources to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Karl Racine, DC’s attorney general, supports Ford. Racine told Hill Rag that Norton is a “civil rights icon who’s contributed in an extraordinary way” to DC, but that he supports Ford “because I believe it’s time for new ideas and I believe that Kim Ford is well qualified and has the type of new ideas that can move the District of Columbia forward.” Racine referenced Ford’s experience running workforce development and vocational training in DC, noting “significant unemployment,” particularly in Wards 5, 7, and 8. His support for the candidate comes despite “immense reverence for the congresswoman.”
And all her goals, Ford added, are designed for a 10 year timeline. “I do not believe that these elected positions are supposed to be for life,” Ford said.
But could anyone win?
Ford has the support of D.C.’s attorney general, and has raised over $106,000 to date for her campaign. Norton hasn’t faced a challenger in the primaries since 2010 and, in general elections, she has consistently garnered from 80 to nearly 100 percent of the vote. Is a challenge to Norton doomed from the start?
To Sloan, the difference between he and Ford was that he didn’t have Ford’s funding, but as a former ANC commissioner, and having worked in the Mayor’s office and the city council, he had local recognition. When Brizill first looked up Ford’s name, the day before we spoke, she realized: “I knew nothing about her.” In assessing a candidate, Brizill’s first question is: “What have you done?”—to warrant a promotion, to be DC’s representative. “Eleanor Holmes Norton for 55 years has been on the forefront of progressive change in DC and America,” Bernard Demczuk, Assistant Vice President for DC government relations at George Washington University told Hill Rag.
“What’s Kim done? Work in the federal government?”
Whether any contender can beat Norton, not merely an incumbent, but a revered activist and household name, remains to be seen. Ford mentioned the office’s obscurity as an obstacle to a delegate campaign in DC. It’s difficult, she said, to run an educational campaign. “Not just trying to educate people about me and my background, what I believe we can do, but also educating them on the role.”
Nevertheless, even after loss, Sloan’s campaign was impactful. “I was able to make such a big stink about [Statehood],” Sloan said, noting statehood activists credited him with influencing Norton to put a statehood bill on the floor. And, regardless of the winner come June, Thomas sees having conversations in candidate forums in the first place as a “good thing.”