Eleanor Holmes Norton pounds her fist in frustration over her role as a non-voting member of the US Congress. She has endured this second-class status for 20 years.
“I’m like any other Representative in the House, or I should say a delegate. The only difference is, I don’t have the right to vote on the issues,” says the feminist and advocate for issues concerning African-Americans.
After serving 11 straight terms in the House of Representatives, and despite what she considers the absurdness of her position, Norton is running again on November 6.
Her goal is to win the right to vote and thus truly represent her constituents.
In the meantime, Washington DC’s 610,000 residents only have the right to a “delegate” in the lower chamber of the US legislature because the city, formally called the District of Columbia, is not a state.
They thus have no representation at the national legislative level. It’s been this way since the District was founded in 1800 through a ceding of land from the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia.
In a city conceived as a federal enclave under the control of Congress, residents pay local and national taxes but have no voice to influence the laws Congress passes. Holmes Norton considers this nothing short of an insult.
The ire is such that, since 2000, automobile license plates issued in Washington bear the slogan “Taxation without representation” — a throwback to the battle cry of the original colonists who rose up against British rule in the 18th century to found the United States.
Holmes Norton, 75, is the most visible face of this drive for full representation, but hardly the only one.
The movement to create a new state, which would be the 51st, has even appointed shadow lawmakers — two senators, as every state has, and a single member of the lower chamber, the House of Representatives.
“I want DC to become a state. Wyoming has three representatives, two senators and one representative. There are 600,000 people in DC, and only 540,000 in Wyoming: I think it’s a decent argument,” Jennifer Glinzak, 25, said at a rally held by an association called DC Vote.
“Home is more than where you sleep. We are citizens of this country, like any other citizen. We should decide about where our tax dollars go,” said 26-year-old Dave Kush, another activist.
The message has hit home in high places. As president, Bill Clinton stuck a “taxation without representation” license plate on his White House limousine.
The late senator Ted Kennedy called Washington the country’s “last colony” as he tried in vain to win passage of a law turning Washington into a state, one which would be called New Columbia, with three elected officials.
The issue is politically touchy: the city is overwhelmingly Democrat and would cost the Republicans power if it got the right to vote.
Holmes Norton’s last defeat on this front came in 2009. Republicans offered an amendment that would give her the right to vote, but in exchange for Washington’s renouncing its gun safety laws. She rejected the deal as unacceptable.
There is some small consolation for residents of the capital of the world’s most powerful country: they can vote in presidential elections, a right they won in 1961.
Democrats win hands down in Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama swept more than 90 percent of the votes in this city where nearly half the population is African-American, like Obama.
In the absence of a true voice in the halls of Congress, the statehood movement is seeking to enjoy at least the autonomy of budgetary control. Washington has had a mayor since 1974 but its budget has to be approved by the national legislature.
“There is a number of consequences that made us go back on some social programs,” said says Walter Smith, director DC Appleseed, an organization seeking a local referendum on budgetary independence for Washington.
Spending that is regularly blocked by Congress includes money earmarked for the fight against AIDS, abortion for poor women and education programs.
On all these issues that concern Washington and Washington alone, the only person forced to abstain when it comes time to vote is Holmes Norton.
“Everyone gets to vote on the DC budget but me. It can’t possibly be what the framers imagined for us,” she said of those who wrote the US Constitution.