Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton talks to PEOPLE about the "once in a lifetime day" seeing the House of Representatives endorse D.C. statehood

By Sean Neumann
June 30, 2020 03:17 PM
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Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia delegate to the House of Representatives

Whether or not Washington, D.C., should become the 51st state has been a topic discussed at Eleanor Holmes Norton's family dinner table for generations. But Friday was the first time her proposal was officially — if partially — embraced by Congress.

That's when the House of Representatives voted 232-180 along party lines in favor of making the District of Columbia, the nation's capitol, its 51st state.

Although it's unlikely the bill, which Norton introduced last year, will become law — with President Donald Trump vowing a veto should it even pass the Senate's Republican majority — Friday was still "a once in a lifetime day”

"Or," Norton tells PEOPLE, "I should say: It's a once in the District’s 219-year history kind of day.”

Norton, 83, is a third-generation Washingtonian who has been the district's lone House delegate since 1991, and she couldn't help but bubble over at times while sharing what Friday's vote meant to her, her family and their community of 700,000-plus.

"I was particularly amazed and full of joy when you consider nobody in my family has ever had the same rights as everybody else,” she says. “This bill, as far as I’m concerned, is for the people I represent. But it has that hidden meaning for me as well.”

Norton's great-grandfather escaped slavery in Virginia and made it to D.C., where he settled.

"He got to freedom, but he did not get to equality," she says. "So I can’t help but have my own family in the back of my mind."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.'s delegate to the House of Representatives
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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks at the Elly Awards Hosted By The Women's Forum Of New York on June 17, 2019, in New York City.
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D.C.'s bid for statehood, which Norton has championed for years, would give the district equal representation in Congress, including a pair of senators and full voting powers in the House — something that has been key to the argument of proponents like Norton.

At the moment, Norton has no voting power on a bill's passage in the House, though she can influence the legislation in other ways.

The issue of statehood hadn't been voted on in the House in more than a quarter century, according to The New York Times. But once Democrats took control following the 2018 midterm elections, their majority convened for a hearing and an eventual vote.

The debate also gained more momentum in recent weeks following President Trump's back-and-forth with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser over the use of federal law enforcement to clear protesters from around the White House.

The Trump administration's response to the protests, which followed the killing of George Floyd and have centered around police brutality and racial injustice, highlighted the importance of the bill for Norton, she says.

“Over the last few months, the nation and even the world has witnessed the discriminatory and outrageous treatment of D.C. residents by the federal government,” Norton told her colleagues on the House floor on Friday. “The federal occupation of D.C. occurred solely because the president thought he could get away with it here. He was wrong.”

Norton tells PEOPLE that the House vote in favor of D.C.'s statehood was "akin to how the country is changing," noting how demonstrators around the country are calling for the removal of statues commemorating historical figures who supported or defended racial inequality — such as members of the Confederacy.

"You’re seeing people able to convert their rage to wherever they see inequality or, worse, that the country isn’t living up to what it says it is," Norton says. "I do see these as ‘of a piece.’ ”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in Washington, D.C., in July 1977
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Norton also says she's undaunted by Republican resistance to D.C. statehood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called it "full-bore socialism" and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton recently argued against the push this way:

“Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state.”

Other conservatives have said the Constitution and the intention of the nation's founders was to keep D.C. as a district.

Some, including Trump, have spoken more bluntly: That statehood should be stopped because it would only increase Democratic representation in Congress given D.C.'s liberal leanings.

Norton, however, is going to keep going.

"We will roll out that plan when it becomes clearer what 2021 looks like," she says, noting the possibility that Democrats will take control of the Senate and the presidency in the November elections.

Norton, who couldn't vote on her bill herself, says she sees "progress in sight for a D.C. statehood" if November goes in the Democrats' favor.

Regardless, Friday was a morale booster for those D.C. residents like Norton, who have long questioned why it was treated differently for "no apparent or good reason."

"The United States is the only country — the only democratic country and I think perhaps the only country in the world — where the residents of their capitol don’t have the same rights as other citizens in the country," Norton says. "The notion that our country could have gone on this long, after considering itself the leader of the free world for generations, should be amazing and I think it is amazing.”