In a room sprinkled with celebrities—and there were quite a few, from Ashley Judd to David Schwimmer—one stood out for reasons other than a starring role on TV or in the movies.
Eleanor Holmes Norton has been on the front line of social-justice causes her whole life, and she has no problem uniting with more well-known faces if it means success for the issue of statehood for the District of Columbia. She isn’t mad at them at all.
“If you can get celebrities to highlight a cause, get eyeballs when you would not before, that’s fine,” she said. “If more people know who’s doing the talking, it’s better off for your cause.”
Norton, as the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, is able to speak, but not vote, on legislation that affects more than 670,000 residents of Washington, D.C. She told The Root that most people aren’t even aware of the fact that those taxpayers don’t have voting representation. “People think we do,” she said. “My greatest frustration is that.”
She joined local D.C. and other politicians, as well as members of the Creative Coalition, who are lending their voices, at a crowded Tuesday “D.C. Statehood and Voting Rights Luncheon” in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. “The only way we are going to get statehood is to raise consciousness,” she said.
During convention week, along with the official activity in the convention hall and the parties outside it, policy is discussed at meetings and roundtables. The Creative Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan charity and advocacy organization of the arts-and-entertainment community. Its members highlight arts-related as well as other issues. (In Philadelphia, events also were scheduled on over-the-counter-medicine-safety curricula for teens and tweens and the obesity epidemic.)
Some in the overcrowded hotel meeting room at Tuesday’s event may have come to chat with Dean Norris from Breaking Bad and Under the Dome. They listened to the case that the District of Columbia, with a population greater than the state of Wyoming, pays taxes and should have a voice.
Other officials from the District also made the case at the luncheon. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “Statehood is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it is an American issue.” She said that she was encouraged by the unity in the Democratic Party on the issue. D.C. Councilman Jack Evans said he was excited that statehood was back in the Democratic Party platform.
Pennsylvania politician Josh Shapiro, who is running for state attorney general, linked the resistance to D.C. statehood to the wave of voter-ID laws and related legislation across the country that he said “make it harder” to vote. Opponents of those bills have said they are aimed particularly at minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor.
Actor William Baldwin said that “when you look at the demographics” and the politics, you see the reasons D.C. statehood is a challenge. “Clearly this is a Republican and Democratic issue,” he said, with the question of more rights for D.C. citizens being a check on the Democratic side. Baldwin said that he has been attending Democratic conventions since 1988 and Republican conventions since 1992, particularly in support of a “pro-arts agenda.” At the DNC, he said, he’s “preaching to the converted,” but the RNC offers a chance to “bring people into the fold.”
Norton said she also has no illusions that making progress in the D.C.-statehood effort will be easy, even with more visibility for the cause. “No matter who you are, it takes work,” she said. “It takes time.”
But as a civil rights advocate, she said that the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—achievements people think of as quick successes—were the result of work that had begun at the beginning of the 20th century. “You got to be willing to persistently fight,” she said.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.