by Pat Holt
Friday, May 23, 2003
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: "FIRE IN MY SOUL"
With all the tap-dancing around issues going on in Washington D.C., it's refreshing to sit down with Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's delegate to the House of Representatives and subject of a rip-roaring political biography, "Fire in My Soul" by Joan Steinau Lester (Atria; 370 pages; $25).
Eleanor Norton is well known in D.C. and New York circles for co-sponsoring a bill that kept insurance companies from running amuck after 9/11. But few know that 4 cities were named by the insurance industry - not only NY and DC, but San Francisco and Chicago, for some reason - as constituting the top tier (with Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta following in a second tier) of cities "likely" to be targeted by terrorists in the future.
Because of this approach, the insurance industry began raising premiums so high that the top-tiered cities found themselves "priced out of terrorism insurance." Businesses that couldn't pay the new premiums began talking about relocating - "stampeding" would be a better term - which could have meant bankruptcy for the cities left behind.
Norton realized that "unless we nip this trend in the bud," as she said at the time, hysteria would reign. "Nobody had much experience dealing with terrorism in this country," she recalls today, "so decisions were made that got the insurance industry off on the wrong foot.
"Insurance companies started red-lining with the idea that certain cities were more vulnerable to terrorism than others. Well, that's not how terrorists work. They work on the basis of surprise. They decide on the enemies or targets; we don't. Look at the Oklahoma City bombing. It is far fetched to believe that any area of the country is more or less subject to attack."
Of course, insurance companies faced $30-50 billion losses after 9/11, so it's no wonder they developed a hierarchy approach to the worst case scenario. But Norton's bill has made the federal government responsible for covering 90 percent of losses in a terrorist attack, after insurance companies pay the first $10 billion for two years. Thus an insurance-premium panic was averted.
Sipping her coffee at Mel's Diner in San Francisco, Norton looks and acts like a powerful member of Congress, which she is. But the fact she has lived with every day for 7 terms is that she is a "delegate," not a "representative" because the duly elected District of Columbia congresswoman isn't allowed to vote in the House of Representatives.
Why aren't DC delegates to the House allowed to vote? "Because Congress has retained the power to run the District. Members can intervene in DC's local affairs for no reason other than disagreeing with something.
"For example, DC had a modest domestic partnership law passed 10 years ago. But Congress requires the budget of the District to be brought before the House before it becomes law - the main reason being that congressional representatives can attach riders that often have to do with overturning or keeping us from enforcing parts of laws that members disagree with. Our domestic partnership law was one of those. It took a number of tries before we finally got enough votes to get it passed."
When was that? I asked.
Gad, ten years of *attempts* to pass your own law! What a horrible state of affairs. "Well, it's one of those things that happens in government that few people hear about or want to talk about, really. I can speak for hours about the ills of 'taxation without representation' for District voters - who happen to live in the seat of democracy, of course - but it's difficult after a decade or so to get people's attention."
At one point with the help of a Constitutional lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton convinced the House that "since I could vote in committee (in fact she chairs 2 subcommittees), then I could vote in 'the committee of the whole.' So for a full term, I voted on the House floor. But then the Republicans came to power and took back the vote."
So it's a frustrating job, but then Norton, who arrived in Congress in 1990, has overcome her share of frustrations. As a young civil rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, she defended the First Amendment rights of the Ku Klux Klan, segregationist governor George Wallace and the white supremacist National States Rights Party (the latter in the Supreme Court), and won.
Later as head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), Norton transformed the agency's long-running embarrassment - a huge case backlog - by reducing the time it took to process cases from several months to a few weeks. Many of the efficiencies she established at the EEOC, however, were allowed to lapse by her successor, Clarence Thomas.
But the book is perhaps the most thrilling at the beginning and at the end. On page 1, for example, we read how Norton's great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, escaped from the plantation in Virginia where he had been a slave. Finding his way via the Underground Railroad to the Potomac River, he crossed into the District of Columbia with every hope of starting life over as a free man.
But as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, Richard Holmes was considered "contraband" - "literally, confiscated property, for [escaped slaves] had stolen themselves," author Joan Lester explains - and could, if discovered and identified, be returned to his owner.
While working as a ditch-digger for the government in downtown D.C., Richard trained himself not to move a muscle when the inevitable happened. "A white man stalked up and shouted, 'Richard! ... That's my nigger! I'd recognize that nigger anywhere!'"
Staring at Richard, who continued shoveling without a glance at the white man, the foreman replied, "Looks to me like he ain't *your* Richard. He didn't answer to you. I saw him. He didn't pay you no mind." The white man had no way to prove ownership and finally "wandered away," Lester writes.
Richard Holmes may have become a legal free man after the Civil War, but his descendants would live in a world where civil rights were granted (the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, 1864) but later taken away (the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision permitting "separate but equal" facilities, 1896).
For Eleanor Holmes Norton, then, the only constant has been the law (in particular the First Amendment) and the Democratic Party, which she defends despite its present reputation for weakness and paralysis. "Weak, maybe, but paralyzed? I don't think so. Sixty percent of Democrats in Congress voted against the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq. We lost the vote, but we've got a very progressive leader in (San Francisco congresswoman) Nancy Pelosi, which ought to telegraph that we see what the problem is, because she is a very different kind of leader and doing very well."
So what is the problem with Democrats? "Our party is a big umbrella of different interests - Southern conservative Democrats, progressive Northern Democrats, midwestern moderate Democrats, and so forth. The reason we controlled the House for as long as we did - 40 years, in fact - is that we had this big mix.
"Republicans, on the other hand, have beat the moderates out, so they are a very right-wing party. We are progressive, middle-of-the-road and conservative. I like the party that way, but the diversity makes it hard to come to grips sometimes with a single position."
Which brings us to the reason the end of "My Soul on Fire" is so thrilling: It took a long time for Eleanor Holmes Norton, having worked as a civil rights attorney for so long, to be convinced that she should run for the House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia. Outspoken, vehement, strong-willed, opinionated, she can sometimes sound as single-minded as a shoot-from-the-hip Republican: "On the ethical deterioration undermining family," Lester writes, "Eleanor's vision is apocalyptic. 'It's going to collapse the Western world!'"
But when it came to understanding the complicated cross-sections of race and culture that make D.C. politics so intense and confusing, and the needs of the poor in regard to a welfare system that had grown obsolete - not to mention the intrusions of members of Congress on the administration of the District - Eleanor Holmes Norton was considered a shoe-in by white and black, young and old, wealthy and poor, conservative and liberal supporters alike.
One problem that had never surfaced was Eleanor's lack of interest in personal financial matters. Her husband Ed, also a lawyer, had managed the family money with such ease and efficiency that they hadn't discussed the subject in any detailed way for nearly a decade.
So you can imagine Eleanor's shock when, on the Friday before the primary, as she walked toward a "meet and greet" gathering during the last days of the campaign, a TV reporter "jammed the mike in her face" and asked: "Do you have any comment on the fact that you and your husband haven't paid taxes for a number of years?"
"What are you talking about?" Eleanor asked. The reporter showed her a fax of a Certificate of Delinquency from the District that had been sent anonymously to the Washington Post and every other media outlet in D.C. The Certificate stated that "Eleanor and Edward had not filed city income taxes for seven years," Lester tells us.
To say that her supporters deserted her would be an *over*statement. The fact is that when it turned out the Certificate of Delinquency was authentic, and that Edward had contested DC tax bills (but had not cleared the matter before Eleanor's campaign, nor had he told Eleanor) for 7 years, the once confident, indefatigable shoe-in candidate could not get out of bed.
With a blizzard of accusations shouted at her - that she was a "tax cheat" that she lacked integrity, that she could hardly pull Washington D.C. out of the Marion Barry scandals if she had new ones of her own - "the city's white leadership started to denounce Eleanor," Lester writes.
At the same time, however, the reverse happened among African American voters. "Black support mushroomed overnight," Lester writes. "That Sunday morning, church sermons all over town claimed Eleanor as ...'one of us. We're proud of her, and we won't let them take her down.' "
To make a deliciously long story short - you really have to read this book to believe what happened - Eleanor Holmes Norton "got her groove back," appealed to DC's black community, let the white supporters leave if they wanted and grew increasingly confident with the media. Edward apologized (eventually the couple paid $88,000 in back taxes), and the black vote carried the day, not only in the primary but the general election, during which Eleanor carried 60 percent of the vote. "That was 13 years, 7 terms, three wars and many re-elections ago," she says today.
So here's my question for Eleanor Holmes Norton: How did it feel to transform yourself from a tough and aggressive civil rights lawyer to a delegate in Congress who had to learn the art of compromise?
"Oh, you mean, did I leave my principles at the door of the House?" Norton laughs. "Let me put it this way: The great value of being a 'movement' lawyer - a lawyer from the Civil Rights Movement, I mean - is that you're on the outside and you can view the world as black and white. All you're looking for on the inside are people to agree with you.
"So I was absolutely fascinated by the test I knew I would face when I got on the inside of Congress. That is, could I make deals in which I would compromise my principles? I knew I would have never make a deal in the House if it came to that, and yet it was clear immediately that if you can't make a deal, you don't belong in the legislature.
"What I discovered is that legislation is very seldom about winning and losing. It's really about creating a win/win situation. Can you win without having your opponent or colleague lose, and without compromising your principles? Of course you can. That's the goal.
"In fact, most legislation doesn't go to matters of principle. Normally you're negotiating about money, about pieces of pies. So the work, generally, is about how to make sure I get enough for my folks, the people I represent. I think it's very important to be able to make 'principled compromises.' Even the most progressive of democrats, and I count myself as one, make those kinds of deals every day."
'CENSORSHIP, PURE AND SIMPLE' - OR IS IT?
Stirring up emotions as it circulates on the Internet, this email by Duane Poncey of Rainy Nights Press in Portland, Oregon, raises new questions about the ways we define censorship in the post-9/11 era.
In a phone interview, Duane said he originally sent it to colleagues of the Press and to contributors of a forthcoming collection he hopes to release at the end of June, "Raising Our Voices: An Anthology of Oregon Poets Against the War."
Duane's email reads as follows:
"Our book is being censored. What is it, you ask? Porn? A reprint of 'The Anarchist Cookbook'?
"Well, no...it's a book of poetry. It contains some of the finest poets in the country. The introduction, in fact, was written by Ursula K. Le Guin and Judith Barrington.
"After weeks of editing and sending out for bids from book manufacturers, we thought we had found the right company, with the right price, to print 'RAISING OUR VOICES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF OREGON POETS AGAINST THE WAR.'
"We sent it off early last week and have been waiting patiently for our blueline. Instead of a draft, today we received a package with our book in it, a returned check, and a letter from the company, Color House Graphics, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The letter said:
" 'Dear Duane,
" 'We appreciate you sending the job materials for 'RAISING OUR VOICES.' Unfortunately we will not be able to accept the order. After reviewing the laser copy we believe that our employees may take offense to the content of the book. We would also risk offending our customers who do not share the same point of view as portrayed in the book.
" 'We regret any inconvenience to you and trust you will understand our decision.
[Duane Poncy continues:] "I understand Mr. Knight's decision all too well. It is censorship, pure and simple. Mr. Knight tries to paint it as a 'bottom line' issue. I'm sure many of his employees and customers will not care for the content of our book. But I also suspect that many of Color House Graphics customers, and potential customers, DO share our point of view. Furthermore, most independent publishers are very sensitive to issues of censorship, whether or not they agree with us about the war in Iraq.
"This kind of censorship is of particular concern to tiny publishers like us. There are only a few dozen affordable, small-run (less than 2000 copies) book manufacturers in the U.S. Our options are now one less, and our publishing schedule has been set back at least two weeks.
"If you would like to tell Color House Graphics what you think of their business practices, here is their contact information:
"Color House Graphics, 3505 Eastern Ave., Grand Rapids, MI 49508. 800-454-1916. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
"visit Elohi Gadugi: poetry, software,
I called Color House Graphics and discussed the matter with the company's president, Ken Postema, noticing right away a weary, wary and fiercely protective voice that indicated many others had phoned before me.
It seemed that Duane Poncey's email has hit a nerve on the Internet and that callers to Color House Graphics have been yelling at, hanging up on and "harrassing" employees, including himself, who have attempted to explain the company's point of view.
"I told the last person who called, who was very upset and accusing us all of 'censorship,' that nobody here was trying to censor the book" Ken said. "This is a privately held company. I'm one of the principals, and my choice as to what we print should be up to me. I said that while I respected her freedom to make her own statements about what she believed, we also should have the freedom to print what we want. At that point, she hung up."
Of course Color House Graphics has the freedom to choose what it prints. That's a given. But I was curious how the incident happened: Does Color House Graphics have a policy about the kinds of materials it prints, and should someone like Duane Poncey have known about that policy?
"We do have a mission statement at our website," he said, referring me to http://www.colorhousegraphics.com/company.cfm.
He then read the first four lines: "At Color House Graphics, Inc., we conduct our business based on Christian values:
"*Meeting our customers' needs and ensuring their satisfaction.So the first question seems obvious: Did the "Christian values" mentioned above have anything to do with the reasons Color House Graphics declined to print the book?
"Well, if you've seen this book, you know there are a lot of four-letter words in the text. As we started the job, some people we work with here found these words offensive, and we knew some of our customers would be offended, too. We chose not to put ourselves in that position."
Did the fact that the poets who contribute to the anthology are against the war in Iraq influence your decision?
"Not necessarily," he said. "I will tell you that one of the greats of the printing trade who taught me this business was a Marine who fought for the freedoms we speak of."
Did you not know the content of the book when you took the job?
"No, when we quoted our bid and agreed to take on the project, we knew nothing about the book. Within a few hours, though, as we took it through the first steps, people brought these matters up, and we had some discussions. I mean we didn't make the Press wait - the materials and the check were returned within 48 hours."
Duane Poncey agrees that Color Graphics "did turn the job around fairly quickly, and I'm grateful for that. But from our point of view, it's still a lost week, and another week is needed to line up a second printer. So now the schedule is 2 weeks behind for an end-of-June release, and this is not good for a book that is politically sensitive. The farther out we let it go, the less timely the subject. Sometimes the public memory is very short."
It's a tremendously disappointing, surely, since the war in Iraq is over, though the target audience of, say, antiwar activists in Oregon, will surely be drawn to the book for some time. The question now is, can the delay be blamed on "censorship"?
"I think so," Duane Poncey says. "You see the problem is that Color Graphics got the job in the first place because we put up a bid request online, at a website that is tied into book manufacturers. The companies that wanted the job responded with quotes. Color Graphics offered the low bid; they solicited us.
"My wife and I do this as a part-time business - well, it's not even a business; it's a nonprofit thing we do because we believe in it. We have zero money, and have to raise every penny. There aren't that many book manufacturers in the country that will print a thousand-copy-run. We received only 2-3 bids back within a price range we could even consider.
"So what's upsetting to me is that if printers are going to start saying, 'We're not doing the job because we don't like the content,' they should not be in the book manufacturing industry where they're putting out general quotes. If the company is interested in just printing the book for a certain market, then it shouldn't be sending bids to people like me."
Could you characterize what Color House Graphics did as a mistake in procedure, rather than "censorship"?
"No. Again, I think it is censorship. I could understand it if the book were pornographic or used hate language, but that isn't the case. Sure, some of the poets use 4-letter words; some are pretty outraged. But when it comes to 'Christian values,' let me tell you - most of the contributing poets in this book are Christian, and so are their values."
Poncey does acknowledge that while "there was nothing in the transaction to indicate that Color Graphics would do something like this, if I had known about the mission statement's reference to 'Christian values,' I would have investigated. It's a term that often means 'politically conservative,' and a I would have asked some questions. Maybe that would have alerted us, and them."
Still, Poncey's point is disturbing: If we were to look at a map of printers throughout the United States, we would see a sharp decrease in bids, he believes, for the very kinds of books, like "Raising Our Voices," that offer dissent, outrage, disapproval and difference of opinion.
"This is how censorship works in a capitalist system, especially under the current political climate. I think we're heading into a new era of McCarthyism. There's more censorship out there, not less, and if someone doesn't call attention to it, things are going to get worse."
Poncey's notion takes on increasing power as his email message zips across the world. Before the Internet, his letter might have reached maybe a 100 people or so, and perhaps word of the printer's cancellation - if protested by the more famous writers involved - could have stimulated a news story here and there in the press. (Or perhaps not: In a litigious world, this is the kind of story editors often try to dismiss as a "private squabble" so their own newspapers or broadcast media won't be dragged into court.)
But today with the Internet's vast capability for spreading Duane's letter to diverse interested parties, thousands of people have seen and reacted to the incident. Color House Graphics may have every right to decline the job for its own reasons, but Duane Poncey's position has struck a nerve: The voice of the dissenting independent - once was considered invaluable in a democracy - is losing ground.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the myth about the editor who was found dead at his desk after five days....I worked with the producers of "LA Law," from the first show on. The opening program had one of the partners found dead at his desk, his face in a plate of beans. Some things just keep going around...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I got to hear Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at a reading sponsored by Olsson's, the oldest independent bookstore in Washington, DC. She has a new book called "The Majesty of the Law." Clerks from Olsson's said it would be her only promotional appearance other than TV and that she wanted to have it at the National Press Club. Maybe your readers would be interested in what she said.
She mentioned taking a creative writing class with Wallace Stegner while at Stanford, and the book is peppered with surprisingly literary quotes and anecdotes. It's far from the dry academic treatise most lawyers churn out, and more a personal account of her life as a woman lawyer and judge.
Her wit was seen in the question and answer period when someone asked what advice she had for a seven-year-old girl interested in becoming a lawyer (only in Washington would you get such a question). She replied, "Tell her to learn to read, and read fast." Justices have to read 600 pages per day when in session, she said.
But what brought down the house was her reply to a question about how she feels about being called a "swing vote" on the court. "I learned on the ranch where I grew up that the only thing you get from sitting on the fence is a sore crotch."
Maybe readers won't get a chance to see her in person, but I highly recommend the book. It's another autobiography of a woman who began her career in San Mateo, CA, working for an assistant prosecutor, and a history of the court in surprisingly feminist terms.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: