A victory party for Eleanor Holmes Norton lacks something. Let’s call that something “suspense.” It’s Sept. 14. Technically, she’s fighting for re-nomination to the non-voting D.C. congressional seat she’s held since 1990. As usual, she’s facing an opponent whose name will be forgotten by tomorrow morning. So the crowd at Busboys and Poets doesn’t need to wait on the District’s molasses-slow vote-counters before they begin to celebrate.
They’re counting faster in Delaware. This is where establishment Republicans backed Rep. Mike Castle in the race for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. But as those results come in, Castle is trailing far-right political consultant Christine O’Donnell, someone the state GOP chairman said “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” Shortly before 10 p.m., the AP calls the race for O’Donnell.
Norton is relaxing with a glass of white wine, chatting with DC Vote Chairman Ilir Zherka, when she hears the news. She gives him a high five.
“Wow,” she says. “Wow for us!” She’s made a quick political calculation, and realizes Democrats are likely to hold a key Senate seat—and that much less likely to lose the upper chamber altogether.
But Norton’s expression quickly changes. She frowns. “How awful for him,” she says of Castle. “I’m worried about these new Republicans. I’m much more worried about them than the Republicans who are here. The Republicans who are here are very partisan, but it looks like there are a bunch of people coming in who don’t understand politics at all.”
National Democrats are panicky by nature, and they’ve been fretting about a Republican takeover of Congress since late last year. Norton is one of those rare Democrats who doesn’t talk down her party’s chances of holding onto power. She’s thought about it, though. She makes it clear she’s “on offense.” But she’s worked with Republicans well in the past: When Newt Gingrich ran the House, Norton says, he was “one of my best friends,” and “helped me immeasurably.”
That brings her to Jason Chaffetz.
If Republicans win the House, the first-term congressman from Utah will run the obscurely named Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Washingtonians who understand the unusual legal control Congress wields over the District, though, will know him by a simpler title: the new boss.
Chaffetz’s elevation would represent quite a change. In just under two years here, Chaffetz has opposed Norton’s bill to give D.C. a congressional vote, opposed her bill to give D.C. more autonomy, and filed a bill to force a gay marriage referendum on D.C. And in a Republican House, Chaffetz would have reinforcements, ideological allies who wave the U.S. Constitution like members of the Red Guard used to wave quotations from Chairman Mao.
According to Chaffetz, poking around in the District’s local affairs and keeping D.C. from getting a meaningful vote in Congress is precisely what he was sent to Washington to do. He defeated an incumbent in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District’s Republican primary in 2008 by running to his right on immigration as well as on the more amorphous issue of faithfulness to the Constitution—a platform that, for Chaffetz, included opposing a vote for D.C.
“When I got here,” says Chaffetz, speaking in a separate interview, “I introduced myself to Congresswoman Norton. I told her where was I on this issue. And that’s the last time we talked about an issue. We haven’t worked on any issue together.”
Norton doesn’t contest that.
“He’s in the minority,” she says. “I talk to the chairmen who get things done. There’s not many occasions, when you’re in the majority, that you need to reach out to the minority members. The occasions haven’t prevented themselves.” She allows just a little pessimism. “They will present themselves if we lose the House.”
The Wilson Building has been so focused on local primaries that another question hasn’t gotten much attention as November approaches: What changes for D.C. if, or when, the Republican Party wins control of the House of Representatives?
This isn’t something many locals expected to deal with so soon. The Democratic majority that swept into power four years ago ended an era of congressional meddling in the District’s affairs. When that majority grew two years later, D.C. activists watched a novel voting rights bill start to move toward President Obama’s desk. Old-fashioned efforts by far-flung legislators to override the city’s gun laws, drug laws, and gay marriage compromise, meanwhile, went nowhere. Medical marijuana, blocked for over a decade, finally became law. As a sign of goodwill, Democrats announced they’d apply a municipal smoking ban to the Capitol, the type of law Congress had long exempted itself from.
Then came the backlash. The recession the Democrats inherited lasted longer, and cut deeper, than the country was ready for. The party’s ambitious agenda on health care, energy, and taxes hit major snags. Momentum stalled. Moderate Democrats, newly anxious about re-election, joined a GOP effort to poison Norton’s D.C. vote legislation via an amendment erasing the city’s gun laws—a vote that they hoped would appease constituents who were upset about liberal votes on things like stimulus spending. Ultimately, the D.C. vote bill was shelved. If Democrats lose the House, as most analysts now expect, it’ll die.
Jason Chaffetz's Cotside Chats
Timeline: D.C. under Home Rule
The nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., has governed itself since 1973—kinda. Despite the passing of the Home Rule Charter, which delegated power to an elected mayor and 13-member D.C. Council, Congress still oversees the District. View a timeline of Home Rule in D.C., along with a video series of Congress' greatest hits on the District, from Boy Scouts to Needle Exchange.
Tell Provo What To Do!
If Jason Chaffetz, from Utah, can tell the District how to run its government, why shouldn't Washingtonians vote on how his hometown works? For example...
In Utah County, where Provo is located, the rules for marriage licenses specify the applicants must be “male and female.” Clearly, the District’s enlightened attitude toward gay marriage hasn’t made its way out west yet. Let’s put that to a vote. (After all, at $50 a pop, the licenses could help the county keep its books balanced—and every little bit helps!)