Nation's Capital Braces For Record Inaugural Crowds

An estimated 1 million spectators will flock to the National Mall on Jan. 20 for President-elect Obama's inauguration. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, of Washington, D.C., discusses the city's preparation for for the big event, and whether Obama's election will bring greater autonomy or even statehood for the nation's capital.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a clash between faith, medicine and the law in a Washington, D.C., hospital room. His doctors say 12-year-old Motl Brody is dead, but his parents say that their Orthodox Jewish faith instructs them that he is still alive. What to do? We speak to a doctor who is also a rabbi about this dilemma, next in our weekly Faith Matters conversation. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, scalpers are seeking big bucks for tickets. Homeowners are offering to give up their own homes for a week. We are not talking about a Rolling Stones concert, although there is a rock star quality to the excitement building up to January 20th, when Barack Obama will be inaugurated as president. Will Washington be ready? Who better to ask than D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She represents the nation's capital and the U.S. Congress, although she does not get to vote on the House floor - something which I hope we will talk about in just a few minutes. But first, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for coming.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): Oh. Hello, Michel. Good to be with you again.

MARTIN: The largest crowd ever recorded on the National Mall was for President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration. At that time, the park service estimated 1.2 million people came. The park service is estimating a million people will come for this. Do you think that that's right?

Rep. NORTON: The park service is - probably they're talking about the part of the mall that people will hold. My concern is the people who are coming with or without tickets, whatever tickets means to them, with no place to stand. And I am recommending to the campaign, to security officials - I'm on the Homeland Security Committee - that there be off-mall sites, that there be sites in our convention centers and major sports centers, that there be sites in churches. We see elderly people saying, oh, I thought I'd never live to see this, so I've got to be there. Many of them have never been to Washington on January 20th, when it's cold. They, in particular, if they want to be here, we've got to make accommodations for them. Michel...

MARTIN: Could you just tell me, what's it like for you? Because members of - the inauguration ceremony is on the steps of the Capitol. There are something like 240,000 tickets. People say, you know, their congressional representatives have some tickets to distribute. What's it been like for you?

Rep. NORTON: Well, it's been...

MARTIN: I know people are calling me looking for a room. So I'm just wondering what's going on.

Rep. NORTON: And when they say that members of Congress have tickets, what did they say that for? I've had to virtually put myself on a do-not-call-your-congresswoman list. Well, what happened was, they shut down my phones, they shut down my Web site. I tried all kinds of technology. None of it worked, so, you know, when we've had 10,000 or so requests, city of 600,000. So you know, that's just - and counting, or should I say not counting. And so what we now begin with is welcoming people. This is Congresswoman Norton's office. If you are calling about tickets to the inauguration, we have no information yet. If you're calling about something else, press 0. We've had to do that, because urgent business was not getting through to our offices.

MARTIN: You literally had to put a recorded message on your phone saying, I can't help you. I'm sure that's going over really big with you.

Rep. NORTON: Yeah. If you call Congressman Norton - somebody came and said, well, I just voted for her. You know, I was - but I think you cannot build - we started by taking names, addresses. That completely broke the bones down. Then we said, you know, leave them. That also broke the bones down. And then I don't know how many tickets we're going to get. They're not going to be very many. So one thing I've tried to do - and this is my tenth term coming up, it's not really lot of people who say, you know, well, maybe you have a chance.

They're going to distribute the tickets, 240,000, among members of the House and the Senate. There will be - only a few of those tickets, by the way, maybe 20 or 21, will be sit-down tickets. Those are tickets to stand. My concern is that the throngs are going to be so large that people will not be able to get to where the security is to show their ticket. And tickets don't mean a lot to people who are used to come into Obama rallies, which are 100,000 people. They'll say, you know, let's just go anyway.

MARTIN: And see what happens. And you're worried that it's going to also be a health issue, a security issue, particularly for seniors, younger people, etc. Let me ask you this. First of all, do you think the city will be ready in time? And who pays for all this, the extra security, the traffic management, all of that?

Rep. NORTON: Well, a part of my job is to make sure that the Congress and the federal government pays for it. I was - I've been able to get an annual amount for big marches, but watch out, President-elect Obama. I'm going to ask for a much larger amount to cover the expenses here. The city is very practiced at inaugurations without any issue, even after 9/11. But I am calling in the security officials. I'm talking to the Obama peoples, and I'm saying throw away the book, throw away the grid. Start a new one. And I think a president-elect who knew how to hold rallies larger than anybody had ever seen will be the first to understand. He's got to do something very different. He did something very different to get elected. He's got to do something very different for this inauguration.

MARTIN: Are people calling you, looking for your spare room?

Rep. NORTON: Yeah. It begins with my relatives, if I may just send that message out to everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton about the planning for the upcoming inauguration. Let's talk about the term D.C. delegate - delegate as opposed to member of Congress. You do get to vote in committee, but you do not get to vote on the floor of the House. In essence, the district, the nation's capital does not have representation on the floor of the Congress - either House. President-elect Obama pledged during the campaign, he supported voting rights. Do you anticipate that this issue will actually move forward? And then there's some talk now about whether - to this point, the question has been voting rights on the Congress. Is there any suggestion that perhaps it could go further than that now?

Rep. NORTON: Barack Obama, who is someone I got to know well when he was in the Senate, did not hesitate to become a co-sponsor of the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which passed the House easily - that's for House vote only, got 57 percent of the Senate. That's the body that isn't even affected by the House vote. Eight Republicans, not quite 60. That's how many you need in that legislating body. We have 65 votes, I believe, now. The six Republicans have been place - replaced by six Democrats, who are almost sure votes. It's almost a party-line vote. And I want to say that the Republicans who voted for us shows that it is not a party line issue, however. With the president willing to sign it, with 65 votes when you include the Republicans, none of whom, by the way, lost their election.

When you include the Republicans who voted for us, I do believe we're going to get voting rights this time. I do want to say that I am chairing a subcommittee. I do get a voting committee. And I wrote myself a little memo. I do get to vote on the House floor on some matters, but not on that final vote, Michel, on whether a young person should go to Iraq, for example, or have their taxes raised. And I'm not going to funerals of young people who've been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the country is with us. The polls show that two-thirds of the American people believe we ought to have this vote. And by the way, it's interesting to note that there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats on that proposition. I guess most people believe, look, if you go to war, you pay taxes, I'm not going to keep you from having representation in the House.

MARTIN: But when? There are those who argue that President-elect Obama cannot afford to do too much for the Democratic base, or that he's got to at least narrow his priorities given the pressing demands of the country, the economy, national security issues, lest he be seen as too partisan. So, when? So you think that the support is there, but when?

Rep. NORTON: Well, I don't think we have to ask much of Barack Obama. I've got to get it through the House and the Senate. All he's got to do is sign it. I talked to him before this election, not only about signing this bill, but about other matters of self-government that most people don't even know remain in the Congress. Why should the budget raised in the District of Columbia have to come paternalistically to the Congress before we can spend it? Those are the kinds of deeper matters that I have discussed with him, and those are the kinds of things that raise other questions. But I don't think in this kind of Congress - look, it's 21st century, ready for Democracy in your nation's capital or not. ..TEXT: MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask you - I've asked a number of our guests where they were and what they were doing when they learned that Barack Obama would, indeed, be the next president of the United States. And I ask you because you - before you became a member of Congress, longtime civil rights advocate, former chair of the EEOC, worked on questions of equal opportunity really your entire career. So I just wanted to ask, what was it like for you? Where were you? What was it like?

Rep. NORTON: I was in a hotel suite with - surrounded by my own supporters, waiting for that magic moment. And where it took me back to was the only moment I think where Americans felt the same way. And that was at the March on Washington when Martin Luther King gave a speech 45 years ago. And I was a SNCC head, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was in the back because John Lewis, who was our chair, was one of the speakers and we were, you know, we were part of the staff on that. And people felt - to this day they say, were you at the March on Washington? It was that kind of a moment for me, and I think the reason so many people want to come is they feel history in the making in the same way.

MARTIN: Did you feel that this would happen in your lifetime?

Rep. NORTON: Oh, yeah. If you've been working for civil rights, you don't ever say no to anything for - that African-Americans have been entitled to. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Well, there are those who have been in the trenches with you who said yes, they thought it would happen, but not - they wouldn't live to see it.

Rep. NORTON: Well, I'm going to live forever. I'm going to be in the Congress for almost as long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. NORTON: So, you know, I don't contemplate that the world will fall apart before I die or that the better things are to come. I think we - particularly for African-Americans, we got role models in the White House for the entire country. And that's what we've got. We've got to look at them that way, and I hope that the presence of Barack Obama will soar our imagination to think of, how we can top that? That's the way to look at electing the first African-American president, not that - oh, boy, we must have reached the millennium. Not quite. Not just - not any president of the world. We've had a secretary of State. We've come a long way in many ways. In many ways, the ways in which we have to come have to do with our own people, African-Americans, people who are not as - who have not done as well in the society.

MARTIN: All right. Washington, D.C., delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. NORTON: Always a pleasure.

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