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Challenger to Norton Preps for Uphill Battle

As an elementary-school pupil, Erran Persley visited Washington, D.C., on a class trip from his home in Kentucky.

“I fell in love with the city,” Persley said. “And I told my teacher: ‘One day I’m going to come back and run this city.’”

On Tuesday, Persley, 35, will officially begin his campaign to unseat eight-term Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton as the District’s non-voting delegate in Congress. Only time will tell if the young Republican poses a threat, but politicos generally rate his chances as slim.

Although Persley is beginning his fight more than a year in advance, the political newcomer faces a Herculean challenge in taking on Norton, a local institution who has received 89 percent or more of the vote in every election since 1994.

The incumbent enjoys not only massive name recognition but also the luxury of running as a Democrat in a city where registered voters are better than 10-to-1 Democratic.

“Generally, those who vote — which tends to be black and white middle class — vote for Eleanor Holmes Norton,” said Jonetta Rose Barras, political analyst for the “D.C. Politics Hour” on WAMU-FM. “There is a certain packaging with Eleanor Holmes Norton — people like her.”

In theory, Barras said, “she is certainly vulnerable.” But exactly who can seize on Norton’s weaknesses — and whether any Republican, such as Persley, could do so — remains unclear.

“Certainly, there is an environment in Washington, D.C., dissatisfied with Democrats, and that could be mined,” Barras said. “But it will take [another] Democrat or an Independent to unseat her.”

The son of a Methodist minister, Persley, who is black, grew up in a family with two Democratic parents. When it came time for him to register to vote, however, Persley broke with tradition and went GOP.

According to Persley, Democrats have taken the black vote for granted for too long. “We give our vote to the Democrats, but they haven’t been responsive to the needs of African Americans,” he said.

Persley graduated from Howard University in 1992 and, for the past four years, has worked as the director of employee relations, policy management and international security at Chemonics International, a consulting firm specializing in international development.

Persley’s campaign will center around three primary issues: education, District of Columbia voting rights and economic development.

Part of Persley’s education agenda is to be proactive in training young adults so they don’t wind up a part of the criminal justice system.

“I’m amazed we will spend money building jails, but not vocational training centers,” he said.

Persley would also like to see District residents represented in the federal legislative branch, though not as a result of statehood.

“As a city, we are not ready to take on that burden,” he added.

He supports the promotion of faith-based initiatives, a popular program with the Bush administration, for whom Persley volunteered for in elections.

“In every African-American community there are three or four churches,” he said. “Why shouldn’t those organizations be affecting change?”

Another obstacle to overcome: Persley could be hampered by the local Republican Party’s lack of aggressive recruiting, Barras said.