Sloan Wages Quixotic Campaign Against Norton

Posted September 2, 2010 at 10:26am

Doug Sloan wants the microphone.

The crowd gathered at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, D.C., is hundreds deep, and the day’s event, a rally celebrating the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, presents a huge opportunity.

Cable news channels have trained their cameras on the stage. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the rally’s organizer, is mugging for pictures with fans.

For Sloan, who is running against D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in the Democratic primary, getting even a few seconds in front of that microphone is crucial.

His campaign manager is pleading with the two impossibly chic women who control the lineup of speakers. For a while, it looks like Sloan might at least get a brief introduction, maybe a chance to wave to the crowd. He climbs a few steps up on the metal riser to the stage, patiently waiting for his moment.

And then he waits. And waits. He dabs at the sweat beading on his forehead on this 90-plus degree day and waits a little more. He edges up to the rear of the stage.

Speakers come and go, including Norton, who gets modest cheers from the crowd when she mentions her civil rights background and her quest for D.C. statehood. And soon Sloan realizes that he isn’t getting that moment. He gathers his small group of volunteer staffers and tells them that it’s time to move on to the next campaign event.

Such is the plight of the underdog candidate running for a Congressional seat that doesn’t even come with voting privileges. To call Sloan a dark horse would be an understatement: His opponent, Norton, has held the seat for 20 years. In the past 14 years, she’s never gotten less than 90 percent of the vote, a practically unheard-of majority.

In this cycle, she’s raised more than $250,000 to his $21,000, most of which came from his own pocket.

The anti-incumbency mood swirling around districts across the country doesn’t seem to have reached D.C.’s streets. Still, Sloan keeps trying. In fact, he wears the fact that he’s only the second candidate ever to challenge Norton in a Democratic primary as a badge of courage.

“I meet people on the street, and they say, ‘Oh, I love Eleanor. She’s doing a great job.’ And I’ll ask them what she’s done, and I’ll get blank stares,” he says. “The truth is that this seat is being underutilized.”

Sloan is running on a campaign of contrasts. Norton, he says, has been too timid in seeking statehood for Washington, content to point to close calls on getting legislation passed. “‘Almost’ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he says, echoing a line that has become a stock phrase at campaign events.

Sloan is selling a young and energetic persona. His wife, CNBC producer Karen James, often accompanies him to events pushing a campaign-sticker-encrusted stroller in which the couple’s 8-month-old son, Jebasei, gurgles contentedly. Sloan is quick to shake hands and ask point-blank for a vote.

Sloan might be young, but he’s not a newbie in Washington politics. His father is longtime Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and statehood activist Ned Sloan. After living in his parents’ basement and finishing graduate school at American University, Doug Sloan moved across Ward 4, bought a home of his own and became an ANC himself.

He took stints in local politics, including as a staffer for several city councilmembers and as outreach coordinator in the city’s Office of Community Affairs under former Mayor Anthony Williams. He left city hall to open Sloan Consulting, a public affairs shop whose clients have included Safeway and CVS.

And although he’s well behind Norton in the money and name recognition, Sloan has impressed some observers. He got good reviews for his performances debating Norton on two popular local radio shows.

WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin, who moderated one such debate, says Sloan has exceeded expectations. “He’s run a really credible campaign,” Plotkin says.

Norton, for her part, takes a politely dismissive tone when talking about her opponent. “I don’t really know him,” she says. Referring to Sloan’s unsuccessful run in 2007 for D.C. Council, she becomes even icier. “He came in, what, 13th out of 18 candidates? I was puzzled why he thought this was the next logical step.”

And on the campaign trail, Sloan can’t seem to step out of Norton’s towering shadow.

After leaving the MLK rally at Dunbar High School, he hops into his car and heads across the river to a much smaller event, a community fair held by a local chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The gathering bears all the hallmarks of a small-town jamboree: There’s face painting and hula-hooping for kids, lemonade and hot dogs and a popcorn machine.

Here, Sloan does get the microphone to make brief remarks, sandwiched between a teenage rap act and a step show. “My mother was a Delta!” he tells the curious onlookers who’ve paused mid-bite to listen to what the guy in the dress shirt and slacks has to say. A lone unicyclist rolls by.

There are a few claps.

But as Sloan leaves the event, heading for yet another chance to shake hands and meet voters, Norton has arrived and taken the microphone herself. A large crowd has gathered.

They are applauding wildly.