Junior League: The Novice Politico Who's Taking on Eleanor Holmes Norton

Article excerpt

As budding politicians go, Michael Monroe's main advantage is that he's got the look. The 25-year-old Republican candidate for Washington, D.C.'s congressional seat might not have the experience, of the money, or the ideas. But he's got the look: coiffed blonde hair, deep-set, earnest eyes, even a slight cleft to his chin. From head to me, he looks like he was born to cut ribbons at grocery-store openings, to press the flesh at shopping malls and Kiwanis Club pancake breakfasts. It's almost enough to make you believe Monroe when he argues, very sincerely, that he's got a legitimate chance at knocking off Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting, yet wildly popular, seven-term delegate to the U.S. Congress. "My plan will be clear and the end goals will be clear. She'll see that this isn't just some kid with his name on the ballot, this is a serious Republican contender," he implores, looking at me guilelessly. "People say it's crazy; it's impossible--but the only thing impossible would be not to try."

We're sitting at a table in the back of Chef Geoff's, a restaurant in downtown Washington which functions as the de facto campaign headquarters for Monroe's long-shot bid. It's 6:30 p.m., right before the dinner rush, and the clubby oaken-paneled restaurant is mostly empty, with pockets of early-bird elderly scattered around the dining room. Monroe has worked at Chef Geoff's on and off since graduating from James Madison University in 2001; he is currently, the restaurant's marketing director. Chef Geoff himself is a Democrat, but Monroe assures me that he'll cross party lines come November--"He's a swing voter." Sitting around the table are some key Monroe supporters: high school friends Quincy Waldron and John Corrigan, D.C. Young Republicans representative Jenny Lee, and Ed Garrity, a mysterious young man in a three-piece suit who won't say what he does and who eyes me coolly when I am introduced as a journalist.

By and large, this appears to be the brain trust of the campaign, which at times feels more like an overly serious campaign for student council than an under-resourced race for congressional office. Of course, that's a hard feeling to shake when the candidate just turned 25 years old in August. Far from trying to hide this fact, though, Monroe trumpets his youth. "I think I'm the youngest congressional candidate in the nation," he notes proudly. On the other side of the table, Garrity shakes his head. "Florida," he states matter-of-factly. Apparently there's somebody younger than Monroe running for Congress in Florida. Monroe is taken aback. "Younger than being 25 this month?" Garrity nods sagely. "But they're not a major party candidate," he admits.

A little later, two older men enter and sit down. They are Rick Dykema, chief of staff for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), and former foreign service officer Lars Hydle, an intense man dressed entirely in khaki, as if he just came back from safari. Monroe introduces them and then gets back to his main point: the folly of one-party politics. "In business monopolies, people are held accountable with antitrust laws," he says. "But with political monopolies, people just keep on getting elected and doing nothing." He pauses for a moment. "If I wasn't running myself, she would have already won."

She, of course, is Norton, whose resume--decorated scholar, crusading attorney, tireless activist, esteemed member of Washington's black elite--is considerably longer than that of her young challenger. Norton has held office for 14 years and remains extremely popular. "I saw that she had about a 91 percent approval rating," says Monroe. "But in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had a 100 percent approval rating, because nobody ran against him" Norton's reelection campaign office declined to comment on Monroe's candidacy, which doesn't surprise Monroe, who considers Norton the archetypal do-nothing, say-nothing pol. A Monroe regime would be different, however. …