Hanging on to the past

Call it Rep. Marcy Kaptur and the case of the missing portrait.

The Ohio Democrat’s years-long mission to bring the artistic rendering of one of Congress’s female pioneers back into daylight came to a satisfying conclusion last week when the House Education and Labor Committee unveiled the newest addition to its hearing room.

Mary Norton, a Democrat from New Jersey who served in the House from 1925 to 1951, now stares down from her portrait at present-day panel Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and his committee members, providing a constant reminder of her accomplishments as a labor champion who chaired four congressional committees.

But not long ago, Norton’s portrait was stuffed in a dark closet in one of the Capitol Complex’s lesser-trafficked auxiliary buildings.

Kaptur caught on to the funny business in the late 1990s, when she was researching a book she was writing on women in Congress. She found that there had been a portrait commissioned and completed for Norton but couldn’t locate it. So she started to investigate by asking questions of Capitol officials. “They sent me to House Annex 2, I think it was,” Kaptur recalls. “I’d never been to the building.”

She began to survey the scene.

“I looked in this closet, and it was in there with Xerox boxes,” she says, with a hint of resentment. “It had obviously been taken down [and] was being disrespectfully stored in a closet.”

Kaptur explains her theory about the indignity Norton’s portrait suffered. She believes it may have been an ugly byproduct of the 1994 Republican Revolution. Newly crowned House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) might have ordered that all portraits of Democratic committee chairmen be taken down, she guesses.

“That’s my theory,” she says. “I don’t know what the truth is. All I know is I found the portrait.”

Farar Elliott, curator and chief of the House Office of History and Preservation, doesn’t refute Kaptur’s conspiracy theory but does provide its counterweight. “It wasn’t through any malice that portraits might end up in storage,” she says, explaining that her office has been in existence for six years. The House had no one in the late 1990s whose official job was to care for congressional artwork.

“When I arrived here,” she says, “Democrats and Republicans alike were hanging on the walls.”

Kaptur says she feels like such a soul mate of Norton’s that she can “identify with her face and hands and the way she did her hair.” She took the painting from the closet to her office so it could be hung somewhere while she hammered away at her colleagues to get Norton properly displayed.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who at the time was chairman of the education and labor panel (and who has a portrait, albeit a paler version of himself, hanging in the hearing room), didn’t respond to her requests.

So she took up the issue again with Miller when he became chairman. He approved.

Last week, Kaptur and several other members pulled a burgundy sheet off the portrait to reveal a partially smiling Norton, dressed in a conservative black suit and poised to sign several documents.

“For me, it’s over a decade-long quest to properly acknowledge one of the most important members of Congress,” Kaptur says.

Case closed.