Ann McBride Norton’s Legacy: “Our Victories Give Hope to the People that Working Together We Can Make a Difference”

From part-time volunteer, Ann McBride became one of a team of tenacious citizen-lobbyists who helped open up our political process. She rose to be the first woman president of Common Cause from 1995-1999 and inspired me and many others along the way.

Karen Hobert Flynn: Ann was a Leader, Mentor, Friend

I am very sorry to announce that Ann McBride, who served in many capacities at Common Cause, including President, passed away on May 5.

She was 75 and had been in declining health.

Ann is an important part of Common Cause’s history and was a cherished mentor and role-model to me.

Ann’s message was clear. Our victories were, she would often say, “a message of hope for citizens – a reminder that working together, we all could make a difference in our government and our world.”

She joined Common Cause in the early 1970s, first as a volunteer working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and then as a member of the staff working on a range of our issues, including ethics and campaign finance reform. She was one of Common Cause’s most tireless lobbyists and became Senior Vice President in 1984. She served as President from 1995 to 1999.

“People laugh,” Ann once said, “when I say I’m with Common Cause and I’m from Louisiana,” which is known as much for its political corruption as for its gumbo.

But, she was a perfect fit, embodying so well our highest ideals of what a government should be and who it should serve. She loved traveling around the country to meet with Common Cause members and others. She connected so easily to people who were frustrated with their elected leaders and felt they had no voice. She showed them how, working together, we could be a united voice – a voice that could topple injustice and win historic reform victories at all levels.

When Members of Congress or reporters would chide Ann for being a Pollyanna, when victories seemed to be so far out of reach, she would take those “insults” as compliments. There was no shame, she taught us, in being an eternal optimist.

“To that end, Ann fought the good fight, she finished the race, she kept the faith. In Ann’s memory and to honor her legacy, may we all do the same at this pivotal moment for our democracy.” —  Ed Norton

Like Ann, my first job at Common Cause was an entry-level one: I was hired as her administrative assistant in 1985. I learned about Common Cause, its values, its strengths, and its work through Ann.  Her warmth, her brilliance, and her joy inspired me.  Her instincts and political skills were sharp, and her command of our issues was impressive.  For my first four years at Common Cause, I had the opportunity to work with Ann on a daily basis.  I learned from the best.  And, it continues to inspire my work every single day.

Democracy 21 President and former Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer said, “Ann and I worked together at Common Cause for more than two decades. We were both colleagues and close friends. Ann was an inspirational leader for Common Cause and the wider public interest community. Her unwavering commitment to public service made her a role model to innumerable Common Cause staff and volunteers.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had plenty of run-ins with Ann and Common Cause over the years, before joining in partnership with us and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) in the work for historic campaign finance reform in the 1990s. Senator McCain described Ann like this in thanking her for her work winning the landmark legislation, “Ann McBride, our general and our strategist – a formidable foe, I might add, but also who has done enormous work and great effort on behalf of all Americans as the leader of Common Cause.”

That was exactly who Ann was to all who cared about a fair, honest, and thriving democracy. She was our general and our strategist. She gave all of us a voice.

WATCH: Ann McBride commemorates Common Cause’s founding board chair Archibald Cox >>

In later years, Ann and her husband Ed Norton worked in China as part of a Nature Conservancy project. While there, Ann founded Photovoices International that provided people with cameras, photography training, and a process for telling stories about their pictures as a way to bring their voices into decisions that affect their lives.

A graduate of American University, Ann served as a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and, in 2005, she was selected as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to teach at Charles University in Prague. She also shared her travels and insights as a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Ann will be missed. But, her optimism and ability to be a voice for citizens will continue to be a guiding light for our work.

Ed Norton: Ann’s Iron Will Sheathed in Southern Charm

First and foremost you should know that Ann so much enjoyed her visit to Common Cause in December.  Thank you for seeing her.  She was so proud of you and what you have accomplished at Common Cause.  And Vernell has continued to be in close contact through her visits to Ann, a “girls night out” at the Kennedy Center, and telephone calls. That meant so much to Ann.

I am certain that Common Cause has extensive documentation of Ann’s more than 20 years with Common Cause and what she accomplished as she rose from being a part-time volunteer to President.  Ann’s daughter Mary has written a beautiful bio and obituary about her Mom with material from C-Span and NPR and other archives – quotes from Archie Cox and Senator John McCain and my memory from my time on the Common Cause board.  We have enjoyed watching the C-Span archives of press conferences and panels and looking at the photographs.  My favorite photograph is the picture of Ann testifying with both fists raised and a fierce look of determination.  When I saw one fist, I knew to keep quiet, and when I saw two fists, I thought “uh oh!!!”.  Iron will be sheathed in her smile and southern charm.

I can only add that Ann was deeply grateful to Common Cause for the opportunity that it provided her to grow personally and professionally and as a professional woman.  She wrote and spoke often of Common Cause.  Her writing for Photovoices – Empowering People Through Photography and her public presentations, her course materials for the USAID training program for women’s advocacy organizations in Mongolia (in the winter 40 degrees below zero in Ulan Bator), her application and course materials for her Fulbright-Masaryk Fellowship at Charles University in Prague are laced through with references to Common Cause and John Gardner and what she learned from her Common Cause experience.  Ann saw Photovoices, which was an enormous success in China and Indonesia, as an extension of the fundamental Common Cause philosophy and strategy – to empower people –  and she expressed that eloquently.  Not to drop a name, but, when we lived in Prague and Ann was teaching at Charles University, we met with Vaclav Havel, and Ann talked proudly at length about her experience at Common Cause.

The importance of the role of women shines through as the other dominant theme of Ann’s post-Common Cause work with Photovoices and her teaching. I think that her work on the Equal Rights Amendment stimulated that. Also, her experiences as a woman lobbyist on Capitol Hill played an important role.  She then witnessed how women’s views, particularly in rural areas,  were often ignored in China and Indonesia.  She created and organized Photovoices to empower women.  I can still hear her when she went to meet local government leaders in China – frequently all men –  to explain that she wanted to give cameras to villagers and have them tell stories about the pictures.  The men, often thinking they might have a chance to snag a free camera, expressed interest and enthusiasm in participating in a Photovoices project in their village, and Ann would look around the room and say, “Are there any women in this village? ”  And then, drawing on her Common Cause experience with party discipline and bi-partisan support, remind the men that, “Chairman Mao said ‘women hold up half the sky.’ ”

In helping Ann’s daughter Mary prepare her Mom’s bio, I found an email  that Ann wrote in 2011 after we moved back to San Francisco  in which she described her experience at Common Cause as making her feel “like I was at the center of the Universe with the gift of being connected to the tens of thousands of Common Cause activists around the country.”  Ann loved those weekly briefings of the volunteers in the office.  I can still see her scurrying to the briefing, dropping a few papers on the way, with that smile and look of happiness on her face.

No doubt, Ann was proud of her accomplishments at Common Cause and proud of the fact that she rose from a part-time volunteer to President.  That said, I know to a certainty that Ann would want to say to the Common Cause community: “Thank you Common Cause for the opportunity you gave me. Thank you, volunteers, for showing me what is on that plaque in your office with my picture, “One person can make a difference, and individuals working together can change the world.”

To that end, Ann fought the good fight, she finished the race, she kept the faith.

In Ann’s memory and to honor her legacy, may we all do the same at this pivotal moment for our democracy.

Fred Wertheimer: A Powerful Inspiration

Ann and I worked together at Common Cause for more than two decades. She came to Common Cause as a volunteer in 1972 and rose to become its President from 1995 to 1999.

We were colleagues and close friends. Ann was a tremendous leader for Common Cause and the public-interest community. She was deeply committed to public service, a superstar public-interest lobbyist, a dynamic speaker, and a powerful inspiration for Common Cause staff, volunteers, and for all citizens seeking a voice in their democracy. Ann was a mentor and role model for many young staff members who passed through the Common Cause office.

Ann never wavered in her belief that one person could make a difference.

John Gardner marveled at Ann’s speaking abilities. He saw her as a powerful, skilled communicator of Common Cause’s values and issues. Ann had a unique ability to connect with people – with the Common Cause volunteers, staff, and members, with Members of Congress, with the media, and with just about anyone she met.

Ann had an adventurous spirit. That became clear to all when, upon leaving Common Cause, Ann and her husband and soul mate Ed Norton moved to China to work on a five-year environmental project that Ed headed in the Yunnan province,

Ann, in addition to her work on the environmental project, engaged her creative skills to invent a project to empower and give voice to local villagers. She gave them cameras to use to make a permanent record of their surroundings, their culture, and their lives. Ann created a nonprofit to expand the project, Photovoices International, and eventually had partnerships with National Geographic, WWF-Indonesia, and the Ford Foundation, and a  museum exhibition of the pictures in the United States.  When Ann and Ed eventually left China, they continued their great adventure by moving to Indonesia, where

Ann continued her Photovoices project.

While abroad, Ann also managed to throw in a Fulbright scholarship, which she pursued in Prague, and became a commentator for NPR on her Asia experiences.

At Common Cause, we had a basic organizing principle: work hard and have fun.

Ann did both to the fullest.

Ann was a very special person.

Ann McBride Norton, who led Common Cause and championed campaign-finance laws, dies at 75 – The Washington Post

Vernell Grissom: The First “Madame President”

“Madame President.” I’ve been able to use that term three times in the history of Common Cause and I use it as not only as a term of respect but also endearment. Ann McBride was the first woman president of Common Cause and the second, Chellie Pingree, went on to Congress. It is the third, our current president Karen Hobert Flynn, and the fact that Ann McBride mentored her years ago, that is the story I will share.

Ironic, but it makes perfect sense because Ann was a role model though I don’t think she thought of herself that way. In her day, she presided over the largest cadre of volunteers, “The Washington Connection” and she used their talents to widen the scope of Common Cause across the country. This was before we had rapid response tools like email, FaceBook, and Twitter. They loved her.  A Tuesday morning briefing was not complete without comments from Ann. She made her experiences as a lobbyist come alive with her side notes and experiences on the Hill. She made the personalities we’d read about in the Post come alive. No one could make the workings or failures of government more interesting and accessible. She was empathetic and a connector of people.

Be it helping my daughter with her political homework to exclaiming about how was it possible that I could be raising such a conservative thinking child, Ann was engaged with our lives. She cheered my daughter on as she applied for her first real job, a position in an organization headed by one of our then Board members. She never failed to ask what she was doing or how she was faring in the working world. We had many wonderful conversations in of all places, the ladies’ room. Not president to subordinate, just woman to woman, about kids, being a working woman at that time, and some of the challenges it created.

Ann fostered the Common Cause culture of a family with all its ups and downs. She left Common Cause but always lifted up women in most everything she did.  Years later we were able to reconnect and she was still interested in Common Cause, what we were doing, what issues we were working on, and just how things were in general.  We shared some more stories, some memories, and most importantly, some laughs. She will be missed but I’m so glad we had her for a time.

RIP “Madame President.”

Jackie Howell: The Stonecutters Story

Ann left a lasting impression on everyone she worked with – Common Cause staff, volunteers, legislators, citizens. Her personality was joyful and larger than life.

If you had cause to work with Ann then you probably heard the story of the stonecutters. She told it often.

There were two stone cutters working on a building. The first was asked, “What are you doing?” And, he grumbled, “I’m cutting stone.”

But, when the second stonecutter was asked what he was doing, his face lit up as he replied, “I am part of a team that is building a beautiful cathedral.”

That story was the essence of Ann – she was never just cutting stone, everything she did was for a greater, higher purpose. She never doubted the potential of what we, as a team, could build.

Ann was an eternal optimist and, to be honest, that would annoy me some days. But, I was a lot younger back then. I’m older now and wise enough to see that Ann was right all along.

If we work together as a team, if we stay optimistic, if we never give up, we can achieve anything.

How lucky we were to have Ann to remind us of that.

~ Jackie Howell (Common Cause – 1983 and 1984-2001)

Don Simon: Brick by Brick Ann Built McCain-Feingold

I first met Ann when I joined Common Cause as a newly minted lawyer in 1978. She was already a senior staffer in the office, one of the many who I admired and tried to learn from. After a few years, I left the staff but then joined the Common Cause Board and continued to work with Ann in that capacity.

At my final Board meeting before the end of my term in 1995, we elected Ann to be the new President of Common Cause—an easy and obviously correct choice. As we were leaving the meeting that Saturday afternoon, she asked me to stop by the Common Cause office on Monday to see her.

At that meeting, she caught me completely by surprise and said that I should come back to work with her at Common Cause. After a bit of reflection, I said I would do so, thus launching the most enjoyable, most intense, and by far most satisfying four years of my professional career.

The collaboration I had with Ann was wonderful. It was during the period in the late-1990’s when—by sheer force of will—she constructed, brick by brick, the McCain-Feingold legislation. She was a powerhouse of steely determination, lobbying savvy, policy smarts, and a really deep love of democracy accompanied by the abiding belief that citizens are obligated to constantly fight for its fuller realization.

What Ann had (and what I sorely lacked) were the people skills to light up a room when she walked in and charm everyone in it. It was pretty magical to watch, and it made her very effective not just at running Common Cause but also carrying the organization’s message to the Hill, to the members and volunteers, and to the country.

Best of all, Ann and I became very close personal friends, sharing the ups and downs of our lives during those years, of which there were many for both of us. Above all else, above even the wonderful opportunity to work with her at Common Cause, it is that friendship that I am most grateful for.

“Ann McBride, our general and our strategist – a formidable foe, I might add, but also who has done enormous work and great effort on behalf of all Americans as the leader of Common Cause.” — Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

Randy Huwa: John Gardner’s “Homegrown Talent”

When John Gardner spoke, with considerable pride, about the “homegrown” talent of the Common Cause staff, he was talking about Ann.

Ann started as a volunteer, working in the Common Cause office on the Equal Rights Amendment. She had been a stay-at-home mom, with two small girls. But one day, as Ann would often recount, she decided that she could do more than “put mayonnaise on the dieffenbachia”. [That’s a real thing. You can look it up.] Ann’s career inspired many – many girls and women, yes, but more than that. Her story told us that everyone – anyone – could do their part to help make the world a better place. All it takes is desire.

Ann had LOTS of stories – not just about dieffenbachia. Many were stories rooted in her home state of Louisiana – stories about Huey Long and Earl Long, about Sheriff Eddie J. Ste Marie of Lafourche Parish. Stories about growing up, as Ann would say, in a phone-bank – her parents were also the father and mother of the modern-day Republican Party in Louisiana. And then stories about the early days of Common Cause … and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

And many of those stories found their way into Ann’s speeches. Ann was a powerful orator – a wonderful speaker. She could be informative, engaging, educational, persuasive, and inspirational. She was not afraid to share her own emotions in her speeches – and she had the courage to ask for an emotional response from her audiences. Her speeches were never off-the-cuff – each word, each thought, each phrase was measured, and likely re-measured, and then measured again.

At the time of her selection as Common Cause President, one detractor sniffed that the organization had just gotten caught up in the “cult of personality”. No, there was more than Ann than her ability to inspire. Ann was not just a motivational speaker. Ann tackled each lobbying assignment, each organizational challenge with the same intensity and attention to detail that she brought to her speeches. Ann wanted to understand every aspect of campaign-finance laws … arcane ethics in government regulations – and she mastered them.

That laser-like focus sometimes came at a price. When Ann was working on a project or preparing for a tough meeting on the Hill, she would sometimes … misplace things.

A lost purse. A book. A wallet. Keys. LOTS of lost keys.

It wasn’t that she was unfocused. She was focused on more important things.

Ann lives on – in the public policies she helped enact, in the organization she helped shape, in the lives of the thousands she led and inspired.

Susan Manes: Ann’s Strong Moral Compass

Ann and I were colleagues from 1985 to 1995,  comrades-in-arms who went on to become the closest of friends. It was a friendship that lasted until the very end of Ann’s remarkable life.

Ann was a person of prodigious gifts and accomplishments.  She was fierce and she was brave.  She made her way through the world powered by an extraordinary intellect and a deep commitment to making the world better in whatever way she could.

Ann’s moral compass was strong.  She was part of the founding generation of Common Cause leaders, who created a culture in which reference to moral teachings was an integral and explicit part of everyday life., It was a world where moral thinkers like John Gardner, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel were touchstones referred to over and over again. 

These were the people who inspired and guided Ann.  Their words peppered her speeches, her writings, her everyday conversation. She passed on their teachings to generations of Common Cause staff and volunteers.

It wasn’t all serious stuff with Ann., as everyone who knew her will tell you.   She was an outsized presence in every way,  smart, funny, possessed of great personal warmth, interested in everything and everybody.  She was, as her daughter Mary McBride says, the Queen of Fun.  There are more stories to tell about her than can be related in a lifetime.

Ann lit up my world and the memory of her will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Nick Ucci: Ann was a Force of Nature

Ann was a force of nature.

The fact that Ann started her storied career at Common Cause as a volunteer never left her professional identity and only enhanced her deep love and appreciation for CC’s secret weapon  —  the hundreds of volunteers that worked there over the years.

Ann was an indefatigable staffer working long hours and setting a standard of excellence to make sure that the job got done and got done right.

She epitomized the “Work Hard Play Hard” office mantra that made the place so special — never failing to participate in an office skit — even if it meant poking fun at herself.

As we get older memories take up more space and I have many fond ones of the years I worked at Common Cause with Ann.

“Ann McBride Norton, First Woman President of Common Cause, Dies at 75” –The New York Times.

Meredith McGehee: A Classic Steel Magnolia

There is a reason the tributes to Ann McBride have much in common. Ann’s vivacious personality shone through everything she did.

Ann could turn on the southern charm, to tell a story – often from Louisiana – to fit every occasion. She could work fiercely on a project for hours, suddenly take a break, and then just as suddenly, return fiercely to that task. Ann’s good looks were equally matched with a keen intellect. Behind the outgoing personality and magnetic public speaker was the classic Steel Magnolia – tough, committed, and a formidable foe. A pioneering public interest lobbyist and skilled political strategist, Ann was an important feminist leader who was at the forefront of moving our country from one where most women were expected to stay-at-home (yes, mayonnaise on the dieffenbachia) to one where they could more freely choose to use their talents in full-time work and even become President of the leading public interest group. In a style reminiscent of Bill Clinton, she had that unique talent of connecting eye-to-eye with people, whether it was one of the Washington Connection volunteers or a rank-and-file Common Cause member, and sincerely making that individual feel seen and heard.

Ann had an eye for talent.  So many people who came through the Common Cause office during her tenure remain connected to this day. Current President Karen Hobert-Flynn, a former assistant to Ann and now President of Common Cause, is one such example. Ann and Fred and the rest of the senior team also did a masterful job of creating a sense of mission throughout the organization, with an expectation of excellence. Now many decades into my own career, I marvel at that unique Common Cause quality that so many organizations try, yet fail, to achieve.

Ann and I worked closely together, lobbying together and especially working on government ethics issues. I learned a lot from her — how to think through issues, how to strategize on legislation, and how to embrace the calling of being a public interest lobbyist. At the organization led by Fred and Ann, there was always an expectation of excellence – to do whatever it took to review testimony or other written projects over and over and to not say “done” until it was indeed totally accurate and fact-checked until it said with precision exactly what Common Cause wanted to say. It’s an important lesson I use every day and try to instill in those with whom I work.

Ann never allowed Common Cause to become a typical dour, humorless, angry, under-funded public interest group. Instead, she infused — indeed transfused — her optimistic personality into Common Cause. And that’s another thing that made Common Cause special. Skits, music, decorations, any excuse to celebrate. That must have been the Louisiana part in her. Work hard, play hard.

And one other note.  For me, Ann also represents a link to my many Common Cause friendships that have amazingly endured through a growing number of decades – individuals who, at first, were just colleagues who worked at the same organization.  So many ended up becoming lifelong friends. I am thankful to her for that particularly important blessing.

Godspeed Ann.

Jen Lamson: “This Fight is About Who Has Power”

Larger than life with an even bigger smile, Ann had an epic quality. I could fill a page or two with colorful turns of phrase I learned from her over the decade we worked together and have adopted as my own, but two of them stand out as defining.

“This fight is about who gets to have power.”

While everyone else was talking about campaign finance reform, closing loopholes, contribution limits, and Buckley v. Valeo, Ann used to say this about the money and politics fight. As a young, very green organizer, that clarity resonated deeply for me and I stayed on at Common Cause for 10 years.  Decades later and back in democracy work after many years away, I am still inspired. It is the fundamental truth about this work – and one that has the potential to unify us all in the fight.

“Bracket it and move on.”

She had hand gestures for this one and it usually referred to a mistake she felt she had made. Ann was tough as nails and she was ambitious for the organization and the cause. For her to bring that very human vulnerability into her leadership practice was a gift that made a huge impression on me then as a young leader she had elevated into her senior team. I honestly think of it all the time and appreciate it even more now that I am the same age she was when we worked together. I find myself “bracketing” and “moving on” just about every day.

Ann led with love. I also aspire to that every day.

After leaving Common Cause Ann McBride Norton founded Photovoices, below is a lovely tribute they have posted on the website at where you can see some of Ann’s lovely photography and the voices and images from remote parts of the world she inspired with her unflinching belief in the spirit and dignity of every human being.

Tribute to Ann McBride Norton, Founder of Photovoices

Photovoices International is sad to announce the passing of our dear friend and founder Ann McBride Norton on May 5th.

Ann arrived in Bali with her husband Ed in 2005 and dedicated herself to build the Photovoices International (PVI) team in Indonesia. Ann recruited Saras, and together with countless Photovoices volunteer photographers and field staff, they worked tirelessly to document the stories and cultures of the Indonesian archipelago from the remote village of Boti in Timor to the Javanese highlands of Sukabumi

Ann believed in the timeless power of storytelling to capture the imagination and lead to lasting change. Using the Photovoices method, the PVI team and volunteer photographers documented their lives and culture, offering an intimate look into the firsthand knowledge and wisdom of Indonesia’s vibrant communities.

Photovoices village photographers shared stories of ancient religious beliefs, sacred ceremonies, and environmental dangers rarely seen by outsiders. With boundless enthusiasm, Ann was there to help share this important information with decision-makers, giving a powerful voice to these communities.

Indonesia’s people and places held a special place in Ann’s heart. Whenever she had the chance, Ann put on her hiking boots or scuba gear to dive and hike, immersing herself in the natural beauty of the archipelago.

Following Ann’s move to the USA to be with Ed in 2014, Lensa Masyarakat Nusantara was established as an Indonesian non-profit organization to house Photovoices International and carry forward Ann’s legacy of empowering people through photography and bringing community voices into decision-making. Ann continued to support the work of Photovoices International as our Founder and Senior Advisor. We will never forget Ann’s kindness, her warm smile, and the love and passion she brought to sharing the stories of Indonesia with the world.

Memorial services for Ann will take place in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, LA, and Bali, Indonesia and will be announced at a later date.