Activist in lead-paint fight viewed as hero and sellout

July 29, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

When a national health foundation picked a Baltimore woman to win its annual $120,000 leadership award this year, it seemed like a no-brainer. Ruth Ann Norton had fought lead poisoning in the city for more than a decade on behalf of thousands of children whose nervous systems had been ravaged by lead paint.

But before she could make it to the award ceremony, the foundation received angry letters protesting the choice. They called Norton, who runs the state's largest advocacy group against lead poisoning, a power-monger and shameless self-promoter. One letter accused her of working against the children's cause.

Had the letters come from property owners, they would not have been a surprise, as the issue of lead paint has long been rife with controversy.

These letters, however, came from fellow child advocates. They pointed to a deep divide in Maryland among those fighting for stronger lead laws and enforcement - a split in which Norton is often the line.

Many see Norton's story as an inspiration: a convicted felon who redeemed her life by committing herself to Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods and in large part succeeding, as shown by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation award.

Others see something entirely different: a woman whose abrasive style and hunger for power and the limelight have hindered more than helped the cause.

Both sides agree that during the past 12 years, the history of Baltimore's struggle against lead poisoning has become intertwined with Norton's story.

Most days, she works from the Canton headquarters of her organization, the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, where a shelf near her office displays pictures of children the group has helped.

When she talks about lead poisoning, Norton talks mostly in facts and statistics: it takes the equivalent of three granules of sugar for lead dust to poison a child, more than 65 percent of children screened in some city neighborhoods are poisoned. This is what years of awareness campaigns and speeches have drilled into her.

When she talks about her own life, however, Norton, 45, talks about privilege. She was raised in a solid family, attended prestigious schools, took trips to Europe and studied at the University of North Carolina.

But while she was growing up, during the 1960s and 1970s, a debate about lead paint was stirring across the country.

Marketed for its durability, lead paint was used widely in homes through the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, researchers had begun to link lead paint exposure to damaged nervous systems in children.

Norton knew little of this when she came to Baltimore in 1983. Filled with ambition, she quickly distinguished herself as an investment banker. At 24, she was promoted to vice president at the firm Baker Watts.

"It was a more reckless time, the go-go years of the 1980s," she said. She drove a Jaguar, lived lavishly and traveled the world.

Her reckless times came to an end in 1989 when, court documents show, an investor found that Norton had defrauded him out of a half-million dollars, spending it on exotic vacations, shopping sprees, charitable donations and a Mercedes.

Convicted of wire fraud in 1991, Norton spent 10 months in the white-collar prison at Alderson, W.Va., recently made famous by Martha Stewart. Behind bars, she said, she cried, re-examined her life and didn't like what she saw.

She thought about privilege and realized she had wasted hers. She decided she would return to Baltimore and do something constructive with her life.

Grass-roots group

The city Norton returned to in 1992 was filled with dilapidated houses. In many, children ingesting dust from aging lead paint were developing symptoms from headaches to severe, permanent mental retardation.

To combat the problem, volunteers in the city had started a grass-roots organization called Parents Against Lead. The group received a large anonymous donation and was looking to hire a director to build it into a well-funded nonprofit with credibility and lobbying power.

Impressed by Norton's business credentials, the board of directors hired her in 1993.

Her earliest years on the job, Norton said, were intimidating. Landlords had a powerful lobby in Baltimore and Annapolis, and many politicians saw lead poisoning as an unsolvable problem.

The harder it got, the more outraged she became, she said. Over the years, some would describe this quality as combative, abrasive, even vindictive.

Norton sees it as persistence.

"I have no tolerance for people getting in the way of justice and putting kids in harm's way," she said. "These are good people trapped in bad situations. I can understand that."

She tried to educate legislators about the issue - taking them on tours of hazardous East Baltimore rowhouses, even giving some test kits and telling them to check for lead inside their homes.

But other child advocates watched her work skeptically.

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