Ann McBride Norton, First Woman to Run Common Cause, Dies at 75


Ann McBride Norton, who rose from being a part-time volunteer at Common Cause, the nonpartisan public-interest group, to becoming the first woman to lead the organization, died on May 5 at her home in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her family said.

Ms. McBride, as she was known, started as a volunteer at Common Cause in 1972 and spent more than 25 years at that watchdog organization. After she retired, she went on to a second career as a conservationist, in which she provided cameras to remote villagers in Asia to document changes in their fragile environments to help preserve their threatened way of life.

The daughter of Louisiana Republicans, Ms. McBride volunteered at Common Cause just as the Watergate scandal was mushrooming. The organization then moved beyond its original purpose of opposing the Vietnam War and began to focus on accountability and integrity in government.

Her shrewd political instincts became self-evident. Ms. McBride was soon the organization’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill and its national voice on its biggest issue, reducing the influence of money in politics. She became president and chief executive in 1995, succeeding the longtime president Fred Wertheimer and working closely with John W. Gardner, the group’s founder.

Coming from Louisiana, a state notorious for its political corruption, she recognized the irony in her working for an organization devoted to good government. “People laugh when I say I’m with Common Cause and I’m from Louisiana,” she was said to have remarked.

During her tenure, many of the organization’s goals — promoting ethics in government, easing restrictions at the ballot box and overhauling campaign finance laws — drew bipartisan support. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, joined her in promoting campaign finance reform.

Many saw his participation as an act of political penance after the “Keating Five” scandal, in which he and four other United States senators were accused of corruption involving a major donor. Indeed, the 2002 law that barred “soft money” contributions to political parties bears his name, the McCain Feingold Act (sponsored with Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin).

The bill passed after Ms. McBride had left Common Cause, but Mr. McCain still paid her tribute at the time, calling her “our general and our strategist.”

As a political tactician, she followed the mantra of Saul Alinsky, the community organizer who immortalized the idea that political organizers should have “no permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” As Ms. McBride framed it, “A key opponent in one case may become your prime supporter in another.”

When she retired from Common Cause in 1999, Archibald Cox, the Watergate prosecutor and longtime chairman of Common Cause, called her “a giant in the world of political reform,” a gifted organizer and an inspiring public speaker.

“If I had her personality,” Mr. Cox said, “I would rule the world.”

Virginia Ann deGravelles was born on June 23, 1944, in Lafayette, La. Her father, Charles Camille deGravelles, ran an independent oil leasing company and was chairman of the state Republican Party. Her mother, Virginia (Wheadon) deGravelles, served on the Republican National Committee.

Ann deGravelles attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge but left in 1964 to marry Charles W. McBride, who was press secretary to Senator Russell B. Long and chief of staff to Senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr., both influential Louisiana Democrats. She would earn her bachelor’s degree at American University in Washington in 1992.

After her marriage to Mr. McBride ended in divorce, she married Edward M. Norton, an environmental activist. Her husband survives her, as do her daughters, the singer and recording artist Mary McBride and Claire McBride; two stepsons, Edward and James Norton; a stepdaughter, Molly Norton; two brothers, Charles deGravelles and John Wheadon deGravelles, a federal judge in Louisiana; and five step-grandchildren.

After she left Common Cause in 1999, Ms. McBride and Mr. Norton moved to Southwestern China for the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a joint effort by the Nature Conservancy and the Chinese government to protect the region’s biodiversity and cultural heritage.

While there, she created Photovoices International, in which she gave cameras to villagers to create a record of their surroundings and their lives. The Eastman Kodak Company donated point-and-shoot cameras and film.

In short training sessions, villagers were taught how to shoot, and, rather than being told what makes a good picture, they were shown photographs and encouraged to discuss what they liked and why.

Their pictures provided a record of endangered traditions and landscapes, but the main goal, Ms. McBride told The New York Times in 2005, was to give voice to northern Yunnan’s diverse population. By expressing themselves through photography, she believed, the villagers could participate in decisions about their land and their future.

The photographs were exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at museums in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.

Ms. McBride became a regular commentator on National Public Radio. In a series called “Postcards From China,” she reported on, among other things, China’s obsession with N.C.A.A. basketball, its thriving black market for pirated American music and the surprisingly subdued reaction among Chinese to the success of their country’s first manned space mission to orbit the Earth, in 2003.

It was a sign of how far China had come, she said, that people were willing to express opinions that veered from the official party line.

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