Thursday, 10 June 2010 23:12

DC sets sights on statehood with voting bill floundering

Written by Mike DeBonis | The Washington Post

With a seven-year effort to win a House of Representatives vote for the District now foundering, officials and activists are starting to wonder how to proceed with the city's decades-long fight for congressional representation.

The answer that's emerging, in candidate forums this campaign season and in the city budget, is an old one: statehood.

"There's an enormous amount of frustration," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said. "People wanted voting rights. That obviously didn't happen. . . . I think there's a view on the part of myself and a lot of other people: Why don't we just wage the fight for statehood?"

The frustration is rooted in the plan, engineered in 2003 by then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), to pair a House vote for the District with an additional seat for Utah, whose leaders felt slighted by the 2000 Census apportionment. But in the past 18 months, what seemed like a sure path to success was obstructed by amendments that would severely restrict the city's gun laws.

In April, congressional leaders scuttled a scheduled House vote after local leaders had reacted angrily to the possibility that city gun laws might be weakened, and some Senate Democrats threatened to oppose any bill with a gun provision. In the aftermath, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated that, without the gun language, chances are slim the measure will move before fall's midterm elections. That is widely regarded as a deadline for the Utah deal, because the elections are projected to reduce the Democratic majorities and a new census is likely to ease Utah's representation concerns.

Gray and others explain their frustration as rooted in political reality: The Democratic Party has majority control of Congress, plus a Democratic president in Obama. But still the voting-rights compromise has failed.

"If we can't get it now, then when?" asked Gray, who is running for mayor. "Why don't we just go for the whole enchilada?"

"There's a greater understanding that it's not any more difficult to get statehood than it is to get a single House vote," said Michael D. Brown (D), one of two shadow senators elected by District voters to advocate for statehood.

And that new understanding has been accompanied by second-guessing. "Statehood is the big fish, and I think we should have put more effort in that originally," said member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who heads up the council's voting-rights advocacy efforts. "We would have made much more headway if we have just focused on that."

The failure of the one-vote compromise has also emboldened longtime statehood activists who have been overshadowed by the voting-rights establishment.

"It's an I-told-you-so moment," activist Anise Jenkins said. "A lot of people put a lot of energy and money into this effort, and it was a total misdirected waste of time."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she doesn't blame officials for feeling frustrated. "They want what we're entitled to," she said. "But anyone who has followed what it has taken just to get a House vote understands" what a remarkably difficult thing statehood would be to accomplish.

The District ceded several expensive state-level functions, including courts and prisons, to the federal government in 1997, Norton pointed out, and a "state of Columbia" would have to find ways to pay for those things.

Also, statehood for the District is a concept opposed not only by federal lawmakers but also by the public. Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, the best-known voting-rights advocacy group, said national polls show statehood support at not much higher than 20 percent. But when people are asked whether they support "full democracy" or equal rights with other Americans, the approval numbers collected by D.C. Vote jump higher than 70 percent.

"When you talk about statehood, it gets confusing," Zherka said, "because then it's a conversation about should the District be a state government, and what does a state government look like, and what does a state look like?"

The mounting frustration has put new pressure on the group, which has come to represent the establishment's focus on the one-vote strategy. Under Zherka, a former Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist who joined D.C. Vote in 2002, the group has grown from a budget of less than $300,000 to more than $1.4 million. Since 2006, virtually all the District's funding for voting rights advocacy -- $1.65 million in four years -- has gone to D.C. Vote.

This year, faced with dwindling city revenue, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) proposed cutting the voting-rights money, but the D.C. Council restored $250,000 in a preliminary vote late last month. The council's language included one proviso: The money must be used for "D.C. statehood funding" -- not voting rights.

"It should go to groups who are focused on statehood," Alexander said. "If it goes to D.C. Vote, it should be used for statehood."

Zherka said that he has heard the frustration and anger and that he understands. "We've heard very loudly, very clearly from the council that they wanted to talk more about statehood, and so we've been doing that," he said.

D.C. Vote has gotten more aggressive with its congressional foes -- in particular conservative Democrats, who have promised to vote overwhelmingly for any gun measure -- afraid of tarnishing their National Rifle Association voter ratings when competing in districts where anything but a perfect score can be a campaign liability.

Last month, Zherka and three other activists staged a "pray-in" at the office of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who had sponsored a bill gutting city gun laws. After 30 minutes of praying in his Senate office lobby, the activists won a brief meeting with Tester.

While D.C. Vote gets more confrontational, there's plenty of tough talk on the hustings. Douglass Sloan, a Ward 4 businessman running against Norton, said at a candidate forum he was "not a big fan" of the Utah compromise. "I definitely would have made a push for statehood and full voting representation," he said. "Anything less is unacceptable."

Some statehood supporters, including Sloan and Alexander, have been heartened by recent efforts in Congress to extend statehood to Puerto Rico and wonder whether a D.C. statehood effort could be tied to that of the Caribbean island, a commonwealth since 1952.

Alexander said she plans to introduce a measure calling on Norton to introduce a statehood bill in the next Congress. Norton said she would to consider such a bill, among several voting-rights related measures she might introduce if reelected. But Norton said she's not going to abandon the fight for a House vote alone.

"I'm not going to give up on what I know we can get," she said.

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