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Getting Out the Vote

GOP-Controlled Congress Won’t Keep D.C.’s Delegation From Seeking Voting Rights

Progress for voting-rights advocates in D.C. often seems to move at a lumbering pace, but advocates say a Republican-controlled Congress will not slow their efforts.

While their individual plans for pushing for full Congressional representation in the new session differ, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and the members of D.C.’s shadow delegation generally agree that national publicity is the next step in attaining full Congressional representation for the District’s more than 600,000 residents.

In the 107th Congress, voting-rights advocates successfully pushed for committee hearings on the No Representation Without Taxation Act of 2002, a bill introduced by Norton in the House and by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) in the Senate.

The Senate version, which would have created two new Senate seats and one House seat for the District, passed the Governmental Affairs Committee 9-0 in October, an achievement lauded by District officials.

“The reason we were able to get that good vote out of the Senate is because the constituents of those Senators support D.C. voting rights,” explained Norton, who as the D.C. Delegate is eligible to vote in committee but not in the committee of the whole. “In order to get more constituents of more Senators, we have to do a national campaign for D.C. voting rights.”

Norton plans to kick off a national campaign in March, partnering with the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) and other organizations, to create an ad campaign and begin a national petition drive.

The campaign will frame Congressional representation for the District as a civil rights issue, Norton said, adding that the Leadership Council will act as the “critical national force” in the effort.

“Senators care, and Members of the House care — Republicans and Democrats — on whether they get marked down by being against civil rights issues, and this is a priority civil rights issue for the Leadership Council on Civil Rights,” Norton said.

Several voting-rights advocates echoed those sentiments, adding that fallout from remarks made in December by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) praising former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 segregationist presidential platform could inspire new support for their cause.

“Republican or Democrat, this is a matter of civil rights,” said Kevin Kiger, a spokesman for D.C. Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that promotes Congressional representation for the District. “We actually feel that perhaps in light of some of the comments made by Senator Lott, this issue may be taken more seriously by Republicans. They can understand that this is a city of 400,000 black people that are still not permitted to vote and are denied representation in Congress.”

The District’s shadow delegation — two Senators and one Representative who are elected to local office to lobby for voting rights and statehood — are also pressing ahead with their own plans.

Out of the Shadows

Shadow Rep. Ray Browne (D), elected to a second term in November, dedicates much of his time to persuading mayors, city councils, state Legislatures and governors to adopt resolutions stating their support for Congressional representation for the District.

“We’re going to continue that effort but with a particular emphasis on getting additional Republican-elected officials to come forward and to manifest their support. We want to demonstrate that, indeed, this is not a partisan issue,” Browne explained.

Among the allies Browne counts from his first term are the mayors of New Orleans and Atlanta, as well as the state of Hawaii. He plans to focus his travel in coming months on the South and Southwestern regions, including Texas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.

“Of course we’re always working on the Hill, but we want support from out in the rest of the country because the Congress is responsive to that,” Browne said. “If they understand that the people who are electing them, and their [local] elected officials, are in favor of it, I think it bolsters our case.”

Browne notes that Republican support for voting rights isn’t a new concept.

“In Washington, I think sometimes we get a little bit too narrow, we get a sense that everything’s divided by the aisle — that all Republicans are opposed to this issue and all Democrats are for it, that simply isn’t so,” Browne said. “There are a lot of prominent Republicans who have supported it in the past — Senator Robert Dole [Kansas], [Senator Barry] Goldwater [Ariz.], even [former President Richard] Nixon, all stood up for it.”

In 1978 Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the District full voting representation. That bill failed in 1985, after only 16 of the necessary 38 states ratified it.

Voting-rights advocates also hope to use the 2004 presidential election as a showcase for their concerns, and they say the potential military conflict with Iraq could highlight the District’s plight.

“We already have citizens of the District of Columbia who are detailed in preparation of the possibility of a war in Iraq. We have a long history of serving and, unfortunately, of losing our citizens in conflicts. We think that just heightens the issue,” Browne said. “Worse than taxation without representation is the fact that we have people who are being asked to put their life on the line and perhaps give it up, who aren’t able to have a voice in the policy that determines whether or not troops will go somewhere.”

Stopping Senators

The push for voting rights will also continue on Capitol Hill. Shadow Sen. Florence Pendleton (D) said her plans will keep her close to home.

“I plan to see how many Senators I can get to sponsor the cause of voting rights,” Pendleton said, adding that she will visit Senate offices or attempt to stop Senators in the Capitol corridors.

“I only want to ask, ‘If you had the option would you vote for voting rights for the District of Columbia?” Pendleton said. “I don’t see why they would want to vote against our having voting rights, and consequently I hope it works.”

Pendleton declined to comment on whether the 51-49 division in the Senate would prevent Republican Senators from responding affirmatively to her inquiries — the District is overwhelmingly Democratic and would likely elect two Democrats to the Senate — stating only that Members “would have to be sensitive to that right now.”

Apart from maintaining the momentum of the voting-rights efforts, Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D) voiced concern over protecting the District’s autonomy.

“We’re not going to give up on any of that, we just know that in addition to moving proactively on issues like enfranchisement and representation we have to be just as prepared to react to potential attacks on our limited democratic rights,” Strauss said.

Among the possible points of contention, Strauss listed human rights issues and civil justice issues such as tort reform and limits on jury awards.

“There will be times when Congress will be tempted to implement things in the District they may not be able to do nationally,” Strauss said. “Once again we become the guinea pig … where these conservative programs will be experimented on. My gut tells me that tort reform is one of those areas where they’re going to try and use us as an experiment.”

Despite his misgivings, Strauss speculated that the closely divided Senate may be able to protect some of the District’s recent gains.

“I don’t think this Republican- controlled Senate will be as hostile to the District as others. Even though Republicans maintain a majority, Elizabeth Dole is not Jessie Helms. You have a lot more moderate Republicans asserting their independence,” Strauss said. “And a lot of them, unlike some of their predecessors, live in the District of Columbia while they’re in session, as opposed to the suburbs, have more of an affinity and feel for the District of Columbia and, I think, care about it.”

Although Norton, the District’s Delegate, agrees that voting rights could be slowed in a Republican-controlled Congress, she adds that it is possible for the District to make strides on other issues.

“The whole notion that because somebody is a Republican, that person will not help you is not borne out by experience,” Norton said.

Norton later added that “I can’t afford to sit over here and say, ‘Wait until the Democrats come and then maybe I can get something done.’ The Republicans understand that they and I are not on the same page, [but] when it comes to the nation’s capital, I have been able to work with Republicans from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay.”

Most recently, Norton cites her work with House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) to approve the District’s budget, which had been held up in the appropriations process.

She also points to support for programs such as the D.C. College Access Act and the Public Safety Reimbursement Act. “You have to be able to negotiate with people who may not be friends on every issue but have no reason to be our opponents on the capital of the United States, which is their capital as well.”

Davis’ Decision

In the new session, House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) has proposed eliminating the subcommittee which oversees the District.

Norton, who formerly chaired the subcommittee and will remain on the full panel, is supportive of Davis’ decision, and added that the pair have a good working relationship.

Any legislation pertaining to the District “would have to come to the full committee anyway, so why put this obstruction full of unknowns in our way?” Norton said.

Norton added: “With the D.C. subcommittee gone, we will no longer be simply duplicating the work of the D.C. City Council. We will be having hearings when federal issues are implicated.”

Members of the shadow delegation, however, were more tepid in their response.

“On one hand I think that Tom Davis has demonstrated a knowledge of the District and a willingness to be helpful to us,” said Browne. “One the other hand, what the structural absence of the subcommittee will do, I’m not sure that anybody can predict that will be a plus or a minus. We’re going to have to see how that plays. Clearly, it bypasses a step and takes a lot of things directly to Tom Davis. If he consistently remains our friend, then that will be a plus.”

Similarly, Strauss commented: “We may lose some staff expertise. Your own subcommittee gives you your own staff, people develop a degree of expertise, and certainly we can count on the District of Columbia being a priority for the District of Columbia subcommittee.

“When we need to get the attention of the Congress, what will not having a subcommittee mean? I think we’re all going to watch and see very closely,” he added. “But I’m not necessarily jumping for joy over the elimination of the committee. When they eliminate the oversight function, then I’ll be happy.”

Davis did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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