Primaries a Forum for D.C. Rights

Posted February 8, 2008 at 6:34pm

With all eyes focused on the mid-Atlantic region for Tuesday’s presidential primaries, local residents are working to remind Americans — and the candidates left in the race — that about 600,000 people who live along the Potomac River don’t enjoy full Congressional representation.

D.C. statehood advocates are flocking to candidate rallies and town hall meetings leading up to Tuesday’s “Potomac primary” in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, carrying signs in support of full voting rights for the District, and, when possible, asking presidential contenders what their stance is on the issue.

“Obviously, D.C. voting rights is central not only to D.C., but also to Maryland and Virginia,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote. “The area would be better served if Washington had representation in the House and representation in the Senate.”

DC Vote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and thus cannot publicly endorse any presidential candidate. So the group’s goal is to let the candidates know that voting rights should be on the national agenda, Zherka said.

If the candidates start talking about D.C. voting rights, it will increase national awareness of the issue, he said.

“I think this is a unique opportunity,” Zherka said, adding that DC Vote has sent the candidates educational information about D.C. voting rights.

Voting rights supporters came closer than ever to achieving Congressional representation in 2007. The House passed a bill granting D.C. a full-voting Representative in April, but the bill failed on a 57-42 cloture vote in the Senate in September.

Advocates continue to lobby to bring the bill back to the floor for another vote. DC Vote has targeted Senators who voted against cloture but are seen as potentially willing to switch, recently traveling to Montana in an attempt to pressure Sen. Max Baucus (D) to support the measure.

“We’re committed to trying to create, basically, the rationale for bringing the bill back up,” Zherka said. “We are three votes shy, which means we have to get three votes.”

Others are not so sure that the measure will get new life, however.

“I just think that this timing is our biggest enemy right now,” said D.C. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta (D). “We are not going to get another bite at that apple unless we have 60 votes signed and sealed in blood.”

But even if the measure fails to reach the Senate floor this session, Panetta noted, there is reason to be optimistic. The main candidates left in the presidential race — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) — appear more favorable to voting rights than President Bush, who threatened to veto the bill if the Senate had passed it.

Obama has been a longtime vocal supporter of D.C. voting rights, which is considered one of the reasons D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty decided to endorse him early in the campaign. Clinton also has been publicly supportive — she endorsed the Senate bill.

“There’s a lot of energy in the city knowing we are going to have a new president,” Panetta said. “Having a Democrat in the White House definitely gives this movement new legs.”

A Republican president might not be so bad, either; Huckabee announced several months ago he supports the voting rights effort.

And while McCain voted against cloture when the measure reached the floor — which was a surprise to bill supporters, who thought they had his support — he certainly would be an improvement over Bush, Panetta said.

“I think we are in a good position, and even though McCain voted against cloture, we did get the impression from him that he was very open to D.C. voting rights,” Zherka said. “It sounded like he was sympathetic.”

Zherka noted that several high-profile D.C. voting rights supporters have campaigned for McCain, perhaps most notably Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who introduced the measure in the chamber.

Aside from the presidential contest, Panetta is focused on ensuring future Congresses feature more D.C. supporters. He’s started a new political action committee called the Free and Equal D.C. Fund, which will target Members and candidates in tight Congressional contests who oppose voting rights.

The paperwork for the PAC was filed in the fall, Panetta said. And while Panetta expects the group to remain small, it still should benefit the movement, he said.

“What’s important about it is that it’s a vehicle to do things through,” he said. “You don’t necessarily need a lot of money to make an impact.”