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District’s Two Senators Step Out of the Shadow

Most days the District of Columbia’s shadow Senators toil away at their mission — achieving statehood and full Congressional representation for the nation’s capital — without the benefits shared among their fully empowered colleagues: no Senate offices or plush Capitol hideaways and, most importantly, no desks on the chamber’s floor.

But in a quadrennial blip, the District’s shadow lawmakers find themselves on equal footing with their Senate colleagues, at least in one regard: As shadow Senators, they are designated superdelegates in the Democratic National Committee’s presidential nomination process.

With Democratic presidential candidates sparring for commitments in the run-up to a potentially decisive convention in Denver, the District’s Senators say they are using their suddenly increased presence and newfound importance to advance their mission.

“We’re enjoying access that we don’t always get,” said the District’s senior shadow Senator, Paul Strauss (D), who served as a superdelegate in 2000 and 2004.

In addition to the candidates themselves, Strauss said he has also garnered attention from fellow superdelegates in recent weeks. “My superdelegate vote has to be used to maximize [statehood and full representation] and its visibility,” he said.

Fellow shadow Sen. Michael Brown (D) said he also has seen an uptick in attention.

“I see more of a wooing,” he said. “They’re trying. Both sides have talked to me and tried to convince me they’re the best candidate.”

“We’ve had discussions with them about it, and of course they’re both supportive,” Brown added, regarding the backing that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have provided for D.C.’s efforts. In their most recent campaign, voting-rights supporters won a measure in the House last spring to grant the District a full-fledged Representative, but the measure stalled in the Senate.

Although Democratic voters in the District’s closed primary handed a victory to Obama last week, neither shadow Senator has yet committed to a candidate in the race. But both stressed the importance of following the desires of voters.

“It would be the height of arrogance for a delegate to ignore what his own constituents do,” Strauss said.

Brown echoed that sentiment: “You can’t stand up for democracy and then ignore what your constituents want.”

Nonetheless, neither lawmaker would commit to a candidate in interviews last week. But Brown said: “I think we’ll make a decision soon.”

But even as he appreciates the temporary increase in attention to his office, Strauss downplayed the likelihood that superdelegates will determine the eventual Democratic nominee at the August convention.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be the deciding factor here,” he said. “The media is creating some of the hype that we have.”

The shadow delegation also includes shadow Rep. Mike Panetta (D), but it is D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — holder of the District’s lone federal seat in Congress — who wields the third superdelegate vote allotted for D.C.’s “Democratic Members of Congress” under the DNC’s formula.

Although the District’s Democrats previously have appropriated one of the city’s unpledged delegate spots to the shadow Representative’s office, a rules change has not provided for that designation in the current cycle.

But Panetta, who endorsed Obama’s campaign on Feb. 11, said he will ask to be assigned as a superdelegate when the D.C. Democratic State Committee meets April 3.

“I came out for Obama because I felt strongly,” said Panetta, who has discussed his decision with his fellow shadow lawmakers. Norton also has endorsed Obama.

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