Two Primaries for D.C. Shadow Delegation Are Today

Posted September 8, 2008 at 6:38pm

A D.C. shadow Senator is just that: a shadow of a U.S. Senator, with no pay, no budget and no tangible power.

And yet today, two Washington, D.C., residents will vie in the Democratic primary for the right to lobby the Senate for free, with one raising about $35,000 for his campaign.

Incumbent Paul Strauss will face D.C. activist Philip Pannell. Whoever gets the Democratic nod will ostensibly win the general election, taking over a city position that isn’t even formally recognized by the Senate.

A 12-year incumbent, Strauss strives to foster relationships on the Hill and lobby the statehood cause; Pannell, instead, advocates taking the statehood issue to the streets.

Pannell didn’t return a phone call or e-mail to his campaign office on Monday, but he is well-known in Ward 8 as an activist for everything from gay rights to D.C. statehood.

Strauss, however, believes the role of a shadow Senator is not the same as an activist.

“Anybody can lead a riot and I’ve led many and done my share of civil disobedience,” he said. “I think this particular position is being an ongoing presence in the Senate.”

Strauss took over the shadow Senator position in 1996, when, he says, “the statehood movement was sort of at an all-time low.”

Now the D.C. voting rights movement is larger and more powerful than ever, with DC Vote at the center of grass-roots efforts. Thousands show up for rallies and millions have been donated to the cause.

But even now, DC Vote and shadow Senators don’t work closely together in their united cause to give the District a voting Member in Congress.

At the Democratic National Convention, for example, DC Vote held a rally at the Denver Mint, while Strauss organized a separate D.C. Voting Rights luncheon featuring former CBS anchor Dan Rather.

“We do not work closely on messaging and tactics,” admitted DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka. But the shadow Senators and Representative are invited to all events, and “we have a fairly positive working relationship.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is the more familiar face for D.C. voting rights, using her position in the House to push D.C. bills and help organize rallies. She also has more power than the shadow Senators and Representative — she’s able to vote in committee, introduce bills and maintain a staff. Only a vote on the House floor is missing.

Norton is running for re-election unchallenged, as is shadow Rep. Mike Panetta. Shadow Sen. Michael Brown is not yet up for re-election.

“I think shadow Senators are not viewed the way Norton is viewed in House,” Zherka said. “There’s certainly limits on what they can do.”

Furthermore, DC Vote is now focused on getting a full voting seat in the House, not in the Senate. Zherka calls this a “critical first step” on the road to full Congressional representation.

In the 110th Congress, the District got closer than ever to the goal of a full voting House Member. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Act passed the House in April 2007, only to stall in the Senate after falling three votes short of the 60 needed to block a filibuster.

Strauss said he worked to get the bill passed in the Senate, but he predicted a friendlier atmosphere once a new president takes office. And once the makeup of Congress is known, advocacy groups and the shadow delegation will sit down and hash out ideas, he said.

“We don’t always agree going in and don’t always agree going out, but we try to stay unified,” he said.