Bouker and Zherka: Don’t Let Leaders’ Sins Hurt D.C. Rights

Posted June 12, 2012 at 3:21pm

Kwame Brown’s resignation as D.C. Council chairman, which followed the resignation and conviction of former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., is a tragedy for the District of Columbia and the greater Washington region. But Brown’s and Thomas’ personal failings do not in any way diminish the inalienable rights of Washingtonians to self-determination and representation.

Both Brown and Thomas were elected with the hopes that they would make a growing, dynamic and well-run city even better. Those hopes were diminished when both publicly acknowledged that they had betrayed the trust of D.C. residents.

While their departures may briefly affect the work of the D.C. Council, the system has and will work to repair itself. It is time to let the legal processes work and trust the people of the District of Columbia to choose leaders to replace these disgraced politicians with people who will serve with honor and integrity.

Regrettably, some in Congress will point to these resignations as fresh evidence that D.C. residents do not deserve self-determination and representation in Congress.

But, surely, the basic rights of Washingtonians cannot be earned or lost based on the bad behavior of elected officials. These rights are inalienable. They belong to the people of the District of Columbia as citizens of the United States. To argue that these rights are something to be doled out by politicians who are completely unaccountable to Americans living in D.C. suggests a dangerous blindness to the fundamental principles of this nation.

Congress would be extremely busy curtailing the rights of countless Americans if our inalienable rights were conditioned on the behavior of elected leaders.

Sadly, official malfeasance isn’t rare. But when two former governors of Illinois were sent to prison for abusing the powers of their office, we heard no whispers in the halls of Congress that perhaps the time had come to deny Illinois citizens voting representation in Congress. If the rights of constituents were tied to the behavior of their elected officials, then the people of California, Indiana, Nevada and New York would have lost representation when Duke Cunningham, Mark Souder, John Ensign and Anthony Weiner all resigned in disgrace from Congress.

In these cases, Congress recognized that the power to address public corruption or misbehavior resides ultimately with the American citizens who live in those jurisdictions. In each case, the people set a new course and the normal functions of representative government were quickly restored.

The people of the District aren’t asking for anything special. Like other jurisdictions that have suffered through the personal failures of their leaders, the District government is moving forward with a well-established process under the Home Rule Charter. The city is already well on its way to moving past this tragic turn of events. The functioning of the D.C. Council and the government is not in jeopardy. And, in short order, the people of the District will set a new direction — through elections.

In the meantime, Congress should refrain from adding insult to injury by placing restrictions on the way the people of the District of Columbia spend their locally raised, hard-earned dollars. Those who cynically view this challenging but transformative time for the District as an opening for further restricting self-determination and forcing pet political agendas upon disenfranchised Americans are abandoning the core ideals of this nation.

The legal system and the people of the District are empowered to address the personal failings of locally elected officials. Congress should respect the right of local self-determination and refrain from sitting in judgment of Americans who, contrary to the basic tenets of our democracy, have no say in the legislature of the greatest democracy on earth.

Jon Bouker is chairman of the board of directors of DC Vote. Ilir Zherka is DC Vote’s executive director.