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District Leaders: Syria Vote Highlights Lack of Representation in Washington

Over the course of her 12 terms in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has debated whether the United States should go to war several times — in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan — but she has never had a vote on the call to war.

As President Barack Obama presses Capitol Hill toward a strike in Syria, which Norton opposes, the congresswoman says D.C.’s lack of voting representation in the House and Senate should summon residents “to greater militancy to demand our rights as American citizens.”

If the vote fails, and the president proceeds anyway, “the citizens of the 50 states and the members of the House and the members of the Senate will have just a taste of what the residents of this city have experienced for more than two centuries,” she said Monday during an event at the D.C. War Memorial that was designed to call attention to the District’s lack of congressional representation.

“The injustice and lack of representation for the people of the District of Columbia is striking at times like this, when representatives of people living in every other part of this country are given an opportunity to weigh in on the issue of war,” said DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry.

“More than other times, the call to war is when D.C. must be heard about our distinctive inequality. The outcry that the president not strike Syria without a vote from the Congress spotlights intensely the denial of democratic rights that our citizens have faced in every war the nation has fought except the Revolutionary War,” Norton said.

If she were able to cast a vote, Norton said Monday, she could not vote for a strike on Syria, even though after attending a briefing on the subject she believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did attack his own people with chemical weapons.

“I don’t want to trivialize that … but the unknowns here are horrendous,” she said. Norton is worried about a potential response from Syria and the fate of the volatile Middle East. She also questioned whether “the emphasis on a targeted, limited strike would do any good.

“I think that the administration has a very long way to go to convince members of the Senate or the House. I just hope that the president can find a way to use the threat to engage in diplomacy. I am extremely worried that we are alone essentially.”

Norton was joined Monday at the 47-foot-tall, domed memorial — the one structure on the National Mall dedicated to D.C. residents — by District leaders, statehood activists and D.C. veterans.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray raised his voice to a fever pitch on behalf of Norton, who has to “sit idly by” while Congress debates the call to war, despite the fact that she “speaks out intelligently and eloquently.”

On the subject of the strike, he said, “The question is not whether chemical weapons have been used, it’s what is the best course of action in order to right this atrocity.”

Retired Col. Herbert Tillery, a District native who joined the U.S. Army in 1970 and served for more than 26 years, said he was “saddened, appalled and borderline outraged over being shut out of the congressional debate” as a veteran and as the father of a soldier. “My son and I are only two of 37,000 D.C. veteran residents who willingly and voluntarily served our country knowing full well the dangers and sacrifices that lay ahead for doing so.”

From August 1989 to July 1981, Tillery was responsible for 1,500 soldiers stationed in Germany, as he trained and sent troops to the first Gulf War. His son is currently stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany and has completed three back-to-back tours in Iraq.

“We have current members of Congress who extol the virtues of democracy for others around the world and are willing to vote to put our troops in harm’s way to sacrifice their lives during the protection of the freedom and democracy for others, but turn a blind eye in the support of the 600,000-plus residents in this very city in which they place the vote,” he said.

Capt. James Rimensnyder, a West Point graduate who currently serves as a D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officer, drew on his combat experience in Iraq, where he was a platoon leader and intelligence officer between 2006 and 2009.

In 2006 while stationed in Baghdad, Rimensnyder watched Iraqis emerge from voting booths with their thumbs stamped with purple ink to certify their ballots. It was a day of great joy for the Iraqi people but “bittersweet” for the District native, who didn’t have a vote in Congress back home. He later had the opportunity to share those feelings with some of the Iraqis he met.

“I think we need to use situations like what’s going on in Syria to let people know that this is hypocritical in the eyes of other democracies,” Rimensnyder said. He declined to weigh in on his personal opinions about Syria.

Air Force veteran Robert Brannum, who attended the event but didn’t take the podium, said he strongly supports a strike on Syria and thinks the United States needs to “go it alone” to stand up to the Assad regime.

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