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Is D.C. Government Enemy No. 1 in the Fight for Statehood?

Most of the Democrats vying to replace Mayor Vincent Gray profess the District has been its own worst enemy in the fight for D.C. statehood. And as the April 1 Democratic primary for the mayoral contest approaches, they are taking aim at the District’s reputation for ethical foibles, arguing they know how to clean up that image and increase the odds of gaining political autonomy for the capital.

The city has been too distracted by corruption, according to restaurateur Andy Shallal. Since 2011, three D.C. Council members have pleaded guilty to crimes, and federal prosecutors continue to probe the shadow campaign that helped get Gray elected in 2010.

Public corruption has made it “really hard to focus” and hard to win the allies Washington needs in Congress, Shallal said during a recent debate hosted by American University.

Former diplomat Reta Jo Lewis based her assessment on what she’s seen as she’s “traveled across the world.” District officials preach about the need for transparency and openness, but the corruption charges “leveled against so many of our officials” undercut the argument.

“If we’re going to be a state, we need to act like a state,” Lewis said. She thinks allowing D.C. voters to elect their own attorney general in 2014 would be a great first step.

Businessman Carlos Allen, another mayoral contender, said the city’s main problem is that no one is pushing or marketing “that you are basically a slave to the federal government” without congressional representation. “The key thing is letting people know.”

Even the councilmembers D.C. voters have elected to take the lead on local priorities, including statehood, blame the local government for the lack of progress on the path toward self-determination.

“How do we ask senators and congressmen to vote for our statehood rights and then go back home and explain it to their constituencies when we’re on the national news for what has happened?” asked Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill on the D.C. Council.

It’s not fair to D.C. residents, Wells acknowledged, but the city has to have a government that doesn’t embarrass the national leaders who hold the power to give it greater autonomy.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser told CQ Roll Call that Congress often gets a “chaotic reaction from the District.”

Gray made headlines in October for barging into a news conference Senate Democrats were hosting on the steps of the Capitol regarding the federal government shutdown. His intrusion resulted in a testy confrontation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who scolded the mayor, “I’m on your side  . . .  don’t screw it up,” when it came to D.C.’s autonomy efforts.

Bowser said the city needs to be more strategic. If elected mayor, she would “employ partners that would help the District on the Hill with all of its federal issues.”

At the debate on Wednesday, Councilmember Vincent Orange noted that he has introduced a bill to fund the efforts of D.C.’s shadow delegation — three people, not officially recognized by Congress, who effectively serve as elected lobbyists to the Hill — but his fellow lawmakers, including the candidates beside him on stage, have refused to advance it.

Councilmember Jack Evans, who has represented Ward 2 for more than two decades, didn’t mention corruption in his response. He does think the city’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plate campaign and other attention-grabbing ideas have flopped.

Evans said the “crux of the matter” would be working with the governors of Maryland and Virginia to bring their congressional delegations on board. Neighboring jurisdictions oppose any efforts to establish “New Columbia” because they are concerned D.C. would use statehood to level a commuter tax, “which we probably would do,” he acknowledged.

If elected, Evans said he would sit down with leaders of both states to talk about the financial ramifications of statehood in hopes of easing their concerns.

When asked what he would do to win D.C. statehood during a second term, Gray told CQ Roll Call that he’s already done “as much as I possibly can do.”

“I think we have to be optimistic and say we’re going to have to look at components of statehood and move on those.” Budget autonomy is one component, Gray said, and language in the recently passed spending deal that exempts D.C. from the threat of a federal government shutdown in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 is a positive step.

“We have to be in this for the long haul. We have to develop friends,” Gray said, suggesting Reid, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were among his closest allies in Congress.

“As much as I would like to say, you know, we’re going to go get everything all at one time, I’m not sure that’s realistic,” Gray said. “But we’re going to work on those elements that are important to statehood.”

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