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Mayoral Candidates Would Vary Approach to Hill on Home Rule

Harris says he knows best about marijuana policy in the District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Harris says he knows best about marijuana policy in the District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A day after Rep. Andy Harris declared he was targeting  with an appropriations rider a locally passed law that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia punishable by only a $25 ticket, Mayor Vincent Gray publicly denounced the congressman.  

The Maryland Republican’s rider — strongly opposed by the White House — provokes questions about how the field of candidates vying to replace Gray in November would handle congressional infringements on home rule, which vary from face-to-face confrontations to economic boycotts, to Democratic nominee Muriel Bower’s plan to utilize a team of lobbyists. “Ironic that a representative from a state that has decriminalized marijuana would interject himself into DC’s decision to do the same,” Gray blasted from his Twitter account — drawing a quick, condescending response from Harris, reminding Gray that he is a medical doctor.  

The day after Harris announced his rider, one of the city’s mayoral hopefuls showed up at his Capitol Hill office demanding face time . Harris, who was back home on the Eastern Shore, dismissed D.C. Councilmember David Catania’s appearance as “just another mayoral campaign prop.”  

Backlash against Harris continued as the bill advanced toward the House floor, where it is likely to receive a final vote this week. Next, Gray suggested D.C. residents should reconsider vacation plans in Maryland’s 1st District, and expressed support for a boycott  of the Eastern Shore. That strategy, advanced by D.C.’s largest voting-rights advocacy group, came about a week after Harris successfully attached the amendment to the House budget bill that features a familiar slate of GOP-backed social policy riders for the liberal city.  

Catania, campaigning as an independent, is the only locally elected official or mayoral hopeful to pay a visit to the Hill. He was not available for an interview for this story.  

A spokesman for Gray said the Twitter fight, and comments Harris made in media interviews, showed that the congressman wasn’t interested in hearing from the mayor, so the administration chose not to waste time pursuing a meeting.  

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Bowser called Harris’ amendment an “assault on Home Rule,” but denounced Catania’s approach. “Stunts around statehood have never worked, and they’re not going to work,” she said.  

Asked about the Eastern Shore boycott, Bowser said, “I certainly don’t want one wayward legislator from Maryland to disrupt people’s long-planned vacations on the Eastern Shore, but certainly they can use that time to talk to residents about what their congressman is doing.”  

Bowser said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., recently hosted a “very nice kind of get-to-know-you session” for her with members of Congress from neighboring states. She learned that “we can do a lot in D.C. by working with our allies from around the region” on statehood and legislative autonomy.  

If elected, Bowser envisions a team of lobbyists representing her administration’s interests on the Hill on a daily basis. For instance, she thinks the federal government could play a “huge role” in helping the city find more affordable housing. She declined to go into detail when pressed for specifics on the logistics of the proposed lobbying, including its scope.  

Former D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz, an ex-Republican currently making her fifth bid to be the District’s chief executive, told CQ Roll Call that if she were in Gray’s spot and had heard about Harris’ plans she would “be up there in a minute to try to talk him out of it immediately and see if we couldn’t work something out.”  

Schwartz spent lots of time working with past members of Congress who flexed their legislative muscle on District legislation. She was a member of D.C. government for more than three decades before a primary defeat six years ago ended her council career. During that time, she found face-to-face visits to be the most effective form of lobbying, just “not after you’ve name-called.”  

When Congress wanted to outlaw gay and lesbian adoptions in the District, Schwarz said she headed to the Hill to meet with the sponsor and made a tearful plea for same-sex couples. “The next day the rider disappeared,” she said.  

On another occasion, Schwartz testified before Congress against a bill she had tried to rally support for on the local level. She wanted to impose the death penalty on people convicted of killing police officers, but the council rejected it. When Congress tried to do it instead, Schwartz told them to “deep six” the bill.  

Asked about DC Vote’s initiative against vacationing in the Eastern Shore, Schwartz said, “We have so little negotiating ability that I certainly do not oppose the boycott at all.”  

D.C. Libertarian Party candidate Bruce Majors said he thinks the boycott is a great strategy to opposing the Harris amendment, though he didn’t know if it would have a practical effect on Maryland’s economy. He suggests the D.C. government should, more or less, practice the message being preached about not patronizing the area and suspend contracts with any suppliers in the 1st District.  

Majors said ongoing corruption issues and instances in which D.C. officials have ignored the will of the voters puts members of the council “in a poor position to claim the mantle of ‘we represent D.C. and you don’t,'” and gives local representatives “less moral authority” than they might have in other states.  

A proposal to legalize marijuana that proponents are trying to put on the city’s November ballot could make Harris and other congressional opponents look more hypocritical, by directly invalidating the will of D.C. voters.  

“A congressman fighting with [Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.] or with David Catania is one thing,” Majors said, “but for them to say that well, ‘We don’t care that the majority of DC voters want this,’ … that’s against the will of the people.”

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