With No Vote in Congress, D.C. Residents Find Power in Cash

District voters are supporting Jason Chaffetz’s challenger in Utah

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz is fast becoming a target of Washington, D.C., residents, upset about his efforts to overturn local laws. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz is fast becoming a target of Washington, D.C., residents, upset about his efforts to overturn local laws. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 22, 2017 at 5:03am

It was only the second political contribution Sarah Carr had made in her life. A $100 gift to an obscure politician from a distant state whose values hardly align with her own.

But Carr, a 41-year-old marine scientist who lives on Capitol Hill, had a clear goal: she wanted to support anyone who might oust Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

She’s among a growing contingent of Washington, D.C., residents who have targeted Chaffetz as the chief tormentor to their claims at sovereignty. And she was willing to cross party lines to do it.

“Now I can go back to Chaffetz and say, not only am I upset about this, but I want to give voice to your opponent to talk about what you are doing,” Carr said.

The movement for District home rule  has inspired an unusual political alliance. Residents in liberal D.C. are supporting a Utah conservative. They have determined that only a Republican could have a shot at ousting Chaffetz in Utah’s ruby red 3rd District.

That effort has taken on a new urgency in D.C., where President Donald Trump won only 4 percent of the vote last fall. Chaffetz has said he wants to aggressively step up congressional oversight.

The five-term congressman led a failed effort to scuttle the city’s new assisted suicide law earlier this month. He chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has jurisdiction over D.C. laws and spending.

There is no official tally yet of how many district residents have made contributions to Damian Kidd, the lawyer who is so far Chaffetz’s only challenger. The first round of campaign spending reports in 2017 aren’t due until April.

But numerous residents have posted about supporting Kidd, or anyone else who would take on Chaffetz, in neighborhood email exchange groups and blogs.

Lynette Craig, another D.C. resident who has roots in Utah, said she is forming a political action committee that would initially focus on unseating Chaffetz. She has already had “dozens and dozens” of inquiries, she said. When Kidd tweeted about “fed overreach” by Chaffetz in February, he got over 200 responses.

Kidd said he was not concerned about D.C. affairs until residents started reaching out to him, shortly after he announced his campaign at the end of January. But he determined it was hypocritical of Chaffetz, who has complained about “the intrusiveness of federal government,” to try to change D.C. laws.

Chaffetz did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

In a clear departure from previous chairmen of the Oversight panel, Chaffetz has led several charges to overturn District laws. 

Hundreds of district residents converged at rallies and local meetings to protest the most recent move. The measure required to overturn the Death with Dignity Act was approved by the Oversight committee but did not get a floor vote in the House or Senate. The law went into effect this week.

“There’s a true sense of outrage,” said Harry Jaffe, a journalist whose book “Dream City” chronicled the history of D.C. “Washingtonians have organized, or they have certainly wanted to organize in the past. But I sense much more focus this time.”

The protests in D.C. coincided with demonstrations against Chaffetz in his home district, a rare sign of vulnerability in the congressman’s otherwise charmed political career. The demonstrators in Utah were upset about Chaffetz’s apparent reluctance to use his position on the Oversight committee to launch investigations of Trump’s financial dealings.

“He’s being pushed now in ways that he has never experienced since being elected to Congress,” said Chris Karpowitz, an associate professor of political science at BYU. “This is the most substantial opening in Jason Chaffetz’s career.”

Karpowitz added that is too early to tell how much pressure Chaffetz will face in 2018, but there is a chance other candidates will enter the race.

Craig, who is forming the PAC targeting Chaffetz, said it did not bother her that the group might end up supporting candidates who did not share her “classic liberal” beliefs.

“These are D.C. dollars, and their sole purpose would be to unseat meddlesome Congress people,” she said. “If that is in support of another GOP challenger or an independent, so be it.”

Carr, who donated $100 to Kidd, said she had grown tired of calling Chaffetz’s office and getting directed to a special voicemail box for people outside his district. She saw the money as the only way to make Chaffetz pay attention.

She is already thinking of contributing more, and enlisting her friends and family to do the same.