On Nov. 2, 2010, Jake Sticka (COL ’13) will run, unopposed, for a two-year term on Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. To get on the ballot, Sticka needed 25 signatures of people registered to vote in his Single Member District. Most of his signatures were from faculty, administrators and Jesuits. Only two were from students.
That’s a far cry from the thousand-plus students who registered to vote in the 1996 ANC election. Then, a student-sponsored voter registration drive arranged for buses that drove students to a polling place in Glover Park, where they waited in long lines to cast their votes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Georgetown resident Lenore Jacobs said in the Nov. 7, 1996 issue of the Voice. “The fact that all these kids came out to the polls was just tremendous.”
They had all gone to the polls to support two of their own: Rebecca Sinderbrand (SFS ‘98) and James Fogarty (COL ‘98), who were challenging permanent neighborhood residents for seats on the ANC for the first time. Sinderbrand and Fogarty were running to represent Burleith and West Georgetown, respectively.
The ANC was pursuing a range of anti-student measures and was unwilling to work with University officials on many issues. Some neighbors attempted to keep students out of the political process with what many people considered to be voter intimidation tactics.
The result was a surge of political participation on the part of students that the University hasn’t seen since. The election of 1996 set the precedent for Georgetown students serving as elected local officials and changed town-gown relations for years to come. The victory gave students a voice in local politics that is largely taken for granted today.
Since D.C. is not a state, its government structure includes an experimentation in hyper-local politics: the advisory neighborhood commission. There are 37 ANCs spread throughout the District, each representing a different neighborhood. The current Georgetown ANC has seven commissioners who represent smaller Single-Member Districts within the Georgetown ANC’s boundaries. The commissioners pass resolutions on a range of neighborhood issues, from historical home improvement projects to University construction plans for the next decade. A provision in D.C. Code requires District agencies to give ANC recommendations “great weight” when making final decisions, meaning ANCs have great sway over every District agency from the Alcohol Beverage Control to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
In the summer of 1996, the City Council passed a bill eliminating reciprocity parking permits, which had allowed students to park in the District without registering their cars. The new legislation requiring students to register their cars only affected students living within the Georgetown ANC and the Foggy Bottom ANC. The Georgetown ANC was also considering a zoning overlay that would cap the number of unrelated renters who could live in a given house at three.
So a group of students got together and decided: if you can’t beat them, join them. Sinderbrand and Fogarty filed to run for office.
* * * * *
Campaign Georgetown, the student-organized voter registration drive behind Sinderbrand and Fogarty’s run, hit a roadblock in early September. Flyers appeared on campus warning students that in order to vote in the District, they would need to pay District income taxes and get a District driver’s license. The flyers also told students that they would lose their reciprocal parking stickers and possibly forfeit scholarships from their home states.
A Voice reporter learned from an employee at the M Street Staples who had made the fliers: an ANC commissioner named Westy Byrd.
Byrd said in a recent interview that she was responding to a letter to the editor in a student newspaper that had encouraged students to register to vote.
“I distributed a flier saying if you register to vote, realize you’re a resident and you’re going to have to pay taxes here,” Byrd said. “It was proved in the legal proceedings, all of the things I said in the flier happened to be true. I had a First Amendment right.”
Confused students went to Rock the Vote and Campaign Georgetown to find out the truth. Campaign Georgetown leader Dan Leistikow (COL ’98) told students in a Sept. 12, 1996 Voice article that the flyers contained misinformation. Income taxes are based on place of work. While it was unlikely students would lose scholarships, the University promised to make up for any financial burden of registering to vote.
“It looked like voter intimidation to me,” Linda Greenan, then Assistant to the President for Community Relations, said.
The Voice reported that 12 days before the election, the chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics sent Westy Byrd a letter informing her the board would investigate whether her activities constituted voter intimidation.
Meanwhile, Byrd’s fliers had the opposite effect of what she had intended. Campaign Georgetown took off.
“We had a very serious, organized operation, on campus and off,” Campaign Georgetown leader Chad Griffin (SFS ‘97) said.
Griffin said Campaign Georgetown leaders treated the ANC race like a professional campaign. Griffin and other students wrote position papers, posted campaign signs on and off campus, arranged shuttle buses to the polls, employed poll watchers, and tracked the registrants to make sure they voted. Over 1,000 Georgetown students changed their registration from their home states to the District.
But when students showed up at the polls, they met more resistance. Poll watcher John Ruggini (SFS ’99) said in a Nov. 7, 1996 Voice article that almost every student who showed up to vote in a contested district was challenged to prove his or her voter registration.
“There was a group of community residents who were prepared with challenges,” Greenan said. “They began to challenge each student as they came in.”
Byrd said they were concerned that not all the students voting were District residents.
“When you challenge someone’s vote, it doesn’t mean they can’t vote,” Byrd said. “When you have this mass of student votes, it’s very difficult to ascertain whether each person who’s voting is a resident.”
Nonetheless, Fogarty defeated the prior ANC Chair, Georgetown resident Beverly Jost, 401 votes to 162 votes, and Sinderbrand defeated incumbent Commissioner Patricia Scolaro by just a handful of votes after a contested recount.
In late November, Scolaro, Jost and Byrd, believing that many student voters did not meet the standard of residency, filed a lawsuit against the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, asking that Fogarty and Sinderbrand’s elections be overturned. Attorney Dan Bromberg took the students’ case on a pro bono basis.
“A slower, more deliberate process is necessary to becoming a resident,” Jost told the Voice on Dec. 5, 1996. “This would be beneficial to both students and other members of the community, assuring that those who vote care.”
The criteria for determining residency, though, are vague. According to D.C. Code, “qualified electors” are U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old, who reside in the District of Columbia and who do “not claim voting residence or the right to vote in any state or territory.” As a result, college students had been regularly switching their voting registrations to their college homes in order to vote in local elections since the 1970s.
The lawsuit lasted until late 2002, long after Sinderbrand and Fogarty had graduated. The courts ruled on the side of the students. While the Board of Elections and Ethics referred Byrd to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on voter intimidation charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.
Meanwhile, Sinderbrand and Fogarty did what they were elected to do—they served on the ANC. They were sworn in even as the lawsuits continued.
“We’re commissioners,” Sinderbrand told the Voice on Feb. 6, 1996. “That’s the way we’re going to act. We’re not thinking about the court case. It doesn’t affect how were are going to act on a day-to-day basis.”
Though the law denying Georgetown students reciprocal parking passes is still in place, in March 1998, the Zoning Commission sided with the University and Georgetown University Student Association and rejected the zoning overlay, despite support from most of the ANC. Griffin said that having students on the commission “opened up a wonderful dialogue” between students, neighbors and University administrators.
Bromberg said that even during the legal battle, he found the students to be “very intelligent and very impressive people.”
“I thought the students acted honorably,” Bromberg said. “They always kept their eyes on the important, higher values…I enjoyed working with them.”
* * * * *
At the most recent ANC meeting on August 30, 2010, current student commissioner Aaron Golds (COL ‘11) was one of the youngest people in the room by about 20 years. The crowd of about 50 attendees, mostly older professionals in business attire, filtered in and out as their issues came up on the agenda. ANC Chair Ron Lewis, a balding man with thick round glasses, stood at the podium and told the crowd that even though the agenda was a little long—four pages—he would make sure the process was still “fair and efficient.” The meeting lasted four and a half hours.
Today, Golds is the only student on the commission. Ever since the ANC was redistricted after the 2000 Census, there has been only one student commissioner at a time. Golds’s Single Member District is oddly shaped, with Copley, Darnall, Henle, Harbin, LXR, Nevils, and some townhouses lying in other districts.
When the ANC had two student commissioners, Georgetown students were able to negotiate with the other commissioners on their own terms. When there’s only one, that one student is more responsible for representing student and University opinion as a whole, and there’s less competition for the seat.
When Griffin heard about the redistricting that has happened since he left, he said he was disappointed. He hopes students will run in other Single Member Districts as well, he said.
Golds said that while he was initially concerned that the other commissioners would only see him as “that student that we’re required to have here,” he found they treat him as a full commissioner.
“Certainly, I’m one of seven,” Golds said. “There are times they’re not going to include me because they know I’m not on their side, but overall it’s been a very good, professional relationship.”
The issue that has defined Golds’ term is the 2010 Campus Plan, a blueprint of all the University’s construction plans for the next decade. The Zoning Commission must approve the plan before the University can begin any of the projects, and the ANC can recommend to the Zoning Commission whether the commission should approve the plan or not.
Neighborhood groups have fought the plan at every step. They are upset that the plan includes a provision for increased graduate enrollment without building any new on-campus undergraduate housing, and the University has held countless meetings with residents since Golds began his term in 2008.
“It’s a lot of talking,” Golds said. “It’s trying to understand what their concerns are and respond to their concerns in the least confrontational way possible.”
ANC Commissioner Tom Birch said Golds provides the commission with an important perspective, and he does so respectfully.
“He gives us his reasons and arguments for why he thinks that position is a valid one,” Birch said. “I’ve never thought that he held back. He’s always been very forthright.”
* * * * *
There has been at least one student commissioner on the ANC every year since 1996. The trouble is finding someone who is willing to serve.
Being a commissioner means attending monthly meetings for two years, so students who run for ANC must decide to run in their freshmen year, spend all their summers in D.C., and forgo the opportunity to study abroad.
“By the end, I was the only person willing to do it,” Golds said. “It’s an important enough position that someone has to do it, and I could recognize that right away.”
Sticka, who is running to replace Golds, said while the 2010 Campus Plan and safety initiatives affect student life, neighbors are no longer using zoning initiatives to try and push students out of off-campus housing.
“If they did, I think students would react in a similar kind of way [to how they reacted in 1996],” Sticka said. “At the same time, I wish they would kind of react in general.”
Looking ahead, Golds predicted that Sticka’s term would also be defined by the battle over the campus plan. Unfortunately for Sticka, the plan has already largely been finalized. Golds also said neighbor relations get particularly bad every decade as a new campus plan comes up for debate.
“Once we get into the new plan, the neighbors feel it’s their chance to try to get more from the University,” Golds said. “So they buckle down and become less willing to work with the University…Now is the chance for them to get their voice heard for the next decade.”
At the same time, Greenan, now Associate Vice President for External Relations, said that since students joined the commission, University-neighbor relations have improved immensely. Greenan has worked for the University’s community relations since 1994, and said that when she first started, “it was really difficult to even have a civil conversation with ANC commissioners.” With student involvement and new ANC leadership, Greenan said the two sides are better able to negotiate their issues.
“When Rebecca and James took their seats on the ANC, it really shifted the way people looked at the University and the way in which the community came to interact with the University,” she said. “They were really the perfect ones to inaugurate that. They didn’t come with the view they were going to tear it down, but with the view they were going to be part of the ANC.”
Birch was ANC Chair when the neighbors’ lawsuit against Sinderbrand and Fogarty finally came to an end. A Voice editorial in January 2003 reported that Birch said he looked forward to a more constructive relationship with the students and University officials.
In a recent interview, Birch said he thinks the relationship between the ANC and the University has definitely improved in recent years. He said he also has thought very highly of all the student ANC commissioners he has known.
“I was always sorry to see the student commissioner leave after two years,” Birch said. “But then we got another good one.”