City on a Hill: Vote … or live in the District

April 14, 2011

Entrenched as we are in budget showdowns and entanglements in the Middle East, it can be hard to remember the wave of optimism and liberal fervor in D.C. that accompanied the 2008 election.

The combination of Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate and a new president—who just a year earlier, had co-sponsored a failed bill to give D.C. a vote in Congress—led local leaders to make optimistic pronouncements about the prospects for D.C. autonomy. In the wake of the election, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) even went as far as to claim that voting rights were “all but inevitable.”

But as Obama gears up for his re-election campaign, the situation is far less cheery. On Monday, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and nearly half of the D.C. Council were arrested for publicly protesting a provision in the congressional budget compromise that would ban the use of city funds to pay for abortions. The compromise, which also included the forced revival of a divisive school voucher program, prompted Norton to announce, “It’s time that the District of Columbia told the Congress to go straight to hell.”

Such action from local politicians may seem drastic, but the congressional Democrats’ use of D.C. as a sacrificial lamb is only the latest disappointment since Obama took office. After the election, local politicians and leaders of DC Vote, a non-profit that has led recent lobbying efforts for local autonomy, set their sights on a voting representative in the House of Representatives rather than a full push for statehood, a strategy that proved unsuccessful in 1993, the last time there was a Democratic president and Congress. Ultimately, a 2009 bill that would have given D.C. a voting representative was killed by a Republican amendment that aimed to annihilate the District’s gun control laws.

Although the Democratic Congress generally respected the District’s autonomy, the Republican victory in the midterm election meant more meddling in the city’s affairs. Not only was voting representation dead in the water, but one of the new Congress’s first acts was to strip Norton and other delegates of their symbolic votes in the Committee of the Whole.

In addition to forcing school vouchers on D.C. and stripping funding for abortion, congressional Republicans also moved to override local policies on needle exchange programs, medical marijuana, and same-sex marriage. The repeated government shutdown brinkmanship has also had an unfair impact on D.C., where even basic, locally funded city services must be approved by Congress and would be put on hold by a shutdown.

Overall, Obama’s first term has been a major letdown for supporters of D.C. autonomy. It turns out that Obama’s post-racial politics actually hinged on an unwillingness to tackle minority issues—and democracy in D.C. has been one of its casualties. This impulse, combined with Democrats’ longstanding reluctance to sacrifice political capital to protect the rights of D.C. residents, has meant no one on Capitol Hill has been willing to fight for the city—except Norton, of course.

It is in Norton’s increasingly fiery rhetoric and the civil disobedience of her political peers that we can find the one positive development to come out of Obama’s disappointing term. The genteel, gradualist approach is gone, replaced with a more resolute willingness to take radical action to achieve real democratic gains for the District.

In 2008, home rule and statehood advocates modeled their action on a fight to end the financial control board, a congressionally instituted group that co-opted control over the District’s finances in the wake of mismanagement by Mayors Marion Barry (D) and Sharon Pratt-Kelly (D). Fiscal autonomy was only regained in 2001 thanks to Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) deft financial management. The financial control board proved that Congress can be convinced to restore the city’s democratic rights if city leaders can just show enough governing skill and maturity.

But that parallel ignores the fundamental difference between the control board fight and the campaign for voting rights: while the former was based in large part on fiscal issues, the latter boils down to a purely ideological debate. It was fairly easy to convince Congress of the city’s financial security based on a record of competency and a polite demeanor. But such attributes will do little to alter the anti-democratic prejudices so many congressmen and senators cling to.

Instead, activists should look to the last major democratic gain the District achieved, the 1973 Home Rule Act, which allowed for an elected mayor and city council. These gains were only made in the context of the civil rights movement, which dramatically redefined what equality meant in America.

D.C. rights advocates are right to return to the spirit of civil disobedience that defined that era, because substantive democratic gains will only be made when advocates are willing to call D.C.’s disenfranchisement by its true name: injustice.

Ask Juliana about her favorite form of disenfranchisement at


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