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A victory party for Eleanor Holmes Norton lacks something. Let’s call that something “suspense.” It’s Sept. 14. Technically, she’s fighting for re-nomination to the non-voting D.C. congressional seat she’s held since 1990. As usual, she’s facing an opponent whose name will be forgotten by tomorrow morning. So the crowd at Busboys and Poets doesn’t need to wait on the District’s molasses-slow vote-counters before they begin to celebrate.
They’re counting faster in Delaware. This is where establishment Republicans backed Rep. Mike Castle in the race for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. But as those results come in, Castle is trailing far-right political consultant Christine O’Donnell, someone the state GOP chairman said “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” Shortly before 10 p.m., the AP calls the race for O’Donnell.
Norton is relaxing with a glass of white wine, chatting with DC Vote Chairman Ilir Zherka, when she hears the news. She gives him a high five.
“Wow,” she says. “Wow for us!” She’s made a quick political calculation, and realizes Democrats are likely to hold a key Senate seat—and that much less likely to lose the upper chamber altogether.
But Norton’s expression quickly changes. She frowns. “How awful for him,” she says of Castle. “I’m worried about these new Republicans. I’m much more worried about them than the Republicans who are here. The Republicans who are here are very partisan, but it looks like there are a bunch of people coming in who don’t understand politics at all.”
National Democrats are panicky by nature, and they’ve been fretting about a Republican takeover of Congress since late last year. Norton is one of those rare Democrats who doesn’t talk down her party’s chances of holding onto power. She’s thought about it, though. She makes it clear she’s “on offense.” But she’s worked with Republicans well in the past: When Newt Gingrich ran the House, Norton says, he was “one of my best friends,” and “helped me immeasurably.”
That brings her to Jason Chaffetz.
If Republicans win the House, the first-term congressman from Utah will run the obscurely named Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Washingtonians who understand the unusual legal control Congress wields over the District, though, will know him by a simpler title: the new boss.
Chaffetz’s elevation would represent quite a change. In just under two years here, Chaffetz has opposed Norton’s bill to give D.C. a congressional vote, opposed her bill to give D.C. more autonomy, and filed a bill to force a gay marriage referendum on D.C. And in a Republican House, Chaffetz would have reinforcements, ideological allies who wave the U.S. Constitution like members of the Red Guard used to wave quotations from Chairman Mao.
According to Chaffetz, poking around in the District’s local affairs and keeping D.C. from getting a meaningful vote in Congress is precisely what he was sent to Washington to do. He defeated an incumbent in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District’s Republican primary in 2008 by running to his right on immigration as well as on the more amorphous issue of faithfulness to the Constitution—a platform that, for Chaffetz, included opposing a vote for D.C.
“When I got here,” says Chaffetz, speaking in a separate interview, “I introduced myself to Congresswoman Norton. I told her where was I on this issue. And that’s the last time we talked about an issue. We haven’t worked on any issue together.”
Norton doesn’t contest that.
“He’s in the minority,” she says. “I talk to the chairmen who get things done. There’s not many occasions, when you’re in the majority, that you need to reach out to the minority members. The occasions haven’t prevented themselves.” She allows just a little pessimism. “They will present themselves if we lose the House.”
The Wilson Building has been so focused on local primaries that another question hasn’t gotten much attention as November approaches: What changes for D.C. if, or when, the Republican Party wins control of the House of Representatives?
This isn’t something many locals expected to deal with so soon. The Democratic majority that swept into power four years ago ended an era of congressional meddling in the District’s affairs. When that majority grew two years later, D.C. activists watched a novel voting rights bill start to move toward President Obama’s desk. Old-fashioned efforts by far-flung legislators to override the city’s gun laws, drug laws, and gay marriage compromise, meanwhile, went nowhere. Medical marijuana, blocked for over a decade, finally became law. As a sign of goodwill, Democrats announced they’d apply a municipal smoking ban to the Capitol, the type of law Congress had long exempted itself from.
Then came the backlash. The recession the Democrats inherited lasted longer, and cut deeper, than the country was ready for. The party’s ambitious agenda on health care, energy, and taxes hit major snags. Momentum stalled. Moderate Democrats, newly anxious about re-election, joined a GOP effort to poison Norton’s D.C. vote legislation via an amendment erasing the city’s gun laws—a vote that they hoped would appease constituents who were upset about liberal votes on things like stimulus spending. Ultimately, the D.C. vote bill was shelved. If Democrats lose the House, as most analysts now expect, it’ll die.
“District voting rights will be dead for some time,” says Tom Davis, the retired Virginia Republican from Fairfax County who, in his final years in Congress, ran the D.C. subcommittee, mostly as an ally of the District (in 2006, he co-sponsored Norton’s bill to give the city a vote in the House). “This was the two-year period to get that done. It was a short window. The window closed because the Democrats would have had to swallow gun language they didn’t like. Now they’ll get that anyway.”
They’ll also get Chaffetz in the job Davis used to have. He confirms that he wants to stay on the committee, and lead it, if there’s a power shift.
“Absolutely, I want to keep this job,” says Chaffetz. “It’s a great constitutional responsibility. And I love this city. D.C.’s been good to me. The people have been good to me.”
Chaffetz would come to his perch as a telegenic, well-liked, media-savvy Republican star. Six-feet tall, trim, and athletic, he looks a decade younger than his 43 years. He’s as adept at eliciting murmurs of agreement from Glenn Beck and the Christian Broadcasting Network as he is at trading talking points on CNN. When House Republicans invited Obama to speak to a retreat in Baltimore in January, Chaffetz was the only freshman given the microphone, and the only member who got the better of the president, with a more-in-sorrow-than-anger comment about the lack of transparency in the health care fight. When Stephen Colbert interviewed him—a rite of passage that can make conservative Republicans look like humorless morons (Georgia’s Lynn Westmoreland has never lived down his failure to remember the Ten Commandments on air)—Chaffetz charmed him by triumphing in a leg-wrestling contest.
In fact, Chaffetz charms everybody. Norton calls him “witty,” even as she prays he doesn’t get a chance to run his committee. D.C.’s shadow representative, Mike Panetta, rhapsodizes about the attention Chaffetz pays at town-hall meetings—even as he calls him a “meddler who does not let local decisions stand.” Former At-Large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz, a fellow Republican, calls him “very controlling” and worries that he’d “roll back the very hard-won progress we’ve made under Home Rule.”
But no one has a good read on him. Asked what he likes about D.C., Chaffetz talks about the hybrid bike he takes on long rides, and the restaurants he’s a regular at: “I’ve been to every Five Guys and Matchbox in the city.”
None of that convinces anyone fretting about Republican rule that they can trust him.
After all, the first thing Washington learned about Chaffetz was that he didn’t want to live here. When he won his seat in his mostly rural, very conservative district in central and western Utah, the congressman-elect learned that dozens of his future colleagues saved money by sleeping on cots in their offices. Inspired, Chaffetz threw down $44.89 at a hometown grocery store and purchased the folding bed that would take up the least possible space in his new digs.
That $44.89 bought huge amounts of free publicity. He won a nerdy kind of stardom on CNN, when the network asked him to produce a video and text “freshman year” diary of his life in Obama’s Washington. Chaffetz was photographed bringing his cot from Utah to Washington, and he filmed a short YouTube video so supporters could watch him opening it up and putting on his white sheets and fuzzy blanket. (“That’s a well-made bed right there,” he told his audience.) In one video, he straddled his cot and explained to viewers why he wanted to scuttle a bill that would give voting rights in Congress to Washington and add an extra seat for Utah.
“When you’re in Washington, D.C., you’ll see license plates that say ‘Taxation Without Representation,” says Chaffetz. “I think we all recognize that that is fundamentally flawed. But what’s paramount in this discussion is the U.S. Constitution, and the Constitution explicitly says that voting rights are reserved for the”—he quickly formed air quotes with his hands—“several states.”
The video segment represents everything you need to know about Jason Chaffetz: showmanship, affability, and a no-negotiation stance on D.C.’s biggest priorities.
Chaffetz was born and raised in Los Gatos, a wealthy, Democratic-voting California suburb near San Jose. That he didn’t become a Democrat himself is something of a surprise. His father, John, was briefly married to a woman with the maiden name Kitty Dickson; after they divorced, she married a young Massachusetts politician named Michael Dukakis. Jason would do some work for his famous semi-relative’s 1988 presidential campaign. For a while, that was all the political experience he had.
In high school, Chaffetz made the move from soccer to the football team. Recruited by Brigham Young University, he moved to Utah, kicking for the school’s perennially overperforming squad. Here were the first hints of Chaffetz’s future stardom. When he started to make it in politics, his teammates would recall how, after successful kicks, he would remove his helmet to reveal a perfect head of hair for the TV cameras.
Chaffetz immersed himself in the culture of the Beehive State. He converted to Mormonism, and decided to make Utah his home.
Chaffetz’s first job, which he held for a decade, was as a spokesman for a beauty company called Nu Skin. He underwent a political conversion there. When the company hired former President Ronald Reagan as a motivational speaker, Chaffetz was assigned to work with Reagan while he pep-talked Nu Skin employees. Reagan’s politics rubbed off on Chaffetz. Seeing Reagan off at the airport, he got an autograph and a pair of his new hero’s cuff links. He has called it the experience that made him a conservative.
When Chaffetz re-entered politics, he was working for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., a Republican with moderate streaks who is now the Obama administration’s ambassador to China. Chaffetz left Huntsman’s staff to pursue a prize that had long dangled just out of reach of Utah conservatives—the House seat held by Republican Chris Cannon.
On paper, Cannon had a nearly perfect record. But only nearly. Why, activists wondered, did one of the country’s most Republican districts put up with a lawmaker who backed comprehensive immigration reform and supported a plan to give a House vote to D.C.? Sure, it would hand a vote to Utah, too, giving the state the seat it narrowly missed out on in the 2000 Census. But Chaffetz called it unconstitutional, and argued that the state didn’t need to compromise.
“It was a political bribe,” Chaffetz says. “We were going to get a new district in 2012 anyway. Why would we want to dilute our vote?”
At first, Chaffetz looked like the weakest opponent Cannon had ever faced. But Chaffetz picked up on something new in Utah. He became a sort of proto-Tea Party candidate, building an army of unpaid volunteers—over a thousand, according to the Provo Daily Herald—and out-hustling Cannon on a $200,000 budget. Chaffetz crushed Cannon by 20 points.
“The extremists who don’t want to win elections have taken over the party,” Cannon said on election night, putting the lid on his political career. Shell-shocked, he refused to endorse Chaffetz. “We don’t want that to happen in Utah. Politics is way too important to leave to the boors.”
Beating Cannon meant Chaffetz was heading to Congress. He cruised to a 38-point win over his Democratic opponent and became one of the very, very few fresh Republican faces in the 111th Congress. That was when he bought the cot, inked the CNN deal, and started making trouble for the District. After his first unhappy exchange with Norton, the voting rights bill started to move through the House. Chaffetz testified against it.
“Chris Cannon was good on voting rights,” remembers Norton. “It was a shame, when he was sent home, and he was replaced by someone who was dead-set against us.”
Chaffetz’s stand on voting rights was the one he had campaigned on: If it wasn’t in the Constitution, he was against it. Democrats didn’t hear him out, but Republicans did. Behind the scenes he worked on the other members of his delegation, pressing his two-part case: follow the Constitution, wait four years. It worked. On Feb. 22, his fellow Utah Republican, Sen. Bob Bennett, had told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’d “probably” vote for cloture. After Chaffetz helped make the once-obscure measure a conservative cause, he would change his mind.
By May, Bennett would lose the GOP nomination for his own seat to a Tea Party-backed challenger. In the current political environment, Republicans deviate from the party line at their own peril. Thanks in part to Chaffetz, D.C. issues are part of that party line.
The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress doesn’t leave many lessons for what might happen to D.C. if the GOP seizes power again this fall. Sixteen years ago, the GOP was clear about its agenda for the District. Republicans reacted uneasily to the post-prison return of Marion Barry, elected in 1994 at the same time as the nation sent a GOP Congress to D.C. A year later, appalled at the city’s budget problems, lawmakers imposed the Financial Control Board, stripping some power from the mayor’s office.
At the time, the Gingrich revolutionaries had some wild ideas for how government should work, and they wanted to test them here—where, after all, no one’s constituents had to live with the results. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was personally invested in turning the city into a laboratory for school vouchers. Republicans like Georgia’s Bob Barr legislatively forbade the city from even counting the votes of its medical-marijuana referendum in 1998.
“Republicans should always start with the idea that this is the national capital,” Gingrich tells Washington City Paper, “and we want to work in a way that makes it a showcase for the world of what America’s all about. Most of the policies we adopted worked—not just school choice, but gentrification, tax credits for buying houses in the city. If I was asked by the mayor, I’d be very interested in doing an assessment of what we could do to help the city.”
If the new breed of Republicans have similarly grand ambitions for the District, they’re keeping them quiet. Chaffetz, for his part, isn’t joining those who describe D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s mayoral primary win as a revival of Marion Barry. “I haven’t had any negative interactions with Vince Gray,” he says. “It’s nice to go in with a clean slate, and I’ll work together with him. Where we agree, let’s get things done. Where we disagree, let’s work it out.”
At the same time, he’s quick to issue a warning shot about education, the issue that dominated national coverage of the local election. “One of my deep concerns is the education of the city,” he says. “It’s about how to educate kids. It’s not about putting as many people on the payroll as possible.”
And yes, Chaffetz says, things like local school personnel decisions are Congress’ business. “I know that Gray and the new government will want as much autonomy as possible, but that’s not in the Constitution,” he says.
For Chaffetz and his GOP colleagues, a Constitution-driven agenda starts with denying D.C. the independence that Norton—in this last, frustrating Congress—tried to bring it. She introduced an autonomy bill that would have ended an onerous provision that’s unique to the District: all local legislation goes through a 30-day limbo, during which time members of Congress have the ability to mess with it. (The city’s budget also has to go through Capitol Hill for approval, even though local tax revenues pay for most of it.)
Chaffetz has already demonstrated a zeal for putting D.C. in its place on matters of governmental prerogative. In a November 2009 hearing on Norton’s bill, after Mayor Adrian Fenty and Gray gave presentations on the District’s balanced budgets, Chaffetz spoke to quibble with the wording of their statements. His problem? The District officials had referred to what “other states” were allowed to do.
“My concern is that the District of Columbia is not a state,” Chaffetz said, as Fenty and Gray politely waited for his question. “It’s not a state! It is dealt with differently.”
Chaffetz went on to tell the city’s leaders that their tithed relationship with the federal government was actually a source of strength. “The city’s working so well, and it’s so financially prudent, and it’s got such good checks and balances,” he said. “I wish we [in Congress] had some of those financial controls and discipline.”
This is the philosophical difference between Chaffetz and D.C. that isn’t going to be bridged: He likes working on D.C. issues, because he’s fascinated by the role Congress has in guiding the city. Meddling in local laws is, for him, part of the attraction of his committee. Given his politics—and considering just who a new GOP majority would owe favors to—that could set him up for some major fights with the local government. For the past four years, conservatives have been thwarted in efforts to dictate District policy on gay marriage and school vouchers. Come next year, the activists who lost those fights will expect help from Chaffetz.
Opponents of D.C.’s gay marriage law might be quickest on the trigger. The National Organization for Marriage tried, and failed, to get the D.C. Council to kill the bill. Next, NOM failed in a lawsuit to force a referendum. Chaffetz introduced legislation to do that, but it died in the House. In September’s Democratic primary, NOM-supported candidates were thrashed in Ward 5 and in a challenge to Norton. But NOM and every other social conservative organization expect to get another chance if Republicans run the House. Tony Perkins, whose Family Research Council has teamed up with Beltsville, Md.-based Bishop Harry Jackson on gay marriage, says Republicans must keep their word and force a referendum in D.C.
“At a minimum,” says Perkins, “we think people should have a right to vote on it. D.C. has done everything it could to block a vote, and there’s a reason for that, because every single time people get the right to vote on this, they vote for marriage. Maine overturned the legislature. Maine! Not a conservative bastion, by any means.”
Gay marriage activists see—as NOM likes to put it in its Hammer Horror TV ads—that a storm could be coming. “There’s no doubt that Chaffetz would work against us,” says Rick Rosendall, the political vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. “But if they tried to impose a ballot measure on the District, that would be handing us an advantage. There is strong resistance across the board in D.C., across the spectrum, to congressional interference in our affairs.”
Chaffetz would test that theory if he could, but it’s not clear what he can do now. As far as most people can tell, the window for a referendum closed last year. Chaffetz’s bill to force one died in committee. Trying again might be tough, even with a GOP Congress.
“They passed the law and were afraid of a vote,” Chaffetz says. “The Democrats were scared to death of having a vote, because same-sex marriage has failed 31 times in the states. People vote in favor of traditional marriage, particularly the African American community. Look: I think it’s a shame we didn’t have a vote in the United States Congress. I think it’s embarrassing that we didn’t have a vote in the city. But I don’t know what could be done.”
On vouchers, Chaffetz might have more luck. There’s institutional support in the city for a resurrection of the program, which he backs. The pro-voucher groups that lost the fight in 2009 are waiting to see if the next Congress can do them some favors.
“Our feeling is that if Congress changes, significantly, we could get more support for the program,” says Virginia Walden-Ford, the president of D.C. Parents for School Choice. She chooses her words carefully—her group is accused often enough of membership in a conservative plot that she doesn’t want to wave a Republican banner. “My sense is that we have a tough fight ahead, but it would be important to garner some additional support in Congress. If we flip the Senate, that would be a big deal.”
For people who don’t think a national legislature ought to be mucking around in the nitty-gritty of local government, Chaffetz actually has a fix. It just that his solution doesn’t happen to lie along the D.C. statehood/legal autonomy: In Chaffetz’s idea, most of what we now call Washington, D.C., could become Washington, Maryland.
“It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way,” Chaffetz says. “Washington, D.C., is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state.”
Chaffetz says District residents would be happy if their neighborhoods became part of Maryland while the government buildings around the Mall remained a federal zone. “Not only could they have two senators,” Chaffetz says, “but they could have a voting member and a state legislature. I think anything short of full representation won’t be appealing long term. I’m also a realist. Unless the people of D.C. are supportive of it, unless there’s real bipartisan support, it’s not going to pass.”
Whether the Senate will change hands—something that looks less likely now, as Norton realized on primary night—is one of three big X factors that could shape D.C.’s future relationship with its federal overlords. With only one chamber, the GOP would have less power to meddle.
A second factor is just what kind of Republicans arrive and what kind of Democrats survive. The candidates primed to win competitive races are more conservative—more like Chaffetz—than many Republicans from Congresses past. There’s a perfect example in Tom Davis’s old district, currently represented by Democrat Gerry Connolly. If Republican candidate Keith Fimian wins, he’ll be the first Home Rule-era representative from Northern Virginia to oppose a vote for the District.
“I think our founders are smart people and they wrote the Constitution the way they did,” Fimian said in a July appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, “and I think it’s good the way it is.” Just in case anyone missed his point: “Many people that live in the District choose to live there, and they do so knowing they’re not able to vote.”
The third X factor is Chaffetz’s ambition. Some members of Congress keep mum about their future plans. Chaffetz doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he wants to unseat Republican incumbent Orrin Hatch in 2012. At the same Utah GOP convention that tossed out Bennett for being too moderate, a poll of delegates revealed that a majority would consider replacing Hatch, who gets dinged for the same alleged apostasy. Another 18 months of Tea Party could make Chaffetz the replacement.
“Let’s say I’m a definite maybe at this point,” he says.
A looming Senate run—especially a run from the right against a powerful incumbent—could make Chaffetz particularly hard on the District. After all, what better way appeal to Utah conservatives than to push their agenda on District residents?
Chaffetz’s lonely battles against the D.C. Council didn’t go unnoticed this year. “I find it appalling that our nation’s capital would sanction gay marriage in any way,” says Gayle Ruzicka, the president of Utah’s conservative Eagle Forum, who gave Chaffetz crucial help in 2008. “When he was taking a lead in trying to stop that, we noticed it back here. He was a brand-new freshman in an important position, and he had the courage to speak out. That doesn’t always happen.”
On the other hand, the Tea Party types who ousted Bennett and feel lukewarm about Hatch may not match the old-line social conservatives when it comes to beating up on the District. David Kirkham, one of Utah’s key Tea Party leaders, says Chaffetz’s moves have gotten plenty of ink back home. But “Don’t Tread On Me” voters might also get turned off by the sight of Chaffetz treading on others. The same slogan on District license plates also adorns Tea Party banners: “No Taxation Without Representation.”
Here’s the flip side of the factor that so worries Eleanor Holmes Norton. Those first-time politicians and Tea Partiers who wind up in Congress have ideas about the Constitution that are simultaneously simple—obey it!—and complicated. Yes, the Constitution is clear on the rights of District residents. But how can you remain true to its values if you deny 600,000 taxpaying Americans representation in the body that sets their taxes? DC Vote has dispatched activists to Tea Party protests; the visitors are often surprised to learn about the city’s bizarre governing set-up.
“We’re big believers in state’s rights,” says Kirkham. “I don’t think [Chaffetz] would do this, but if he were to arbitrarily do something against the constitutional guidelines we have or against the will of the people of Washington, we wouldn’t like that.”
If that sounds confusing, it is. But if Republicans take Congress, get used to it. At least part of the future of D.C. will depend on the mood on the street in Provo, Utah. And the fight to keep the feds out of local affairs may come down to persuading the Tea Party that local control shouldn’t end at the District line.