Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When Ilir Zherka took over as executive director of DC Vote in 2002, one of his friends jokingly told him, “Either you’re really smart because you have a job for life—you’re never going to accomplish this goal—or you’re really stupid because you think you can win.”

Perhaps both. But just this spring, he seemed close to proving his cynical compatriot wrong.

It was April 16, the anniversary of the 1862 day when Abraham Lincoln granted freedom to slaves in the District. And Zherka, a 44-year-old émigré from the former Yugoslavia, who equates the struggle for D.C. Congressional representation with the cause of Albanian freedom, was quick to draw a connection.

“We are not fully emancipated,” he announced to a group of 200-odd activists in the Capitol’s visitors’ center as they prepped for a flurry of last-minute lobbying. “We need to get the rights and privileges that all other Americans have.”

Demanding those rights and privileges has been rhetorical boilerplate for local pols going back decades. In the past few years, though, strategists like Zherka had quieted down about the city’s impossible dream—making itself a state, right alongside Alabama and Montana—and started pushing a humbler goal: winning D.C. a vote in the House of Representatives.

Unlike previous proposals to fix the capital’s orphaned political status, this one required nothing more than passing a bill and getting the president to sign it. And just two days earlier, Congressional leaders had decided to do just that. They’d agreed to bring to the floor the long-dormant D.C. Voting Rights Act, a measure that would immediately invalidate the “Taxation Without Representation” slogan on D.C. license plates.

The catch? The bill would also disembowel the District’s gun laws.

For more than a year, nonvoting D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton had tried to delete the armament provisions. Congress’ pro-gun contingent, backed by the ever-influential National Rifle Association, was adamant about overturning the city’s gun restrictions as a condition of giving Washington a voting member of Congress.

The impending vote meant advocates were finally, publicly admitting that there was no way to separate the gun issue from the voting rights issue. Zherka and other supporters had made an unhappy peace with that reality —or so he thought.

The one factor that hadn’t been on their side was time. Democrats were poised to lose seats in the November elections. The delicate bipartisan compromise that would have given GOP-dominated Utah an extra seat to counterbalance heavily Democratic D.C.’s new vote was about to unwind: The 2010 census would likely give Utah another seat no matter what happened to D.C.

“I believed we could get our gun laws back, but we could never get Utah back,” says Norton. “It really was a now or never proposition.” The message she was getting from talking to the city government, to her constituents, and to the coalition of voting rights advocates, she says, was: “‘Don’t lose the only chance we have.’”

In January, Democratic leaders in Congress had publicly vowed not to go forward with the combined gun/voting rights bill without some form of consensus with Norton, the city government, and the advocacy groups fighting for D.C. voting rights. Now, with Norton on board, Zherka believed city leaders had also made their shaky peace with the compromise.

“We heard off and on for the past year from probably a majority of the council members that they were ready to move forward, [and] that it was really critical that the D.C. Voting Rights Act get passed.” says Zherka. The perception was “we could live to fight another day” on the gun issues, but the time for voting rights was running short.

By the time Zherka returned to his Dupont Circle offices on Emancipation Day, though, the fragile consensus was unwinding. The Washington Post was preparing an editorial that slammed the trade as an affront. Divisions emerged among the coalition of voting rights groups. Long-time DC Vote partners, including the League of Women Voters and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, broke ranks and came out against the bill.

Members of the D.C. Council suddenly got cold feet. Led by council chairman and mayoral candidate Vincent Gray, the entire body unanimously denounced the bargain—despite private indications that many were ready to move forward and compromise on the gun issues if it meant a Congressional vote for D.C. residents.

“We came back to the office,” says Zherka. “Some of our coalition partners were lining up against us, and so was Vincent Gray. At one point we were talking about our ‘opponents.’ I stopped and said, ‘Who are we talking about?’ Someone within our group was talking about our side. We all stopped and looked at each other and said,‘This is a problem.’ When people we’ve been fighting together with, on the same side, for years and years and years, we start to view as opponents—something is really amiss here.”

A few days later, when Congressional, leaders shelved the bill at the eleventh hour, it wasn’t disappointment or despair that washed over Zherka. It was a strange sense of relief.

Only 18 months earlier, the stars seemed perfectly aligned for D.C. representation on Capitol Hill. The Bush administration—no friend of D.C. voting rights—was gone. The new president, Barack Obama, had helped sponsor the D.C. voting-rights bill when he was a senator. Democrats had huge majorities in both the houses and unparalleled control of the political agenda.

“That was one of our busiest times at DC Vote,” says Zherka. “For the first time in our history, we were fully staffed. We had 10 people on staff. It was all hands on deck.”

The nonprofit had a budget of more than $1.4 million at the end of 2008, according to public tax records, including $500,000 in government grants, courtesy of the D.C. Council. Since 2006, District taxpayers have given the group $1.6 million, the lion’s share of city spending on home-rule issues. (Zherka’s salary is $140,000.)

Since it had already been considered and passed by the House in 2007, the D.C. Voting Rights Act didn’t have to go through the normal congressional hoopla of endless hearings and rounds of edits. It was essentially ready to go to the president’s desk. All that was needed was for both the House and the Senate to pass the bill.

“All the markups, all the hearings, the floor dates, the co-sponsorships—all of that stuff had already happened. We were teed up and ready to move,” says Zherka. “We sat around and thought, ‘We have a lot of work to do, but when it gets signed into law, that’s going to be a big moment for the city and we’re going to need to think about a big party.’” They weren’t exactly “measuring the drapes,” he says—but damn near close.

Less than two months after the new Congress convened, the Senate passed the bill, by 61 votes to 37. After the vote, a Roll Call reporter quoted an overjoyed Norton saying, “Can we scream now?”

The answer was yes—but not for the reasons Norton imagined.

Rather than tightly controlling the bill’s path through the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid had allowed a last-minute gun amendment to be added by his Republican Nevada colleague John Ensign. The addition had broad support among Republicans, not to mention centrist Democrats who fear the gun lobby. Reid’s explicit support gave cover for other Democratic Senators to join him.

In theory, the House of Representatives should have been able to kill off the gun language. Norton had already shepherded the bill’s through that chamber in 2007 without any provisions that altered D.C.’s gun laws. With an even stronger Democratic majority and a supportive president, repassing the bill and then stripping out the gun language seemed like a very manageable task. But as a final House vote neared, the powerful, well-funded, and highly effective National Rifle Association set up a Mexican standoff that lasts to this day.

The NRA’s antagonism towards the District’s strict gun laws goes back decades. But tensions have spiked in recent years. In 2008, a landmark Supreme Court ruling declared D.C.’s ban on handgun possession unconstitutional. In response, the D.C. Council passed a series of counterordinances that continued to make legal firearms possession exceedingly difficult.

Ever since, pro-gun forces have been trying to use Congress’ unique oversight of the District to alter those laws—a situation unlikely to change even if the D.C. Voting Rights Act were enacted. “We don’t really care about the voting rights aspect,” says NRA spokesperson Alexa Fritts. “We’re committed to restoring those Second Amendment rights to law-abiding citizens in D.C. by whatever means necessary.”

On the D.C. government side, there’s a parallel hostility towards the NRA’s devil-may-care, democracy-be-damned stance. “The fact that an interest group can run roughshod over some members of Congress and basically impose their will on our jurisdiction is ridiculous,” says at-large D.C. Councilmember Michael A. Brown. “We’re not thumbing our noses at the Supreme Court. They’re doing a commercial for us on why we need to be a state.”

No kidding: Instead of letting the gun language quietly disappear in House-Senate negotiations, the NRA informed lawmakers that refusing to attach the gun amendment would negatively affect their “scores” on gun issues—even if their positions were based on the separate issue of voting rights. The gun lobby wouldn’t just be monitoring the final vote, either, but all the little procedural votes along the way.

The result was exactly what the NRA wanted: It had frightened enough moderate Democrats who’d otherwise be friendly to D.C. voting rights. Just like in the Senate, attitudes towards D.C.’s Congressional voting rights were now inseparable from its local gun laws. The House leadership couldn’t figure out a way to unlink the two. The city wasn’t ready to trade its gun laws even for the long-sought goal of a House vote. The bill was yanked in early 2009.

For the next year, the D.C. Voting Rights Act lived in Congressional limbo. The issue was hardly a priority for most members—who, after all, represent districts that include exactly zero D.C. residents. “Just from speaking to fellow staffers, most people (aside from the whole constitutionality thing) don’t care about D.C. getting the right to vote,” e-mails one GOP aide. “Republican leadership knows Eleanor Holmes Norton will never support the gun measures, especially when D.C. had the highest murder rate in the country ten years ago. Plus, they don’t want the far right base to think they’re letting the Democrats get any more bills passed.”

During this lull, Norton vowed to stand firm against the gun lobby—promising a “clean” bill where gun laws and D.C.’s voting status remained separate. “There were some people who said we should go forward without even trying,” she says. “There were a few, mostly pundits, here and there. Those people were actually for my moving forward without even trying to see if I could get a clean bill.”

Over a Barrel: Zherka thought giving in to the gun lobby would get D.C a vote. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Norton’s efforts almost worked. House leadership approved her scheme to attach the voting rights bill to the Department of Defense appropriations bill without any of the controversial gun amendments. Unlike many bills, the Defense appropriations bill contains money for the troops and must past through Congress.

The barons of the Senate, though, weren’t on board with this strategy. Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, declared that there was “no way” that he would let an important, must-pass military bill get bogged down in a fight over D.C.’s constitutional peculiarities—never mind that such parliamentary maneuvers are in fact relatively common. (Democrats successfully attached hate crimes legislation to a different military spending bill in October.)

Eventually, Norton knuckled under. Aware of the political realities—the likely Democratic losses this fall, the loss of Utah’s support for the compromise because of the 2010 census, the power of the gun lobby—she prepared to discuss terms with the NRA.

Having decided to play footsie with the gun lobby, Norton didn’t just hoof it out to the NRA’s Virginia headquarters. Rather than engage face-to-face—“a very polarized negotiation,” she says—she used intermediaries in a game of shuttle diplomacy. “Some of them were my colleagues in the House and the Senate who indeed are for guns. Some were colleagues from outside [Congress] altogether that helped me,” she says. “It made a whole lot better sense—if you know anything about how this place operates—to deal through people they trust.”

Indirect talks carried on for about six months. At first, Norton and Democratic leaders wanted to know whether the NRA was simply acting at the behest of obstructionist conservatives who oppose a D.C. Congressional vote as a political matter. “We had to learn whether or not the NRA had some kind of understanding with Republicans to block the D.C. Voting Rights Act,” she says. She concluded that they didn’t. “Through our intermediaries, it became absolutely clear that the NRA regarded us as a pony to ride. The NRA is a very focused lobby. It was focused on what it wanted. What it wanted was to change D.C.’s gun laws.”

In response, Norton’s office did an exhaustive review of almost every other big-city gun law, writing up a compromise gun measure that she thought both the District government and the NRA could accept. Recognizing that D.C.’s gun restrictions were some of the nation’s toughest, the proposed changes would have brought the city in line with other large urban areas—which, of course, are rarely known for friendliness to the NRA. The proposal was rejected. The only provisions the lobby was willing to consider, Norton says, related to minors’ access to guns.

“When we got up the ladder, there were no more conversations,” says Norton with more than a hint of frustration. “Ultimately, when we put our compromises forward, the NRA rejected them. And they rejected them because they think they can get the whole thing anyway—without compromise.” The NRA knows that it has the votes for stripping D.C.’s gun laws, according to Norton.

And so, in December, the negotiations ceased.

With no give from the NRA, only two choices remained. The first: Abandon the voting rights bill and accept the 200-year old status quo of a disenfranchised capital city. The second: Accept the NRA’s gun language and abandon the more recent status quo of a city where people can’t buy up vast caches of weapons willy-nilly.

The gun lobby would soon make this choice easier. House Democrats, led by Mississippi freshman Rep. Travis Childers, introduced separate bills that would reshape the city’s gun laws—without doing a thing for representative democracy. A few weeks later, Sens. John McCain and John Tester would introduce similar legislation in the Senate. If any of those bills ever came to the floor, they would handily pass, potentially leaving the city with neither voting rights in Congress nor the gun protections its locally elected legislators have enacted. (President Obama could still veto the measures, of course).

Zherka recalls heated Sunday night strategy calls over what course to take: Grab the Congressional vote and treat the gun-law gutting as inevitable? Walk away from the whole stinking mess? Norton says that, after canvassing constituents, she decided to go ahead with the vote. In April, leadership aides say, Norton went to House Democratic honchos and acknowledged that she would accept the NRA’s gun language.

On April 14, the Democratic Majority leader announced that the bill was coming back for a vote the following week. Two days later, on Emancipation Day, Zherka and his crew were working the halls on behalf of the law.

Norton called it a “painful decision.” That’s putting it mildly. Beyond undoing the city’s gun laws, the bill she was backing represented a major blow against home rule for the District. Home rule, of course, is the larger issue that encompasses the struggle for a Congressional vote and an array of other issues. In addition to the one measly vote in the House, D.C.’s longtime civic cause has involved winning Washingtonians the same rights as other Americans when it comes to voting for senators, controlling their municipal budget, and passing local laws without having to beg for an OK from Uncle Sam. But under this law, the D.C. Council would no longer even be allowed to legislate on any gun-related matters.

If the path forward in Congress was now clear, there was suddenly trouble on the city side—where people wondered just how much they were willing to pay to change Norton’s title from delegate to representative. Mayor Adrian Fenty initially gave the deal his blessing. Gray fired away. “I honestly believe [people] will not respect me when they hear I traded their safety for a vote,” he said.

By the Tuesday of the vote, Norton was starting to waver, too. The previous Friday night, she saw a draft of the gun amendment that was to be inserted into the House bill. Like the stand-alone bills to change D.C.’s gun laws, it was introduced by Travis Childers—a vulnerable Democratic freshman from a very conservative Mississippi district—in tandem with now-disgraced Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana.

“We thought that the Ensign amendment was as bad as you can get until we saw the new Childers language,” Norton says. “It was so incredible as to be unbelievable. Why would you say, in any big city, for example, that the city itself couldn’t keep guns out of city-owned and -controlled buildings? Perhaps the worst of the upping of the ante was that you could carry guns in the streets. The city must grant permits to carry guns in the streets of the District of Columbia—the nation’s capital where there are dozens of motorcades with high-level officials.”

It’s unclear if the differences between the Childers amendment and the Ensign amendment were what finally killed the bill. In a comparative analysis of both bills obtained by Washington City Paper, a research attorney with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service wrote that there were only “nuanced” differences—a claim that a Childers spokesperson echoed.

But others were also beginning to pressure. That Sunday, the Washington Post delivered a scathing editorial. “Never in our wildest imagination could we have thought that we would oppose a vote to correct the historic injustice inflicted on the people of the District of Columbia. But sometimes compromise demands too high a price.”

By Tuesday, as Congressional leadership was talking up the bill, the D.C. Council was in a meeting set up to air its grievances. “Let’s say there was a court challenge and the voting rights issues were knocked down on constitutional issues,” says Michael Brown. “The gun part stays. Then you don’t even get anything.” Zherka’s initial nose count led him to think a majority still favored the compromise. Instead, with the vote looming, the council unanimously joined with Gray in a nonbinding vote to denounce the law.

Norton says she wasn’t surprised: “Their job is to defend the laws of the District that they themselves have written. I never expected the council to decide to give up its laws. You must understand, it was not just that it would take away their gun laws that they had just passed. The worst thing about this bill is that you couldn’t pass any more gun laws. At some point, somebody has to call the question.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Some aides on the Hill believe the Childers changes ultimately provided a convenient excuse to escape the pressure. “She got some bad editorials,” an aide to the Democratic leadership says of Norton. “She was looking for an offramp and she found one.”

“The language on guns was still being finalized,” adds another aide. “In that final go-around, Delegate Norton made a determination that it was not something the District could accept. She indicated that to the majority leader and a decision was made to pull the bill.” As reporters gathered Tuesday morning for Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s weekly briefing, they were first told the vote was a go—and moments later they were told that it was being shelved. Again.

On the Hill, few people think that the bill will resurface. “At this point in time I do not see the ability to move it in this session of Congress,” Hoyer told the Washington Post.

And if it doesn’t pass before the end of 2010, the political math seriously changes. Utah will almost certainly be getting another congressional seat in the upcoming redistricting based on the 2010 census, taking away the bargaining chip that once attracted Republicans to the bill. Democrats will almost certainly have fewer seats in the next Congress. After November, presidential politicking starts in earnest—bringing with it a whole different set of political calculations.

Then there’s the creeping sense among critics that the voting rights movement has lost direction and energy. D.C. Council members have gone back to talking about statehood, despite the fact that few realistically believe that a statehood bill would have any more success than the very moderate compromise efforts that the city has lobbied for—at significant taxpayer expense—over the past seven years.

Zherka pronounces himself undaunted. “We’re going to increase the aggressiveness of our tactics over the next few months,” he says.

The city budget doesn’t exactly bear that out. Fenty’s initial proposal, made two weeks ago, contained no money for D.C. voting rights activities or outreach. In past years, DC Vote has received almost a quarter of its funding from this single line item in the District’s budget.

Brown, chair of the committee on statehood and self-determination, immediately vowed to restore the funding. In the final budget negotiations, the council included $250,000—about half of what was appropriated in 2006 and 2008.