Lowering the Bargain: Norton stepped off the moral high ground, but other elected officials wouldnt follow. t follow.
Lowering the Bargain: Norton stepped off the moral high ground, but other elected officials wouldnt follow. t follow. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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What happens to a dream deferred?

If the dream is congressional representation for the residents of the District of Columbia, well, it’s already shriveled quite a bit. Those who believe that D.C. citizens are entitled to a pair of senators and a real, live, voting representative as a matter of right have had their expectations adjusted downward in the past five years.

Now, like that metaphorical raisin in the sun, the “incrementalist” approach to the voting-rights fight seems to have hardened into nothing. Since the idea of trading a single House vote for D.C. for an extra House vote for Utah took root five years ago in the mind of then Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the fire and fury that was once channeled into mass arrests and fiery street protests has been transformed into lobbying calls in the halls of congressional office buildings.

But playing nice, it turns out, isn’t much of a play at all.

The logical conclusion of the compromise approach played out over the past year: If you choose to play the game, sometimes you get outplayed.

Last spring, senators passed the D.C. House Voting Right Act, but not before those who bow to the National Rifle Association—i.e., most of them—attached an amendment gutting city gun regulations. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s hope that the House would pass a clean bill, allowing the gun amendment to be stripped in conference committee, was misplaced. The NRA’s 4 million-plus members outweighed D.C.’s 600,000 residents.

In the last week, the question was, whose dream was driving the voting-rights effort? The city’s dream of a say in Congress? Or Norton’s dream of casting her first floor vote?

With the all-consuming health-care saga out of the way, Norton made a surprise resurrection of the D.C. House Voting Rights Act last week, announcing that—gun amendment or no gun amendment—she would send the bill through the House and on to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Her fellow locally elected officials had other ideas.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty fell in line behind Norton in favor of the compromise approach. But by Monday, the exodus had begun. Elected officials accustomed to saying “whatever you say, Eleanor,” dropped off the bandwagon, starting with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who announced at a Monday press conference, “I do not support a bill that would have us give up our right to legislate and have us give up our gun control laws.” By Tuesday, councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Kwame Brown, Michael Brown, Phil Mendelson, Harry Thomas Jr., and Tommy Wells had expressed varying degrees of disapproval. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh went so far as to start an online petition aiming to kill what she termed a “disgusting deal.” Hell, even the League of Women Voters lined up against a gun-amended bill.

There were indications that Norton wasn’t aware of, or didn’t care about, the uproar that ensued. “It would have been beneficial for [Norton] to have shared some of the details of the plan privately with other elected officials before her announcement,” says Mike Panetta, the elected shadow representative. “She could have gotten a read on where the Council was and we may have been able to avoid this very public split, which isn’t helping our cause.”

Norton had the bad timing of moving forward with a gun deal not mere weeks after one of the worst incidents of neighborhood violence in recent D.C. history. Four kids armed with an AK-47 and other guns shot into a crowd gathered outside a South Capitol Street apartment building on March 30. Not the most auspicious moment, politically speaking, to express openness to allowing legal assault weapons on city streets.

And certainly Norton ran right into the buzzsaw of mayoral election-year politics. Her decision to move forward with a gun deal made for a strange-bedfellows moment of sorts, with Fenty squarely in her corner despite her public criticism earlier that Hizzoner “doesn’t meet with anybody.” Gray, meanwhile, took advantage of a political opening. Despite his habit of praising Norton at every opportunity and bragging about their regular lunches, Gray broke hard with Norton, and he took his colleagues with him.

Gray captured the Zeitgeist: The combination of guns plus vote is simply too distasteful for most locals to muster. Norton claimed in a Tuesday press release that she chose to move forward with a gun compromise last week hoping, only to discover—shock!—that NRA had other plans for the House gun language. Put simply, the gun lobby wanted even fewer restrictions of gun possession and regulation than the Senate did—provisions that Norton called “so over the top, they are unworthy of serious consideration.”

That’s probably the correct read of the activist psyche. But the reality of the situation is somewhat at odds with feelings it’s generated.

Fact is, the District might have its gun laws gutted one way or another. Say what you will about the NRA, but it has little interest one way or another in voting rights. Its interest in the District of Columbia is “to make a statement that will reverberate nationwide and improve their chances with regard to gun laws across the nation,” says Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed, a think tank active in voting-rights strategizing. Smith and other Hill watchers consulted by LL expect similar D.C. gun legislation to be attached to legislation before the November elections, and that it will pass.

And if the gun language—which reportedly includes provisions allowing “concealed carry” of handguns and restrictions on the ability of landlords to prohibit weapons on their property—is signed into law, the D.C. House Voting Rights Act might have a clearer path to passage. Still, Smith says, “people who are not friends of the District will think of something else”—say, restrictions on gay marriage or medical marijuana—“but I believe the gun issue coupled with the NRA’s strength makes it unique. I don’t know if there’s another issue or constituency out there with that kind of strength.”

Let’s assume Congress passes the bill, and it’s signed by Obama. There’s still no guarantee the federal courts would sign off on its constitutionality.

Still, there is one thin, final hope for the Great Compromise era of D.C. voting rights activism. But with Democratic margins in the House and Senate set to thin considerably (if not disappear) in January, and with a new census set to obviate the basis for the Utah seat-swap, its days are numbered.

With five years of effort and millions of dollars invested in D.C. Vote and other lobbying organizations, there is the real possibility of emerging with nothing to show for it.

The question will be: How then to make the dream explode?

Councilmember No

Marion Barry is back to his disapproving ways.

That is to say, the Ward 8 councilmember’s old habit of obstructing city contract awards and internal funding shifts, once thought cured, has returned with a vengeance.

Any councilmember is within his or her rights to introduce a resolution disapproving a particular mayoral contract or funding shift (aka reprogramming), adding two weeks to a month to the process.

In the first two years of the Fenty administration, Barry filed more than 90 of them, far outstripping the 30 total that had been filed by councilmembers in the previous two years. In late 2008, the obstructionism prompted a crisis of sorts, when a Barry disapproval resolution threatened to end payments for key city services. Attorney General Peter Nickles intervened and ordered the contracts paid anyway, precipitating a series of scolding Washington Post editorials and a council-mayor tussle that continued well into last year.

At the urging of Gray and others, Barry had kept the practice to a minimum through 2009. But he’s now back in action: Since being stripped of his committee in early March, Barry has filed disapproval resolutions on 10 contracts and reprogramming requests.

All told, Barry has filed 19 contract and reprogramming disapprovals since the council term started in January 2009—more than one-third of all such disapproval filings filed by councilmembers.

Barry earned scorn last Wednesday morning from one of his colleagues, at-large member David A. Catania, who said that one of the disapprovals in particular—involving funding for the George Washington University School of Public Health’s epidemiological research and Medicaid consulting—threatened the health and welfare of residents in his ward.

Added Nickles last week: “It’s like a child trying to draw attention to himself. He’s trying to prove he disagrees with the administration.…Basically what he’s doing is completely disrupting the normal processes of government.”

What Barry’s also doing is getting attention for himself in the weeks after he was legislatively castrated by his colleagues for the misdeeds aired in the Bennett Report. Barry’s lashing out the only way he can—as LL predicted.

Last Thursday, the day after LL first called Barry to ask about the new spate of filings, he held a Wilson Building press conference to explain himself. More precisely, he took aim at Catania and the sole-source GWU contract, which Barry claims represents an evasion of the council earmark ban imposed by Gray last summer.

LL, busy watching the testimony of mayoral crony Sinclair Skinner, wasn’t able to attend Barry’s press conference—which, to LL’s knowledge, represents the first time any D.C. Council member has openly called for the investigation of a colleague. Oh wait, make that the first time since Catania called for investigations on Barry’s earmarking habits last summer.

Payback’s a bitch, right?

Well, sort of. Barry did not allege what exactly it is that Catania did improperly, aside from violating the nonexistent “Earmark Prohibition Act of 2009.”

In an interview with LL later that day, Barry couched his actions as the due diligence of a conscientious legislator—not the flailing of a newly powerless man. He noted that he’s raised questions about other contracts, including the city’s re-upping with a janitorial firm that, Barry says, is “not providing good service.”

But clearly, it was the GWU contract that had him on fire. In Barry’s mind, what Catania did by allegedly pushing for a sole-source contract for a reputable local university is on the same level as the shenanigans he pulled with his own earmarks—steering government money to groups he created and put under the control of his political allies. Those groups did little, if anything.

Catania, on the other hand, stood Wednesday morning in Ward 7, announcing with Fenty that under his stewardship of the council’s health committee, the District has achieved the highest rate of insured residents of any jurisdiction besides Massachusetts (whose residents are legally required to have insurance). The sole-source contracts with GWU, he said, are a big reason why that’s happened.

Barry made no mention of the health of his constituents while explaining his opposition to the contract. Rather, he says, it’s about “good government,” as in: “I’m probably one of the best good-government people you can find. I may have had my personal troubles, but look at my government record.”

LL submits that without comment.

Regarding the disapprovals, Barry added: “I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what the Post says. I’m gonna keep doing it.”

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