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Every District politico bemoans the federal law that prevents the city from levying a commuter tax on our friends from Maryland and Virginia. But only at-large D.C Council candidate A. Scott Bolden has visualized a way to do something about it.
A close examination of a recent Bolden campaign sticker holds the key: The red map of the “District” on the sticker adds a little extra territory across the Potomac River to the familiar D.C. diamond with a bite taken out. That’s because Bolden’s map includes Arlington County. Why fight for a commuter tax when you can simply annex the commuters?
Arlington County Treasurer Francis X. O’Leary says Bolden could use a history lesson. “Once upon a time—in 1846, to be precise—there was a little vote on that matter. We were retroceded to Virginia,” O’Leary says. “We’re just fine with the status quo. We actually have a voting member in the House…and we’re pretty happy with our taxation with representation.”
O’Leary says he’s never heard of Bolden, but he can understand why the District might want the county back: “Seven hundred million in [tax] revenues.” And what about Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ goal of bringing 100,000 new residents to the city over the next 10 years? Unambitious, when you consider the approximately 200,000 “New Southwest” D.C. residents Bolden’s map would have the city annex.
One of Bolden’s campaign volunteers says the stickers were printed “in-house” prior to the arrival of the red-and-white Bolden 2006 stickers.
Bolden says he knows exactly where the border between the District and Arlington County is and claims his campaign used a map at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce as a model.
“The Potomac separates it out—it’s very clear,” he says. Bolden says that if he decides to use a map again, he might keep Arlington County on it, “but our stickers will have toll booths to collect a tax at every entrance to the District.”
O’Leary says that if Bolden came over to Arlington, “I’d be more than happy to show him the way home.”
TAKING ON THE QUEEN
D.C. Shadow Rep. Ray Browne sometimes has a hard time getting noticed.
He’s a good-natured 66-year-old who wears conservative suits and ties. He doesn’t indulge in the showboating that dominates political circles. He works for no pay as the city’s voting-rights lobbyist, absorbing barbs and jokes about his position along the way. His message about D.C.’s orphaned political status may get more traction in state capitals and city-council offices around the country than at home. (He has a stack of resolutions in support of voting rights to prove it.)
But the shadow representative is now in
a campaign that is boosting his political profile. Browne has picked a fight with the undisputed queen of the District’s voting-rights struggle, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Browne tells anyone who will listen that Norton is not representing the interests of District residents because she won’t co-sponsor D.C. voting-rights legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis.
The Northern Virginia Republican’s bill lays out a complicated formula for securing a vote for D.C. in the House of Representatives. The D.C. Fairness in Representation Act would temporarily expand the House by two seats, to 437 members. One seat would be added for the District; Utah would get the other. (Utah leaders have argued that they were cheated out of a fourth seat because of undercounting during the 2000 census.) Under Davis’ bill, the U.S. House would roll back to 435 members for the 2012 election. D.C. would keep a seat, and the 2010 census would dictate congressional re-apportionment in the rest of the country.
Davis hopes to break the partisan deadlock over a vote for the District. He figures Republicans need something—like another safe GOP seat in Utah—in return for what would likely be a permanent Democratic seat in D.C.
Browne calls the bill “the best bet for getting a vote that we will have for a long time.” And Norton would seem a likely champion of the measure. After all, it would arm her with a vote in a legislature in which she’s long sat on the sidelines.
But Norton won’t go for this particular half-measure; she has her own bill to grant D.C. residents full voting rights, and she’s not going to compromise those goals just yet. Unlike Browne, Norton has a ready-made pulpit on Capitol Hill, a biography heavy on civil-rights activism, and a reputation as a strong-willed stateswoman who’s not to be messed with.
So the rule among voting-rights activists is well-known: Don’t piss off Norton. Browne is going public with his apostasy. “I understand that my stance ruffles her feathers. That doesn’t concern me,” Browne says. “Eleanor doesn’t own this process. This is for our city.”
“Do I have to be the only one in this city to have some balls?” he asks. “I’m not afraid of her.”
Browne has been hammering on Norton since the carefully choreographed press conference in May when Davis introduced his bill. Lots of voting-rights activists were on hand. So were Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp.
Norton took a pass, and Browne started cranking up the pressure.
Browne first went to the council to lobby for a resolution supporting the Davis bill. He didn’t consult Norton. The measure passed overwhelmingly. A similar resolution won the support of the National League of Cities at the urging of Williams.
Browne points out that D.C. Vote, a nonprofit group focused on voting rights that works closely with Norton, is on board. “They’ve never done a thing without having Eleanor’s ring on it,” Browne says, “and they are supporting this bill.”
“The city’s leadership is behind this bill,” Browne says. “She is the only person of consequence who has not supported this legislation,” he says.
Browne even took his show to the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The group briefly considered endorsing Davis’ bill, but Norton’s partisans squashed the effort.
Davis says Norton’s backing is key to the success of his bill. “If she doesn’t get on my bill eventually, it is not going to happen,” he says. Of course, Davis has to overcome concerns raised by the House Republican leadership before he worries about winning support from the Democrats.
Davis and Norton have teamed up to win D.C. political goodies before, including federal tuition assistance for graduates of D.C. high schools and tax credits for first-time home buyers. If the Davis voting-rights bill does move, expect Norton to be at the table.
Norton calls Browne’s charge that her position on the Davis bill hinders the voting-rights cause “an urban myth….I don’t know what in the world has him on this tear, saying I would somehow deprive myself of a vote.”
Norton doesn’t expect her logic to diminish Browne’s public ranting. “Ray doesn’t want to hear it,” she says. And she says that Browne’s appeals have little staying power with voting-rights activists. A few months back, Norton says, she got a flurry of constituent calls and e-mails that appeared to be generated by Browne’s antics. “Some were asking, ‘How come the congresswoman is not on the bill?’ I don’t get those anymore.”
•Ward 8 councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. has his vehicular groove back. Last week, he drove up to the D.C. armory in a light-green 1998 Jaguar with Virginia dealer tags. Barry’s old 1994 Jag conked out on him last summer. “That one was jet-black—just like me,” he says. Barry’s new ride won’t win any classic-car ribbons. It has a dent in the driver’s-side front fender and another on the passenger side. The rear passenger-side door features large scrape and a dent. “I can’t afford a new one,” Barry says, but he reminds LL that he has now joined an exclusive council caucus: Cropp and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz are also Jag owners. “Maybe it’s time to start a used-Jaguar club,” Barry says. The new ride must have Barry feeling pretty important. While he chaired a Sept. 17 hearing on vocational education at the John A. Wilson Building, his Jag was parked in the area reserved for the mayor’s motorcade. Four straw hats in the back window were the only permits on display. —James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.