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D.C.’s elected shadow U.S representative, Ray Browne, has every right to complain.
He toils for D.C. statehood for no pay. He travels around the country preaching the voting-rights gospel and is rewarded with a pat on the back. The position itself is the subject of frequent jokes.
Browne and his Senate counterparts, Paul Strauss and Florence Pendleton, are the city’s elected, unpaid lobbyists for statehood. The city cannot pay them salaries or even reimburse their expenses because of a congressional ban on spending local funds to lobby for voting rights.
For a brief time last month, it looked as if the delegation might lose the one perk it has: free city-owned office space at One Judiciary Square.
Browne got a March 24 quasi–eviction notice from Carol J. Mitten, who runs the city’s Office of Property Management. The letter said that the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), which donates space for the shadow office, “is now interested in reclaiming this space for its own use.” “You may contact my office to discuss relocation alternatives,” concluded the letter.
By now, Browne is familiar with brushoffs from officialdom. Dissing D.C.’s statehood ankle-biters, after all, is a great Capitol Hill tradition. But this time Brown caught a rare break.
Top staff for Mayor Anthony A. Williams quashed the move-out order. No need to get those die-hard statehood advocates riled up. Mitten’s letter was quickly dismissed after a WTOP radio reporter started snooping around.
Williams’ spokesperson Vincent Morris calls the letter “premature” and says it was written and sent “without having been vetted.” Administration officials are falling over one another to call the eviction notice a simple mistake. “In our quest to get adequate space,” OCTO chief of staff Linda Argo says, “we had no intention to dislodge the delegation without making sure they were accommodated.”
Strauss says the episode “makes clear to the delegation that the time has come for a real talk. The need for real resources is long overdue.”
And what better time to make a pitch? Williams seems eager to spend money to get D.C. the vote. In his fiscal 2006 budget proposal, he’s asking the D.C. Council for a million bucks to support voting-rights education. The key word here is “education.” The hope is that “education” won’t fall under the definition of “lobbying” and that Congress will let the funding request pass.
Even if the money goes through, however, Browne won’t get his hands on it.
According to the mayor’s budget plan, the $1 million is slated to go to nongovernmental organizations working to educate the public about the city’s lack of voting representation in Congress. Administration officials say some, if not all, of the money will go to D.C. Vote, a nonprofit formed in 1998 for just this purpose.
In the parlance of business analysts, D.C. Vote is uniquely positioned as Williams’ chief statehood contractor. It has well-connected supporters, including group co-founder Joe Sternlieb, deputy executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District. It knows the law. And it has helped clear the way for the contract that it’ll likely receive later this year.
Here’s how: D.C. Vote sought out a legal opinion on the lobbying ban from big-time law firm Arnold & Porter, which did the job pro bono. The firm’s memo spells out why education efforts by a nonprofit would not violate the congressional ban on city funds for statehood activism. The mayor’s staff wanted the brief completed before pushing for the cash in the 2006 budget.
D.C. Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka says, “We’ve worked closely with the mayor’s office and the council on this matter.”
Under Zherka’s leadership, D.C. Vote’s operating budget has grown from $200,000 to more than $700,000. “We’re a nonprofit, and we have the most elaborate public-education effort out there,” Zherka says.
D.C. Vote’s favor in the mayoral suite irks Browne, who says he would put his record up against any group’s. Browne has spent the last five years traveling the country to preach the voting-rights gospel—mostly on his own dime. He has convinced elected officials from more than 30 cities, towns, and counties to pass resolutions calling on Congress to give District residents a voting representative.
That’s opened some doors for him on Capitol Hill, where he’s delivered those resolutions—and the voting-rights pitch—to House members representing the areas he’s visited. “These are important, substantive things,” Browne says.
Browne’s efforts haven’t turned the tide in the voting-rights debate. But he’s not sure the long-term national-education campaign by D.C. Vote will change many minds on Capitol Hill. “What have they actually done?” he asks.
Well, for starters they’ve forged a close relationship with D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. No voting-rights initiative seems to get anywhere without the blessing of Norton, who believes that a long-term strategy of raising awareness is the key to victory. Norton spokesperson Doxie McCoy says the delegate “works closely with D.C. Vote” and, “strongly supports the [mayor’s] D.C. Vote initiative.”
D.C. Vote also produced a video that aired at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, just before Norton’s big speech. It also has voting-rights commercials running locally on Comcast cable.
Browne worries that the higher profile of D.C. Vote could push him further into the shadows. “We were elected by the people to do this work,” Browne says. He adds that he got more votes than any councilmember in the 2004 general election.
Strauss, for his part, says he doesn’t have a problem with D.C. Vote’s joining the shadow delegation’s efforts. “When I was first elected in 1996, we were the only ones agitating on this issue,” he says. And he says he isn’t bothered by the possibility of lots of money flowing to the group.
But Strauss is threatening to cut all lines of dependency with city hall. “Don’t be surprised in the next couple of weeks if you…see us agitating for dedicated quarters of our own,” he says.
Now there’s a blow for voting rights.
OMER MULLING MAYORAL RUN
The 2006 race for mayor is now spanning the globe.
Former Williams’ Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer is weighing a run for mayor—from Africa.
Omer works as a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme in Nairobi, Kenya, where he’s helping to rebuild the financial system in his native Somalia.
In an e-mail response to an LL inquiry, Omer says he will soon return to his Ward 1 home “and will explore the possibilities of getting back into politics.” He adds, “It is too early to talk about running for an office, but I have been exploring ideas with friends and supporters in DC about [a] mayoral race.”
One former Williams-administration official says Omer knows more about the D.C. government than anyone currently considering a mayoral bid. Another longtime friend and political ally of Omer says many of the mayor’s old supporters will be eager to back such an experienced manager. “He’s done so much for D.C.,” this source says. “He understands the budget, the schools, and he has supporters in all parts of the city.”
Omer was Williams’ chief of staff from 1999 to 2002. He was a senior budget analyst when Williams was chief financial officer, and he served as chief financial officer for the D.C. Public Schools.
Omer resigned as chief of staff about a year after Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Jones was placed on unpaid administrative leave for fundraising improprieties. Omer was never implicated in the scandal.
•D.C. might have a voting representative in Congress after all. Well, sort of. Voting-rights scholar and activist Jamin Raskin is considering a run for Maryland’s 8th District congressional seat. The American University Washington College of Law prof sees an opening if Rep. Chris Van Hollen decides to jump into the race for retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes’ seat. He says it may be time to stop talking and writing about his political ideas and get into the game. “I’m thinking of doing the Paul Wellstone thing,” he says.
•When last we saw political consultant Tom Lindenfeld, he was suing Mayor Williams for unpaid bills. That dispute was settled, but now it seems Lindenfeld may have a shot at a different kind of payback. The mayoral exploratory committee for Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty is renting space in Lindenfeld’s LSG Strategies office. And look for Lindenfeld to join a Fenty campaign if the councilmember pulls the trigger. Lindenfeld says he holds no ill feelings for Williams or his supporters; he merely feels the city has settled into “a kind of lethargy.” He was a paid consultant on Fenty’s 2004 Ward 4 campaign and says he’s attracted to Fenty’s youth and energy. Lindenfeld says this campaign isn’t about making money. “When you do a race in your hometown, I don’t see it as business,” he says.—James Jones
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