For 12 years now, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has enforced a simple rule when it comes to matters involving Congress: No entity can talk to Capitol Hill except Norton.
Until D.C. repeals the Norton rule, it will be hard to take the city’s efforts toward congressional representation or statehood seriously.
The pitfalls of Norton’s gatekeeper approach are manifesting themselves in the current campaign to force congressional action on the voting-rights bill sitting in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The bill presents Congress a choice: Either give D.C. representation in the federal legislature or exempt its residents from federal taxes.
Norton concedes that the “choice” is a device conceived to point out the injustice of the District’s orphan status. She hardly expects that her peers on the Hill will opt to free D.C.ers from their tax burden. “We framed it this way tongue-in-cheek when it was a Republican[-controlled] Congress,” Norton explains to LL. Despite the current Democratic majority in the Senate, though, Norton refuses to change her strategy.
The consequences aren’t a joke.
In Congress, committee jurisdiction often determines whether a given bill makes it to the president’s desk or makes more work for the recycling contractor. By including taxation in the Senate version of the voting-rights bill, Norton ensures that it will go straight to the Senate Committee on Finance, which is chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Baucus is no Lauch Faircloth, but he’s not exactly a rural version of Julius Hobson, either. Without the tax language, the bill would have been referred to the Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by bill sponsor and D.C. booster Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Norton argues that language hardly impedes the progress of the bill, pointing to a May 23 hearing on D.C. representation sponsored by Lieberman’s panel. But Lieberman’s so-called hearing carries all the weight of a D.C. Council resolution. The session, after all, was designed merely to consider the issue of D.C. representation, not achieve it through Norton’s brainchild.
The District’s first official “lobby day,” held on May 15, was supposed to improve prospects for the legislation. The idea was to bring D.C. elected officials and regular ol’ residents together to press Congress for movement on voting rights.
But in a lobby-day meeting with the congressional delegate and other D.C. leaders, even Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) expressed reservations about the no-taxation-without-representation component of the legislation. According to some of those present, Daschle said that the threat to take $2 billion out of federal coffers has scared away potential co-sponsors and supporters.
As of lobby-day morning, the bill had six co-sponsors. Throughout the day’s meetings, some senators and their staffs echoed Daschle’s hesitation; many didn’t seem very familiar with the bill. The net result is that several potential allies of the District have yet to endorse the legislation—among them, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
The sideliners, meanwhile, have proposed a solution: that Norton remove the no-taxation part of the legislation.
Norton remains unconvinced.
And, in keeping with her rule, she does so alone: On lobby day, only a portion of the city’s 13 councilmembers cleared their noontime schedules and trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue to advocate for D.C. voting representation: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the council’s Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights, and Redistricting, showed up midafternoon. Mendelson’s responsibilities as chair of the Metropolitan Council of Governments’ Transportation committee conflicted with the lunchtime event.
The local officials hardly received preferential treatment: Almost all delegations to Senate offices, including councilmembers, met with legislative staffers, not senators. Some who showed up at senators’ offices on lobby day didn’t get to meet with anyone at all.
According to D.C. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss, the bill received two additional co-sponsors in the Senate because of Wednesday’s efforts.
Norton argues that her biggest opponent in shepherding the no-taxation-without-representation bill through Congress right now isn’t any one of the Republicans who treat the District as their own political laboratory, but WTOP political commentator and devout statehood activist Mark Plotkin. In a typically overstated refrain, Plotkin keeps urging Norton to yank the taxation components of the legislation—the better to make it appeal to a wider range of skeptical Democrats.
“The reason they have hesitation is because [Plotkin] has made it his business,” Norton says.
Plotkin spent Wednesday working the Senate hallways. In 15 minutes, with Strauss observing, Plotkin efficiently buttonholed three senators—Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—and asked them to support the bill. In other lobbying calls, Plotkin has asked various senators if they’d support the bill minus the taxation provisions.
And that’s a violation of the Norton rule.
When headed out to play hoops, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous prefers Larry Bird’s late-’70s Hoosierwear to that worn by current Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller. Sprinting down the lane in his old-school short shorts, the east-of-the-river legislator displays an athletic wardrobe that hasn’t been updated since his glory days on the Wabash College squad.
Last Friday morning, when the councilmember requested an on-air mention, or shout-out, to mark his 46th birthday, WPGC-FM’s Donnie Simpson Show bestowed Chavous with a very special honor: ‘Bama of the Week.
“What kind of grown-ass 46-year-old man calls around looking for a birthday shout-out?” asked comedian Huggy Low Down, who doles out the estimable award every Friday during Simpson’s show to those who fit its criteria of uncoolness and unfashionableness. “Donnie, you know he’s from Indiana—and that even rhymes with ‘Bama.’”
“Kevin Chavous may represent Ward 7, but he’s a ‘Bama-at-large,” quipped Low Down moments later.
The comedian proved himself a keen observer of D.C.’s political landscape, as well: “Kevin Chavous loves D.C., Donnie….His hairline is even shaped like Good Hope Road,” he said, referring to one of Ward 7’s main arteries.
Chavous downplays the political fallout from the fashionistas on D.C.’s third-highest-rated morning radio show. “To be named ‘bama of the week’ by someone who calls himself ‘Huggy Lo-Down’ speaks for itself, but be that as it may, I’m proud of the collaborative work that I have done with WPGC,” Chavous responded to LL via e-mail, citing his participation in a station-sponsored town-hall meeting and a charity basketball game. “As for Huggy Lo-Down or Donnie Simpson, I’d gladly play either one of them in a game of one-on-one.”
* Over the past few months, District 2 School Board Representative Dwight E. Singleton has been ubiquitous at D.C. political events. It doesn’t matter what the gathering is—a March birthday bash for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., an April Democratic State Committee meeting, or Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ early-May appearance before the D.C. Council to answer questions about fundraising. In his self-promotional travels, Singleton projects a caricature of a charismatic politician—kissing babies, mugging with senior citizens, and throwing around his signature slap on the back.
D.C.’s political cognoscenti—and any stray watcher of school-board meetings on D.C. Cable Channel 28—knew that Singleton was making the rounds because he was threatening a challenge to board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz in November’s general election. At board meetings, Singleton hardly needs an excuse to ruminate into the microphone about Cafritz’s leadership, or lack thereof, of the elected body.
Apparently, though, Singleton’s opportunity costs for running a citywide campaign exceeded the school board president’s annual salary of $16,000: Hours before the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s Monday night endorsement meeting, which the club hails as the New Hampshire of D.C. politics, Singleton picked up nominating petitions to become a Democratic candidate for the D.C. Council at-large race. That position pays $90,000.
Singleton beta-tested his at-large stump speech on the Stein Club membership. After a listen, LL has one piece of advice: When asking for an interest group’s endorsement, Singleton might find it helpful to drop mentions of the specific interest he’s addressing. In response to a question about how he planned to advance gay and lesbian issues, Singleton failed to speak about either gays or lesbians. He preferred to talk about “multicultural programs.”
LL does give Singleton points for innovation: In a very similar question posed to him moments later, Singleton responded, “We are mentally landlocked in how we socialize.”
The Ward 4 resident received one vote for his oratorical efforts, tying with Ward 8 resident Arthur H. Jackson Jr. but coming up 11 votes short of fellow Ward 4 candidate Beverly Wilbourn. The club’s endorsement, with a total of 31 votes, went to incumbent Mendelson.
Williams also earned the club’s rubber stamp, despite the presence of mayoral hopeful Tricia Kinch and a representative for American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Johnny Barnes. The club also endorsed D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp.
With thank-yous out of the way, Williams used his acceptance speech to fiercely lobby for the club’s endorsement of Democratic State Committee Chair Norman C. Neverson, a Williams loyalist. Neverson faces a challenge from Stein Club member Philip Pannell, president of the Ward 8 Democrats. Last month, the Ward 8 Dems passed a sharply worded resolution censuring Williams and depriving him of their endorsement for his participation in the fundraising efforts of Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
Neverson and Pannell exchanged barbed words about each other, which will only further the organization’s infighting and disarray. “I think it’s sad that the mayor has to come and prop him up,” Pannell told LL a few moments before the votes were tallied.
The end result: 22 votes for Pannell, 20 for Neverson, and 4 for no endorsement. Neverson and Williams prevailed, since Pannell needed 24 votes to earn the club’s endorsement.
“It’s a win,” said Gwen Hemphill, who co-chairs Williams’ re-election committee.CP
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