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Poor D.C.: It can’t get no respect in national politics.
The Republican Party, which is hosting its convention this week in Tampa, Fla., went out of its way to kick dirt in the District’s eye. The party’s platform committee wouldn’t even tolerate the vaguest hint of allowing D.C. to spend its own locally raised tax money without interference from Congress, and the official party platform specifically states: “We oppose statehood for the District of Columbia.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has been giving the city the cold shoulder, too. Mayor Vince Gray told reporters last week he was concerned that the party’s platform wouldn’t back statehood and said he was prepared to press the point at next week’s convention in Charlotte, N.C. Also at issue: whether Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton was going to get a slot to talk about the District’s lack of representation in Congress. Gray and local Democratic boss Anita Bonds wrote a letter nagging Democratic officials to let Norton speak.
Even the Libertarian Party is giving D.C. a hard time, suing the city over its requirements that petition gatherers be District residents.
Making the case that the feds give D.C. the shaft is easy. Its 600,000 citizens have no voting representative in Congress despite paying federal taxes. Local tax money can’t be spent by local officials without approval from the clowns on Capitol Hill. Democrats take the overwhelmingly Democratic city for granted. And when conservative Republicans want to score points with special-interest groups, they put aside their small-government ideals to impose their will on a city that didn’t elect them.
But it’s hard to get too upset that outsiders aren’t taking D.C.’s second-class status seriously when D.C.’s own elected officials aren’t being serious themselves. The felony guilty pleas of two former councilmembers and three associates of Gray’s certainly don’t help make the city’s case nationally. “To state the obvious, things have become demonstrably complicated,” says At-Large Councilmember David Catania. But even without those distractions, the city’s often haphazard, half-hearted attempts at advocacy too frequently come off as little more than political self-promotion. And the results—little to no significant progress on statehood, voting rights, or budget autonomy—speak for themselves.
Consider the mayor, who earlier this year said he would go to the GOP convention to make the case for statehood. Former Mayor Anthony Williams made a similar pilgrimage in 2000. But Gray must not have had access to a calendar when he made his plans, since the timing seems to have caught him by surprise. “It would be two full weeks that I would be out,” Gray said at a news conference last week explaining that he was, in fact, not headed to Tampa, since he is attending the Democratic convention the week after.
D.C.’s status has always been friendly rhetorical territory for the mayor. After he won the 2010 primary, he held a series of meetings around the city. The high point of his speeches, often long and dry, came when he talked about the need for more aggressive activism on statehood.
Gray tried to show he was serious by getting arrested, along with 40 other pro-autonomy protesters a few months after he was sworn in. The mayor plopped down on Constitution Avenue NW after President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner solved a budget impasse in part by banning the District from using its own money to provide abortions for low-income women.
The arrests put a new spring in Gray’s step, whose administration had been battered by early revelations of crony hires and allegations of illegal acts on the campaign trail involving nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown. The mayor showed off the bracelet the Capital Police put on him the night he was arrested like it was destined for future display at the Smithsonian. Gray and other statehood activists said the arrests would lead to a more engaged, sustained push for District rights. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta compared the arrests to the fruit vendor in Tunisia who lit himself on fire and started the Arab Spring. At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown compared the moment to the Tiananmen Square protests in China.
But if this is what a revolution looks like, it’s not a pretty sight. Follow-up protests have drawn only a small handful of people willing to be arrested, resulting in almost no media coverage. Everybody’s favorite presidential spoiler, Ralph Nader, called for a general strike in which D.C. residents would take the bold step of arriving to work 15 minutes late. It’s unclear if anyone who took him up on the offer realized they were doing so.
The most notable move came from Adrian Parsons, an Occupy D.C. activist who went on a 25-day hunger strike against the District’s lack of voting rights. But Parsons, a performance artist who once circumcised himself in public, couldn’t even get a meeting with Gray when he showed up at his Hillcrest home on New Year’s Day.
The council’s effort hasn’t been any better. In January, several councilmembers and the mayor flew to Concord, N.H., to support a resolution in the state legislature promoting statehood for D.C. The publicly funded trip was touted by activists as the beginning of a multistate tour that would build momentum around the country for D.C.’s push. Instead, District officials faced tough grilling from Republican New Hampshire representatives, who sent them packing with no resolution.
After that embarrassment, talk of trips to other states ended. Brown insists he and other city officials are still determined to raise support in other jurisdictions, but that it’s just difficult to get on the schedule in part-time legislatures.
Brown says he’s made D.C. statehood one of his “top priorities” as a councilmember, but there’s little to show for that effort. The council created a special statehood committee that no longer exists. Brown recently spent tens of thousands of dollars on a P.R. campaign that included T-shirts, calendars, and bus ads around the city. Those ads no longer appear, and Brown says the council hasn’t set aside more money to continue statehood efforts. The website Brown pushed, statehooddc.com, hasn’t been updated in more than a month.
The city’s spending priorities speak volumes. Other than the statehood committee, D.C. earmarked only $200,000 this year for nonprofit statehood groups. D.C. Vote received $150,000, while two one-person shops received $25,000 each. Elinor Hart says her nonprofit, Vision House, will spend the money on statehood-promoting brochures and a video she plans to put on YouTube sometime soon. (Also sending a clear message: the paltry $12,500 District taxpayers voluntarily contributed to the D.C. Statehood Delegation Fund in 2010 when filing their returns.)
At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, the statehood effort may display a few more signs of life. Pro-statehood billboards around the convention site are planned. Ilir Zherka, head of D.C. Vote, is organizing a rally that will feature Gray and Norton as speakers. The group sent a staffer and an intern dressed as Abe Lincoln to the Republican convention.
“While Abe Lincoln’s appearance is all in fun, the disenfranchisement of more than 600,000 people in our nation’s capital is no laughing matter,” the group said in a statement.
Unfortunately, as these two weeks of national conventions have shown, it’s more like a sad joke.