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Loyal residents of hometown D.C. love to flaunt how little they care about the goings-on in federal Washington. Usually, the provincialism a way of disproving a national stereotype about the District: Hey, America, behind all that monumental marble, we’re still a normal city where people care about zoning and crime and neighborhoods and don’t need Uncle Sam’s help, thank you very much.
But this fall, as the District carried out its own electoral campaign, the lack of discussion about the national election seemed more like an exercise in wishful thinking: If we don’t talk about looming change on Capitol Hill, we can pretend we’re on the cusp of statehood rather than prepare to again debate federal needle-exchange bans like in the bad old days.
That make-believe reality ended last night. Thanks to the District’s goofy constitutional status, the whims of voters who don’t live here mean there will be a new congressional committee chair in charge of overseeing D.C. But thanks to the myopia of the District’s political establishment, voters and officials have spent almost zero time contemplating how to butter up, battle with, or get around this new boss, a right-wing representative from a rural Utah district named Jason Chaffetz.
Think I’m kidding? A month ago, my colleague Alan Suderman chatted up Vincent Gray about the prospect of a GOP Congress. By this point, Gray had been the city’s presumptive mayor for two weeks. Adrian Fenty was history and there was no serious challenger in the general election. So, given the long, ignominious history of congressional conservatives playing to the base back home by meddling with the city’s budget, would Gray’s transition team be pondering how to deal with a hostile Congress?
“I have not addressed that,” Gray said at the time. “I actually would like to think that we will continue to have…Democratic control of the House—we’ll face that when we get to it. But no, I haven’t appointed anyone to address that issue.”
Gray was hardly alone in that regard: The city’s election season briefly turned the likes of Ron Moten, Sulaimon Brown, and Michael D. Brown into household names, but it featured scarcely a peep about Chaffetz. The D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose job description involves fighting encroachments on Home Rule, acknowledged that she’d only had one conversation with Chaffetz since he’d arrived in the House as an obscure minority-party representative.
It’s not like Chaffetz’s politics are a secret. He led congressional efforts to undo same-sex marriage in the District. Though the now-dead D.C. voting right compromise would have given his native Utah an extra congressional seat, too, Chaffetz blasted the measure as unconstitutional. A certain local weekly paper gave him as Best of D.C. award for “Best Congressional Meddler.”
One of the nice things about the District’s orphaned status is that pols are liable to be honest about their plans for us—after all, there are no actual voters here who need to be placated with weasel words. So when Chaffetz chatted with Dave Weigel for a Washington City Paper profile earlier this fall, he was forthright about his intentions: He’d like to undo gay marriage. He thinks D.C. autonomy is unconstitutional. He thinks an ideal fix for the city’s Home Rule troubles would involve retroceding most of the District into Maryland.
Chaffetz’s political situation back home should give District loyalists even more reason to worry. A proto-Tea-Partier, he’s mulling a challenge—from the right—against incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch. That’s a situation that will incentivize him to win points with ultraconservatives back home. And for a guy whose constituents are 2,000 miles away, beating up on liberal Washingtonians is an easy way to do it.
Of course, Weigel’s piece also offers a possible silver lining for worried Washingtonians: As a darling of Tea Party activists, Chaffetz may also face voters who take all that “Don’t Tread on Me” stuff seriously—and might react poorly to the spectacle of their congressman telling other people what do with with hard-earned local tax dollars. In a place like Provo, Utah, “No Taxation Without Representation” might find a surprisingly friendly audience.
Appealing to the sense of philsophical consistency of angry rural voters half a continent away, though, seems like a bad bet. For now, though, it seems like the only strategy District leaders have going. Let’s hope Gray, Norton, et al., come up with a better one soon.
To read Weigel’s full piece on Chaffetz, click here.