Fenty Shows Signs of Life After All

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Young Mayor Stands up for His City, But How Long Will It Last?

In his first State of the District address Wednesday D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty had a strong message for the White House: “The United States government has brought democracy to Baghdad before bringing it home to the District,” he told hundreds of  residents at a public gathering. “We are the only capital of a democracy in the world that has no vote in the national legislature.” Putting subtance behind these strong words, Fenty has gone so far as to urge residents to engage in active protest to win their right to representation by marching on April 16th.

Although the latest bill is a shard of what D.C.– a major city with a half-million plus population, not counting commuters– ultimately merits, it is clearly a step in the right direction. If D.C. Voting Rights Act (H.R. 1433) is passed in both the House and the Senate, the District will be awarded a single, voting representative in Congress to replace the non-voting Delegate, a position held by Eleanor Holmes Norton has held since 1991. Unlike past Capitol Hill maneuverings for statehood and representation in both the House and the Senate, it is believed that this bill actually stands a chance of passing when it is voted on this Friday.  In addition to granting the overwhelmingly Democratic District (90% voted for Kerry in ’04) a single congressional seat, predominantly Republican Utah will also be given a new seat. Democrats in Congress have already pledged to use their majority status to ensure passage of the bill and the Senate appears to be on board as well. Needless to say, the ever out of sync Bush White House is prepared to veto the bill should it be passed. If Bush follows through on his recent promise to do so, a Congressional override in both houses will need to be issued in order to push the bill through.

President Bush’s rationale for standing in the way of what amounts to a drop in the political bucket is legitimate but weak. Pointing to the Constitution itself (Article 1, Section 2 limits representation in the House to state reps.), Bush contends that the bill would only be deemed unconstitutional. Considering the long list of “illegal” and unconstitutional acts his administration has engaged in – from the 2000 election to wiretapping, to Guantanamo Bay, to most recently the firing of Justice Department lawyers – Bush’s rationale reeks of, among other things, racism. Despite its massive lightening over the last few years, the city is still 60% black. The thought of eventually having add a predominantly black state to the union can not sit well with the GOP.

Putting the race questions aside, though, the arguments in favor of representation should dwarf  any knee-jerk reliance on the ‘framers’ intentions’ when the Constitution was originally drawn up, something many a Supreme Court Justice will attest to. D.C. is a city that functions as a state. It has its own National Guard; it own Department of Transportation; its own Department of Housing; its own prison system. The city issues its own license plates, and collects state-like taxes. Meanwhile, the city’s neck is stuck under the officious foot of the penny-pinching Federal Council, and residents are required to pay federal taxes, unlike other unrepresented territories like the Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Even worse, unlike cities like New York in which statewide tolls are enforced at bridges, tunnels and major thoroughfares, D.C. is unable to capitalize in any way on the commuter population flowing in and out of the city.

Mayor Fenty has taken a bold step in the right direction by challenging D.C. residents to oppose the White House. Even though Bush and his cronies are lame ducks, his willingness to stand up to the administration so early in his career shows political courage, if not shrewdness. However, we should be keep in mind that this is only the first step. The bill is both safe and popular. The real fight will come after the bill becomes law, which I imagine is at the heart of the Bush administration’s resistance in the first place. The GOP sees the slippery slope on the horizon and are attempting to hedge toward flat ground lest the wind up backed into a corner. Indeed, chipping away at the institutional edifice was the chief means by which African-Americans achieved their civil rights in this country: one case at a time, one boycott at a time— always with the bigger picture in mind.

But I digress.

In order for D.C. to achieve true and equitable representation commensurate with its obligations to the federal government, the city must have statehood, and its leaders must lead the fight. Whether and to what extend Fenty is willing to make an issue of the city’s right to representation a priority will ultimately play a determining role in how far the movement goes. Will he put force behind his words or will he be cajoled into calming the chorus of discontent in exchange for political leverage– a cabinet position or cushy job perhaps. In fact, whatever happens next we should be careful not to exclude Fenty’s own self-interest in this struggle. After all, where does a 36 year-old Mayor of  D.C. go after he’s tired of being the Mayor. There are no terms limits in the District, but someone with ambitions like Fenty’s is unlikely to want to remain the Mayor of D.C. for the rest of his political career. The thing is, there is currently no “higher” office in D.C., Holmes’ notwithstanding. However, there very well would be if the city earns a seat in Congress or, later down the road, two in the Senate. Something to think about…. 

A really interesting question, of course, is what happens if Barack Obama wins in ‘08. With the power to amend the Constitution and to grant statehood, does a “black, democratic” President elect to grant D.C. statehood? Does D.C. get two Senate seats to go along with its House seats? Is that even an expectation we should have?

the HNIC Report