Nate Bennett-Fleming, D.C. shadow-rep hopeful, works to be heard over the buzz

April 2, 2012

A moment, please, for the down-ballot journeyman. He’s put on his gray suit, though he needn’t have. He shakes the limp hands of the preoccupied. He’s waited through hours of puffery and platitudes to deliver his stump speech.

“Hey, how’s everybody doing this afternoon?”

Hubbub. The Democratic candidate forum is over. The crowd has splintered in the auditorium of a public charter school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Nate Bennett-Fleming, 27, raises his voice.

“Can I have your attention for just three minutes?”

The city council candidates have gone straight for the doughnuts.

“It’s hard to get your attention, and it’s hard to be a shadow representative.”

The gadflies buzz.

“Because people don’t know it exists.”

They aren’t listening, Nate.

“I’ll wait.”

They won’t.

“Don’t you guys think we deserve statehood?”

A few attendees, still seated in folding chairs and listening politely, murmur “yes.”

“I said, ‘Don’t you guys think we deserve statehood?’ ”

Several people turn from their conversations, say “yes” and resume chatting about more pressing topics: the 25 percent unemployment rate in Ward 8, the expiration date of Marion Barry’s political viability, the scandals that have ulcerated the D.C. Council and the mayor’s office, the mid-February sun warming this magnificent, preposterous city — the city that bore Nathan Bennett-Fleming, that propelled him from Anacostia out into the world, that now is welcoming him back by placing his name in the bottom right corner of Tuesday’s primary ballot, under “United States Representative” of the “District of Columbia,” for which he’s running unopposed, either because nobody’s bold enough to challenge a focused candidate who has worked his entire young life to get to this point, or because no one wants the job.

Hard at work

What does a young man do with a freshly framed law degree, a Harvard fellowship, an internship at Goldman Sachs and summer apprenticeships at two of the District’s premier law firms?

He works overtime to get a job that doesn’t pay.

The shadow representative receives no salary. He gets an office, in the basement of the Wilson Building near the switch room, but no furniture or staff. He gets the titles “Hon.” and “Rep.” but is refused admission to the floor of the House of Representatives.

In mid-March, Nate puts on another suit, affixes a gold clip to his tie and enters the Ballou High School auditorium for another forum, this one featuring candidates for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. Council.

The candidates jabber, and Nate parses their words, absorbing the forum with an academic ear, sifting for “solution-based” ideas. When the candidates express support for vocational job training, Nate whispers about the greater need to encourage entre­pre­neur­ship. When Barry cites the due-process clause while addressing the issue of the bundling of campaign donations, Nate shakes his head. “What does that have to do with the 14th Amendment?” he mutters.

He’s overdressed and over-analytical, boyish but businesslike, somehow warm and distant at the same time. He’s had a lazy eye since birth, but he sees just fine, and his most notable characteristic is his voice, which is soft in conversation but preacherly at a lectern.

A Barry supporter in a green campaign shirt leans in behind Nate.

“I know 10 years from now you’ll be the mayor of D.C.,” the greenshirt says.

“I don’t know about that,” Nate says.

“You got 40,000 votes last time,” the greenshirt says, referring to the results of Nate’s previous primary run for shadow representative, in 2010.

He started that campaign in the summer of 2009 in the back yard of former city council member Arrington Dixon and recruited other young Ward 8 natives to hand out fliers at grocery stores. He enlisted fraternity brothers to populate his core staff, outspent the respected incumbent Mike Panetta and set up a headquarters on North Capitol Street, using wood from Home Depot for makeshift desks. In the fall of 2009, he was running a campaign while enrolled at both the Berkeley School of Law and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He spent Tuesdays through Thursdays in Cambridge and long weekends in Washington, and studied legal texts in between. He left Harvard before completing his thesis because he wanted to refocus on law school and the campaign, he says.

His goal, then as now, was to draw young people to the cause and to empower an essentially powerless role.

Nate lost, and was shaken by this first and very public failure, but re-branded his defeat as the largest-ever vote tally of any D.C. candidate younger than 30. He knew he was going to run again in 2012 and positioned himself as the inevitable successor to Panetta, who decided after three terms to make way for fresh blood. Nate has essentially wiped the field of potential challengers but is running as if he hadn’t; that’s his way of trying to raise the profile of the office. His campaign motto is “Expect More” — of the shadow rep, of the city, of the country. He is an overachiever gunning for a position of underachievement. Some longtime political know-it-alls started talking.

Who is this kid? What does he want? Why is he doing this?

A little history

In a historically literal sense, Nate is doing this because angry veterans of the Revolutionary War surrounded the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1783 and demanded back pay. The state refused to dispatch its militia to protect the Congress, which thenceforth vowed that the nation’s capital, wherever it was based, would be under the federal government’s control. A long-running farce unfolds from there:

Scene 1. In 1801, the Congress of the United States, a nation founded partly on the principle of no taxation without representation, incorporates its capital as the District of Columbia, whose citizens pay federal taxes but have no federal representation. Ho ho, ha ha.

Scenes 2 through 500, set to “Yakety Sax.” People object. Adjustments are made. No one is happy. The District could elect its own mayor and council members by 1820, but Congress rescinds those rights in 1878 — when the city goes bankrupt — in exchange for a robust federal subsidy. In the 1950s, the Senate passes several home-rule bills. Each time they wither in the House District Committee, steered by Rep. John McMillan (D-S.C.), a segregationist who was distrustful of the city’s black population. The District, whose budget and legislation (then as now) depend on the approval of Congress, gets presidential electors in 1960 and, a decade later, a mayor, city council and non-voting delegate to the House. In 1978 a voting rights bill passes the House and Senate, but it expires without state ratification in 1985. District voters approve a constitution for “New Columbia” in 1982, but this is only an exercise.

Scene 501. In the tradition of territories such as Alaska, the District sets up a government-in-waiting. It elects two shadow senators and one shadow representative in 1990 but gives them no operating budget, no higher authority and no job description other than to lobby Congress for equal rights.

Since then, six shadow representatives have served in succession, mission unaccomplished.

Unopposed in the primary and with no challenger yet in the general election, Nate Bennett-Fleming will almost surely be the seventh. He would also be the first 20-something shadow rep. And maybe the first to be elected to the position while living at home with his mother.

‘Hungry for service’

The house, painted purple, sits on a slope of Morris Road SE just above Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A campaign sign pokes up through the overgrown front yard. A prayer book sits on a chair on the front porch. The doorbell summons a 7-year-old Akita that looks like a grizzly bear. Leona Felecia Bennett says she could leave her house unlocked and, because of the dog, no one would steal a thing.

Nate’s upstairs, she says. He’s getting ready for the Ward 8 Democrats’ Red and White Ball. He’s always everywhere. Although since his graduation from Berkeley Law in December he’s been here, in his boyhood home, studying for the bar exam and limiting his expenses.

“Sometimes I wish he was hungry for money, but he’s hungry for service,” says Leona, smiling and shaking her head. “It’s not as good for me, but I’m proud of him. He does well.”

Nate’s muddy football cleats rest on top of the radiator in the front hall, its walls discolored and bowed inward. Cluttering the fireplace mantel are plaques and awards — some for Leona (the D.C. Department of Corrections honoring her for decades of service) and some for Nate (D.C. Vote certifying him as one of the 72 citizens who were arrested in statehood protests last year).

She raised him mostly as a single mom, working as a correctional officer, living in a one-bedroom pad in the drug-infested Greenway Apartments of the ’80s, just south of East Capitol Street. Sometimes Leona would come home from work and find 6-month-old Nate “reading” the comics pages on the floor, encouraged by his visiting father. By 3 he was reading books constantly.

“As a little boy, if you told him a story or explained something to him, he was very controversial,” says Hannah Hawkins, founder and director of Children of Mine Youth Center, where Nate spent many of his extracurricular hours. “He would always ask you, ‘Why?’ and you couldn’t just give him an answer. You had to explain to him why.”

He rode a scholarship to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, where he was one of the smallest and loudest boys, involved in student government and theater. Every day he took the Metro from Anacostia to Friendship Heights, where a school bus would ferry students to Potomac. Living in poorer Ward 8 and learning in affluent Montgomery County made him feel like an outsider in both worlds, though he desired to somehow bring them together.

After his junior year, he interned in the office of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s delegate to the House, and his fixation on statehood took root because the “why” was so vexing. Why does the Constitution keep certain citizens separate from others?

From there, Nate’s résumé unfolds like a presidential aspirant’s. He went to Morehouse College and embedded himself in the Omega Psi Phi fraternity network. He campaigned for Sens. John Kerry and Ben Cardin and moved to Harlem in the summer of 2005 to learn high finance at Goldman Sachs. Both Goldman and BlackRock told him a job would be waiting after graduation, he says, but he thought law school was in his best interest.

Now he’s back home, a favored son of Anacostia with two degrees and a third just short of completion, working for a “noble cause.” He hopes this year to get a teaching job at a place such as the University of the District of Columbia’s law school. His mother is still surprised he’s doing what he’s doing, but she supports him.

“It’s some vision he has,” Leona says. “And like I say, I don’t know who Nathan is, but I do believe Nathan is somebody. It’s just I don’t know who he is. Know what I mean?”

Nate comes down the rickety wooden stairs in a tuxedo and straightens his collar in the front-hall mirror. His mother watches his reflection.

‘I have a plan’

As a funk band plays, the politician prowls between banquet tables at the Red and White Ball in the Navy Yard, shaking everyone’s hand, slapping the backs of elected officials who are a full head taller. He draws Norton, Barry and Mayor Vincent Gray into brief, separate conversations about the work he hopes to do (train residents in advocacy, push for resources for his office, captain a bus tour to spread the message to the states, organize legal focus groups to hone constitutional arguments). As the buffet line grows, he sits alone at Table 28, collecting his thoughts, figuring out what he’ll say to the crowd when he gets his three minutes.

“It’s a party crowd, so I won’t go too intellectual,” he says. “I have a plan if they’re paying attention and a plan if they’re not.”

Many of the attendees know Nate or have heard of him. They describe him as “energetic” and “driven,” though some note he can occasionally be off-putting: too quick to play up his credentials, awkwardly arrogant sometimes, so focused on attaining office that he tailors his opinions to the situation.

But this is what people say about politicians. And Nate, though he may act as if he’s the smartest person in the room, approaches politics in a studious way and tries to understand all sides of an issue, according to Ward 1 activist and former D.C. Council candidate Bryan Weaver. “He’s definitely part of a younger class of Washingtonians who are really trying — for the first time in probably a generation — to get involved in local politics,” Weaver says. “Nate is comfortable in every part of the city. When he’s in Ward 8, he’s a product of Ward 8, but I also found him at a fundraiser for people running for mayor, in Georgetown, and Nate was utterly comfortable in those settings, too.”

Nate’s story is a tale of two cities: D.C. east of the river and D.C. west, D.C. past and D.C. present, all tied together by the notion of self-determination — that the capital should at least have control over its money and laws, and that one of its disenfranchised sons can leverage opportunity into destiny and seize the title of United States Representative of the District of Columbia, in all its hollow splendor.

“It’s almost like being a political Don Quixote,” says longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell, who considers Nate a rare example of a Ward 8 native investing in the city after graduating college. “There will be times when you will feel like you are tilting at windmills, but you have to continue as the Man of La Mancha, to dream the impossible dream. . . . The payoff, many times, is going to have to be what you feel internally.”

Nate, at the very least, has internalized the paradox at the heart of American democracy and is trying to unravel it with a persistence honed in his youth.

Why don’t the taxpaying citizens of the District of Columbia have full representation in Congress and full control over their budget and laws?

He hasn’t heard a satisfying answer. So he keeps asking. And shortly before midnight, when everyone is stuffed and tired, he takes the microphone at the Red and White Ball.

“Good evening, Ward 8.”

Hubbub.

“Good evening, Ward 8.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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