Huntsman backs D.C. voting rights; other 2012 contenders mostly silent

July 1, 2011

The fight for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is in full swing, with more than a half-dozen candidates squaring off over everything from health care and taxes to Libya and Afghanistan. But there is one topic District residents care about that many of the White House contenders apparently don’t — whether D.C. should have voting representation in Congress.

The apathy shown by most of the Republican field toward the issue matters because while the voting rights drive is already stalled by the GOP’s control of the House, it could be set back even further if an opponent of the effort defeats President Obama next November.

At least one Republican candidate — former Utah governor Jon Huntsman — actually supports the District.

Huntsman held a fundraiser in downtown D.C. on June 15 attended by Patrick Mara, a District school board member and unsuccessful Republican candidate in the April special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat.

During the event, Mara tweeted: “Just spoke with Gov. Huntsman. He still supports DC Voting Rights.”

Unlike many Republicans, Huntsman has a history with the subject. During his tenure as Utah governor from 2005 to 2009, his state teamed up with the District on a compromise proposal that would have granted each a new seat in the House.

Former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.), who crafted the compromise, said Huntsman was a huge help in the effort, which collapsed in 2010 because of a push by Republicans and some Democrats on the Hill to include language that would weaken the city’s gun laws.

“Absolutely, he came and testified for it,” Davis said. “That’s not just putting your name out there.”

At a 2006 House committee hearing on the legislation, Huntsman testified that it would “promote democratic values.”

“The people of Utah have expressed outrage over the loss of one congressional seat for the last six years,” Huntsman said. “I share their outrage. I can’t imagine what it must be like for American citizens to have no representation at all for over 200 years.”

And Huntsman still supports the idea today, confirmed campaign spokesman Tim Miller, though the situation is complicated by the fact that Utah was granted a new congressional seat following the 2010 Census.

“Governor Huntsman believes strongly . . . that all Americans should have representation in Congress,” Miller said. “In 2006, he supported a plan that would balance a new seat for the District of Columbia with a new seat for Utah because of the influx of new residents and new jobs to his state. He still supports a plan that would give representation to D.C., balancing the new seat with another from a growing Republican state.”

(The search for a new partner state hasn’t gone far. North Carolina barely missed winning an additional seat after the Census, but the state has a Democratic governor and so could not guarantee than a new House seat would be won by a Republican.)

Huntsman may be the only contender in the GOP field who supports District voting rights, though some candidates’ positions can be difficult to glean.

“That is not an issue that Mitt Romney has addressed or spoken about in the past or in this current campaign,” said a spokesman for the former Massachusetts governor.

A spokeswoman for ex-senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) said he is opposed to granting voting rights to the District. The campaigns of Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and pizza magnate Herman Cain did not respond to requests for comment.

When the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act came to the House floor in 2007, Bachmann and Paul voted against it, as did all but 21 of their Republican colleagues. Gingrich also opposed D.C. on the issue during his tenure in the House.

“It’s a pretty much standard, knee-jerk reaction if you’re a Republican to oppose this because it would clearly give Democrats an extra seat or three seats” in Congress, said Mara, who recently joined the board of the advocacy group D.C. Vote.

While the District’s plight is a prominent issue for many Democrats, it has never been a priority for the GOP as a whole. Davis recalled that when he raised the subject with President George W. Bush, he “got a blank stare.”

The official 2008 Republican Party platform included a section on D.C. that said: “We honor the contributions of the residents of the District of Columbia, especially those who are serving honorably, or have served, in our Armed Forces.” But it made no mention of the voting rights issue.

The party’s 2004 platform said Republicans “support yielding more budgetary and legal autonomy to local elected officials. . . . We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution that our nation’s capital has a unique status and should remain independent of any individual state.”

Mara said he planned to work harder to change the minds of his fellow Republicans on D.C. rights, especially if the GOP wins the White House next year. And he said that while he was pleased to hear Huntsman’s position, he wasn’t planning to endorse the former Utah governor quite yet.

“I like him a lot,” Mara said, “but I’m still undecided.”

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