Does D.C. really want voting rights? It’s hard to tell.

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 12, 2011

Admit it, D.C. You really don’t want voting rights in Congress. And it must not be all that bad having social conservatives on Capitol Hill helping to manage your money — as well as your morals.

Otherwise, city leaders would be doing more than making empty symbolic gestures in the name of justice and equality.

“It’s time for the people of the District of Columbia to stand up and say we want to be treated like anybody else,” said Mayor Vincent Gray (D), just before he and about half of the D.C. Council staged a flop-down, pout-out in the middle of a city street Monday evening.

As part of their choreographed photo-op “arrest,” 41 protesters were charged with blocking a street. The offense carries a $50 fine, comparable to a parking violation.

Viva la revolucion!

The elected officials were supposedly upset because Republicans in Congress made them stop using city money to provide abortions for low-income women.

But don’t be fooled: City officials aren’t upset because low-income residents will be deprived of critical health services. They just want their hands on the money.

If that was not the case, then Monday’s protest would have included a lot more of the people in whose name the fight was being waged: low-income residents.

“To have an effective social movement, you need leadership that connects to people at the grass roots and gets them organized,” Jack A. Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, told me recently.

And if D.C. officials were truly concerned about the grass roots, they would not be imitating their Republican oppressors by trying to balance the city budget on the backs of the poor.

It was Gray, in fact, who as D.C. council chairman in December, pushed through a spending plan that avoided higher taxes but included far-reaching efforts to cut spending on welfare — including stopping direct assistance after five years.

Turns out Gray’s welfare reform was much harsher than anything former mayor Adrian Fenty had proposed and will result in thousands of low-income residents being kicked off the welfare rolls by 2013.

In the wake of the council’s draconian move, Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, remarked: “Clearly Mr. Gray knows what the harm will be to families. He has a lifetime of experience working with low-income families, so I don’t understand why he felt a need to do this.”

Now, in the irony of ironies, Gray and members of the D.C. Council are making the same complaint about Congress as low-income people were making about them.

“I’m tired of being a pawn in a political game,” Gray said after being released by U.S. Capitol police. Referring to the backroom deal in which President Obama agreed to let Republicans have their way with the city, Gray said, “It seems the District of Columbia was thrown under the bus.”

Or was it a SUV?

It didn’t take a New York minute for newly elected D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) to get caught using taxpayers’ money to lease not one but two pimped-out Lincoln Navigators — Diddy in the house.

Then Gray steps ankle deep in political dung that brings investigators from a Republican-controlled House swarming like flies over his alleged hiring practices.

Why would either Gray or Brown want to be photographed being hauled away in handcuffs at a time like this?

Look, D.C., nobody expects you to outdo the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutionaries. But as they have demonstrated, you need more than temper tantrums and news conferences in the fight for justice.

“Why were people protesting in such large numbers in Wisconsin and Ohio?” Goldstone said. “Because they felt a direct threat and they knew that if they did nothing, something absolutely critical would happen to them.”

Will D.C. leaders ever be able to instill that sense of urgency about Congressional interference?

Going forward, Gray is calling on churches and civic groups to join in the struggle. That’s not a strategy; it’s political naivete. Not even the most liberal black congregations will have their ministers standing in the pulpit on Sunday mornings advocating self-determination to fund abortions, needles for heroin addicts and legalized marijuana.

“People need to have some belief that their efforts can make a difference,” Goldstone said.

Admit it, D.C. You don’t.

milloyc@washpost.com

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