Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

New DC Vote leader urges patience, open mind

Here’s a self-evident truth for the Fourth of July. It’s shameful that the nation celebrates the principle of self-government while denying it to the 632,000 residents of the District of Columbia.

Given that, one has to admire anyone willing to take on the perpetually frustrating task of battling for full voting rights for the city.

(Courtesy of DC Vote) - “Incremental progress is progress,” DC Vote’s Kimberly Perry says. “Our ultimate goal is full democracy for D.C. and statehood, but we understand there is a path to get there, and we are open to moving pegs along in the process.”

Meet Kimberly Perry, 42, an experienced organizer and mobilizer for idealistic causes. In April, she took command of DC Vote, the premier organization leading the effort.

To mark the holiday, I asked Perry about her vision for how to eventually win seats in the House and Senate so the District has the same representation as less-populated Wyoming and Vermont.

Her primary answers: patience and an open mind. The patriots of 1776 turned to violent revolution to end taxation without representation, but Perry stressed the value of small steps over time.

She’s so ready to consider others’ ideas that she’s willing to discuss transferring the District back to Maryland — a proposal often seen as taboo among District statehood supporters.

“Incremental progress is progress,” Perry said in an interview Tuesday. “Our ultimate goal is full democracy for D.C. and statehood, but we understand there is a path to get there, and we are open to moving pegs along in the process.”

Right now, that means trying to drum up enthusiasm for a budget charter amendment, approved with 82 percent of the vote in a referendum in April. It would give the District more autonomy over how it spends its money.

It’s hardly an earthshaking change, however, and could be overturned in the courts. Moreover, congressional appropriators would still have ultimate authority over the city’s money.

“Members of Congress at any time can use their power to overturn this,” Perry said. “I like to be optimistic and think that members of Congress don’t want to overturn the will of the people. Eighty-two percent is loud and clear.”

The caution is maddening, given the scale of the injustice. But it’s also understandable, given recent history.

Little was achieved during the heady period from 2007 to 2011, when sympathetic Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. A bill that would have given the District a vote in the House came up short.

Today, with Republicans controlling the House, there’s little talk of a breakthrough.

“I know there has been fatigue across the city as it relates to legislative pursuit,” Perry said.

In addition, President Obama’s contribution has been disappointing. He made clear from the start of his first term that District rights weren’t a high priority.

Perry was too politic to criticize Obama but said she had her “fingers crossed” that he’d be more supportive in his second term.

Meanwhile, Perry wants to broaden support for the cause — or at least raise awareness of it — by reaching out to new constituencies. Targets include local college students, international groups and new members of Congress.

She wants to use her background in “coalition building, organization and mobilizing really disparate constituencies.” She came to DC Vote from the Clinton Foundation, where she worked as an advocate for children’s health and education.

Somewhat to my surprise, Perry was open to considering “retrocession,” or reversing the long-ago move in which Maryland gave up the land that became the District.

“When you are open, and you want to move something, and you want to get consensus, you don’t rule anything out,” Perry said. “There’s always been the discussion of retrocession as a possible solution.”

Maryland and most District voting rights supporters have opposed retrocession on various grounds, including that the city has established a distinct identity. Republicans and other conservatives often favor the plan, partly because it would avoid giving the District the opportunity to add two Democrats to the Senate.

Non-voting Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said retrocession was unacceptable.

“There is a serious problem. We do not have the permission of the neighboring state,” Norton said. She added that the District should not give Congress “an easy out” that way.

Such a merger wouldn’t be my first choice. I can’t imagine that either the District or Maryland would support it.

Still, Perry makes a valid point. Retrocession would do for the District what Jefferson, Adams and company did for the 13 original colonies.

And such independence wouldn’t take a revolution.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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