October 24, 2013

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) got into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s face at a recent news conference on the government shutdown. But Reid (D-Nev.) is not an enemy of the District. In fact, in June, he declared that the city “deserves statehood, and Congress should act to grant it.”

So why did the mayor deploy a 1970s-style guerrilla protest tactic? Was he hoping to gain prominence during a national crisis in order to camouflage what I and others believe is his lame-duck status?

Gray may have secured a temporary budget victory this month. But was that the result of his news-conference slap? Or was the effort to exempt the District from the next congressional fight over funding the government already in the pipeline by then?

This much is clear: The mayor’s champion-of-democracy posture is inconsistent. This week, for example, he blew an opportunity to protect the rights and privileges of D.C. residents. Instead of vetoing the recent Elected Attorney General Implementation and Legal Services Amendment Act of 2013, Gray took the easy way out. He returned the bill to the council unsigned , allowing it to become law.

In a letter dated Oct. 22 to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Gray cited three concerns with the legislation, including a flawed restructuring of the Office of the Attorney General. Most prominent among his objections was the council’s decision to move the date for the election of an independent attorney general from 2014 to 2018.

In 2010, voters approved an amendment to the Home Rule Charter that created an elected attorney general. The ballot language indicated that residents “would begin voting for the Attorney General in 2014.” Gray said citizens had an expectation that such an election would occur next year. Now that may not happen. Still, he failed to reject outright the council’s bill and so joined seven of the 13 members in thwarting the will of 90,000 D.C. voters.

“We broke faith with the voters,” said Mendelson, who fought against delaying the election. “The principle was so important I had to argue the case even though I was losing.”

“It’s quite possible what the council did may not have been legal,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a mayoral contender and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, who also attempted to prevent the delay.

This is not some who-moved-my-cheese fight. District residents are not required to present government-issued photo identification at the polls, but the council’s action may be no less a contravention of their voting rights. It also is a deliberate dismissal of election results. Further, it could have a chilling effect on future attempts by residents to shape the government they believe they deserve. Say sayonara to all that government-of-the-people-by-the-people stuff.

Fortunately, Paul Zukerberg, a defense lawyer and former council candidate, has filed a lawsuit against the council and the D.C. Board of Elections to force the election to proceed as intended. He has requested an injunction to stall implementation of the law as his suit moves through the court system. A hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 7 — the day before candidates can first pick up qualifying petitions.

“Without this preliminary injunction, the election will be over before anyone has a chance to run” for attorney general, said Zukerberg, who argued that the council’s action was illegal. The 2010 general election resulted in an amendment to the Home Rule Charter. By law, it can be amended only by D.C. voters or Congress. Changing the election year requires another charter amendment; a vote by the council isn’t enough.

It’s not as if an elected attorney general is unique; 43 states have elected attorneys general, said Zukerberg: “Someone who is independent only has to answer to the voters.”

Currently, the District’s attorney general is appointed by the mayor. While Attorney General Irvin Nathan has received accolades, at times he has seemed confused regarding whether he represents residents or the executive. Last week, for example, during the council’s public hearing about legislation to fix the city’s tax-lien sale process, some pushed to preserve the full equity for any homeowner whose property is sold. Nathan argued that this would remove the “leverage” the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue needs to force owners to pay their taxes. His sympathy didn’t appear to be with residents, some of whom have been severely wounded by the current process.

“An elected attorney general is more likely to be sensitive to community concerns and priorities,” noted Mendelson.

That is what inspired voters to approve the 2010 charter amendment. Now, if voters want their intentions and rights protected, when the legislation goes for review on Capitol Hill, they will need help from Reid and other congressional representatives — the very folks Gray and council members have accused of trampling on home rule.

The irony of that is inescapable.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com