Shadow Delegation Toils in Obscurity for D.C.'s Day in the Sun

Battling for attention: longtime shadow senator Paul Strauss.
Battling for attention: longtime shadow senator Paul Strauss. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Among the few perks of being the District's shadow senator is that occasionally someone calls you "senator." Symbolism counts for a lot, since you don't get to vote, you don't get paid and just about nobody has ever heard of you.

Paul Strauss, one of the District's two shadow senators, doesn't get an office in the Senate, but he often hangs out there. If he tried to get onto the Senate floor he would be swiftly ushered away, so he grabs an edge where he can find it, trying to chat up senators in the reception area outside the Senate floor. After a decade in office, he is still like a butler trying to insinuate himself into a family party.

The shadow senator tends to fade into the background. His face isn't familiar from television. Unlike other senators, he doesn't attract knots of people. Strauss, 42, wears a Senate pin that is different from what U.S. senators get to wear but that contributes, he hopes, to a sense that he belongs in these marble halls. On a recent visit, when few people are around, he steps into a senators-only elevator.

Is that allowed?

"Let's see what happens," he says impishly.

The shadow senator takes what he can get. Once, Strauss saw a podium all set up for a news conference, with cameras at the ready, but the senator who'd booked the podium hadn't yet arrived. So he stepped up and began telling reporters about the District's disenfranchisement. Cameramen stopped filming when they realized who he wasn't.

A few years ago, Strauss, a lawyer, got sick of being labeled in the newspaper as an "unpaid" shadow senator. Symbolism again. Since he was paying most of his own expenses anyway, he decided to give himself a salary.

He gets $10 a year.

* * *

The District's three-member shadow delegation, made up of two senators and one representative, exists in a netherworld. They are sometimes confused with Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's delegate to Congress, but unlike her, they're not sworn in at the federal level. They are elected by the people of the District, yet the District gives them no salary and no budget. A good number of D.C. residents don't even know that the District has an elected shadow delegation, or that their role is to lobby for the District's perennial pipe dream, statehood.

Go to the city's Web site and search for information about the shadow delegation. It's hard to find. When you get there, you'll see that one former shadow's name is misspelled.

The shadow delegation's offices are located in the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. On a recent afternoon, their offices were staffed with interns and volunteers recruited by Strauss. First elected in 1996, he became the District's senior shadow senator last fall after the defeat of 80-year-old Florence Pendleton, who served 16 years in relative obscurity.


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