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

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.

The two new members of the delegation -- shadow senator Michael Brown (D) and shadow representative Mike Panetta (D) -- have been sworn in the week before and are still settling into their desks. Panetta's city-issued desk phone is not yet working. Brown is considering buying a new computer since he doesn't think the city will be giving him one.

Strauss leaves the Wilson Building and drives his green Chevy Malibu with D.C.-issued "U.S. Senate" license plates over to the Capitol, where he knows that as a courtesy, he will be permitted to park out front in the "Senator Parking Only" area. He stops at the security kiosk.

"What's your name?" asks the officer.

"Strauss. Senator Strauss."

Inside, the man who is a senator in name only goes into the reception area outside the Senate floor, where he tries to get face time with the folks who vote. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a cancer survivor, walks past.

"Senator Specter really looks better," Strauss says knowingly.

Strauss sees his buddy Myron Fleming, the superintendent of doorkeepers.

"The Democrats are in control now," Strauss reminds Fleming. Then, mostly joking: "If it's all right with you, can I maybe get on the floor and vote on some stuff?"

Fleming smiles and gently ushers Strauss to another part of the room, so he doesn't disturb Specter's conversation.

There are times when it seems as if Strauss might actually be a shadow, as if people might be looking through him. He represents more people than the senators of Wyoming, but when the Senate wants to make changes in the District, he is largely relegated to the role of bystander. He can try to influence legislation by talking to a senator. He can submit a statement.

If he wants to see what's happening on the floor, he has to sit upstairs in the gallery where senators' family members sit. That's where he was during the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton, and when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist swore in the Senate as a jury, Strauss -- way up high in the gallery -- stood and raised his right hand. He was hoping they'd let him serve.

Now, he waves to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), but Feingold doesn't see him. He tries to talk to Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who's on his way to the Senate floor, but the conversation is short. "He was distracted," Strauss explains.

He sees Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) in a hallway.

"Senator Biden!"

"Hey, how are you, man, nice to see you," Biden says, stopping briefly, speaking with all the warmth of a politician who may or may not remember a guy's name.

* * *

There is fresh hope this year for proponents of "New Columbia," as the proposed 51st state is sometimes called. Mayor Adrian Fenty mentioned the goal of statehood in his inaugural address this month. And there is the more immediate possibility that Del. Norton could get a full vote in the House in coming months.

On the other hand, Strauss has been this hopeful before.

A good dose of humility helps in this gig, along with a knack for getting attention. Shadow Rep. Panetta, 35, has tried to drum up interest in the statehood cause by campaigning to get RFK Stadium renamed Taxation Without Representation Field and trying to create the District's own Olympic curling team. Shadow Sen. Brown, 53, got signatures for his election petition by approaching the line of cars at the city's vehicle inspection station. When he approached people, clipboard in hand, they thought him a DMV official and obediently rolled down their windows.

On his recent visit to the Capitol, Strauss takes a timeout for lunch in the exclusive Senate dining room. He is greeted warmly by a maitre d' who calls him "Senator Strauss." A member of the staff gives him a hug and he is promptly seated. A waitress automatically brings him his usual, coffee. He sends it back, preferring iced tea.

The dining room is almost completely empty. Strauss surmises that the senators are all at their regular Tuesday policy lunch, to which he does not get invited. But that's okay. He comes here often. He likes it here.

"These are my constituents," Strauss says, indicating the room full of dining room staff. He turns to the waiter. "Which ward do you live in?"

"Ward 7," answers Melvyn Jordan. "Waiting for the day when we're New Columbia."

Strauss studies the lineup on the the menu.

"They've made some changes," he says.

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