By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council have not always agreed in recent weeks, yet they put on a united front yesterday as they launched a strategy in the pursuit of voting rights in Congress: road trip!
Fenty (D) and eight council members visited the New Hampshire legislature yesterday, testifying before a committee to urge the state's two U.S. senators to reverse their opposition to the D.C. voting rights bill in Congress.
The move to press Republican Sens. John E. Sununu and Judd Gregg to support the legislation brought together the city's leaders in an unprecedented lobbying move and a bit of a bonding experience. In addition to council members and Fenty, who had arrived earlier to stump for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), voting rights advocates and the city's three shadow representatives went on the trip.
"It's a galvanizing issue," council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said. "We all have a sense that we are equally disenfranchised."
Last year, the District came closer than ever to getting voting rights but was stopped in September after Republicans blocked a vote on the bill. Yesterday highlighted the city's new strategy to get state leaders to pressure their congressional members. It's a plan D.C. leaders say they will expand in the coming months.
The failed vote angered council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) enough to persuade New Hampshire state Rep. Cindy Rosenwald (D) to sponsor a local bill to push the two senators. Rosenwald and Catania met through a state legislators group that advocates lower prescription drug prices.
Catania led the District's contingent to testify before the House state-federal relations and veterans affairs committee. In addition to delivering speeches about the District's second-class status, they met briefly with Gov. John Lynch (D). They also shared gossipy chatter about each other and got to hear Catania reading horoscopes during the flight.
Starting with a 6:15 a.m. bus ride to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, there was a clear division of morning people and night owls. When Catania asked the officials to gather for a television interview, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) groused good-naturedly, "If we're going to get up this early, we might as well get on camera."
Members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) appeared fully rested by the time they marched along State and Capitol streets in Concord to go to the hearing.
The remnants of New Hampshire's dramatic presidential primary Tuesday were everywhere, providing poignant visuals that seemed to underscore for District officials the timeliness of their visit. New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live Free or Die," has 400 state representatives, the most in the country. "For every 3,000 residents, there's one of us," Rosenwald said.
Rosenwald's bill urges Sununu and Gregg to reverse their stance; it's an amendment from her earlier measure to require the legislature to say it "expressed regret" over the senators' vote.
The House state-federal relations and veterans affairs committee will vote on the measure Jan. 29. Rep. Kris Roberts (D), who heads the committee, said the change in language would help the bill gain support.
"Regret is really a powerful word," Roberts said. "Automatically, you turn people off."
Roberts seemed to warm to the legislation as soon as Fenty took his seat before the seven committee members. Rep. Patrick Garrity (D), the panel's vice chairman, fumbled his name.
"As long as you get the mayor part right," Fenty said to laughter.
Fenty said the United States is the only democratic country that does not extend voting rights to its capital. He noted that the District pays $6 billion in federal taxes and has 572,000 residents, more than some states, singling out Wyoming.
Roberts, who is from Wyoming, lit up. "Of all the small states in the country, why did you pick Wyoming?"
Fenty quipped, "I think my speechwriters did their homework."
Not everyone was impressed. Rep. David Smith (D) testified against the measure. "The business of government is the business of Washington, D.C.," he said. "It was meant to be neutral."
Rick Lehmann, a former legal counsel for the state legislature, said he was struggling to find the constitutionality of giving the District a voting representative in Congress, noting that the Constitution gives such rights to "states."
"It's right there below the preamble," he said.
Council members and other supporters rebutted with history lessons about how the District became the District and how residents had the right to vote when the capital was in New York and Philadelphia. There was a long academic explanation from Cheh, a constitutional law professor.
When she finished, Rep. David Scannell (D) said, "Class dismissed."
Indeed it was. The attendees, who had paid their own way, had a plane to catch.