With Lobbying Power, Not Vote, in the Wings, Battle Still Strong
Incumbent Paul Strauss, Ward 8 Activist Philip Pannell Wage Aggressive Fight for Senate Post

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

Being a shadow senator in the fight for District representation isn't easy. You work for no pay and have no real power.

But that hasn't stopped incumbent Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss and challenger Philip Pannell from battling in tomorrow's primary to be the Democratic candidate in November.

As the District potentially closes in on winning a vote in the U.S. House, the shadow seats are drawing more attention.

The District has two shadow senators and a shadow representative, positions established in 1990 to lobby for District rights.

The city's official representative on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, is running unopposed in the primary.

Strauss, a 44-year-old District lawyer who has major endorsements, spent more than $33,000 in his bid for a third six-year term, outspending Pannell, a longtime activist in Ward 8, by more than $25,000.

In the past 12 years, Strauss has spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill lobbying for representation. He has also recruited Hollywood stars to help make the District's case, and over the years he's even garnered a few perks of legislative life, from getting a parking space to eating in the Senate private dinning room.

"First I went up there [to the dining room] with Senator Paul Wellstone and several other senators, and eventually I began to go by myself," said Strauss, adding that the gesture is more of a courtesy than an official privilege. "A lot of people who work in the U.S. Capitol are District residents, and they understand our plight."

While Strauss says his efforts are all about lobbying, Pannell says he thinks District residents would be better served if Strauss spent more time in the streets protesting the city's plight than in the halls of the Capitol.

"Paul seems to relish in the role of playing senator, because we all know that the position is not for real," he said. "He spends too much time developing and promoting the trappings of power, when the reality is this is basically a ceremonial post."

But Strauss doesn't apologize. Even his campaign signs say "Strauss for U.S. Senate."

"I represent real Americans who will be going to the polls to cast real votes, who are dying in a real war," Strauss said. "Our troops in Iraq are not being shot with shadow bullets."

The time he spends on the Hill is used for lobbying, he said.

Although he's outpaced financially, Pannell said he's fighting hard to win, partly motivated by another candidate, Eugene Kinlow, outreach coordinator for the nonpartisan group D.C. Vote, being unable to run.

"I really want this," Pannell said. "I originally didn't plan to run, but after Eugene Kinlow was told that if he ran for the shadow senate seat he would lose his job at D.C. Vote, I decided to run. Eugene was an exquisite candidate."

Michael Brown is the other shadow senator. Mike Panetta is the representative and is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

At the party convention in Denver, Strauss sponsored a D.C. Voting Rights luncheon that featured former CBS anchor Dan Rather and three Hollywood actors: Melissa Fitzgerald, David Keith and Hayden Panettiere, who has also taped a commercial promoting D.C. Voting Rights.

"The people in these positions should really be beating the bushes to deal with the issue of the District's disenfranchisement. That is where the emphasis should be," Pannell, 57, said.

Said Strauss, "I have devoted a lot of my time and money doing these unpaid jobs, and now that we are closer than ever and have a chance of working with a Democratic president and a more Democratic Senate, I hope I don't have to quit now."

Last year, the House passed the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which would give the largely Democratic city a House seat and another one to predominantly Republican Utah for political balance. In the Senate, however, the bill drew 57 votes rather than the 60 necessary to allow a vote on the floor.

At the Cleveland Park public library yesterday, dozens listened to Strauss, Pannell and Republican candidate Nelson Rimensnyder, who is unopposed in the primary, square off. Rimensnyder, along with Keith Ware of the D.C. Statehood Green Party, also unopposed, are poised for the general election in the fall.

Said Peter Espenschied, a vice president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, "I think you are seeing a testimony that people are interested in this race."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company