By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 17, 2009
L ying on his cot in the Longworth House Office Building in the small of the night, Jason Chaffetz had a scary dream: The conservative Republican from Utah had beaten the odds, defeated an incumbent and made it to Washington, only to end up by some bizarre twist of events arm-in-arm with Marion Barry, the crack-smoking laughingstock former mayor of the District of Columbia.
"Oh man, if I had run a campaign saying I'd be working closely with Marion Barry, I don't know that I would have been elected," Chaffetz says.
The nightmare turns out to be reality: Chaffetz, once the placekicker on the Brigham Young University football team, is now the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee in charge of D.C. affairs, and in that role he is leading the rush against the District's decision to recognize same-sex marriages. The freshman congressman is utterly confident that his is the moral position on the issue, but he admits to a certain frisson of doubt when he learned that his accidental ally in this fight is the former Mayor for Life, an erstwhile champion of gay rights who has decided that same-sex nuptials are immoral.
Chaffetz has never met Barry, but he's willing to have lunch with the man -- if Barry is willing to meet at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the only Washington restaurant the congressman frequents. (This may prove to be a stumbling block, as Barry leans more toward fruit juices and health foods these days.)
If the two do break bread, they'll discover that they share a view that gay couples ought to have the same legal rights as any other Americans, but should not be permitted to marry. They'll take comfort in the fact that their views are both based on the biblical definition of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. They're both happy to point to the fact that President Obama is also opposed to gay marriage.
But the lunch is destined not to be a lovefest. It's not just that Chaffetz and Barry come from wildly disparate backgrounds or represent very different Americas, although it is true that Chaffetz's district is 88 percent white and only 25 percent of his constituents have a college degree, whereas Washington is 56 percent black and 45 percent of its residents have a bachelor's or beyond.
No, the divide that is most likely to keep these two politicians from sharing too many bags of fries is their opposing views on democracy in the city where they live and work. Chaffetz, who sleeps on a $45 aluminum frame cot in his office on the Hill, believes the Founders wanted him, as a member of Congress, to have the ultimate say on anything the D.C. government does. Barry, who lives in a modest apartment in Ward 8, believes the residents of Washington deserve to control their own government, to have a voice in Congress and to join the 50 states as equals.
In one of his "cot-side chats" -- online videos that Chaffetz records from the narrow nook where he sleeps -- the congressman lays out his opposition to D.C. voting rights, saying that "the Founders . . . purposely excluded Washington, D.C.," from the basic guarantee of a full voice in our democracy.
"The Constitution says we do have a say in the policies of the city," Chaffetz tells me. Although he says he's all for the District's residential neighborhoods retroceding back into Maryland to give the city's taxpayers full representation, he's not exactly using his authority over the city to push for that change. Rather, he's busy figuring out how to reverse decisions made by the city's duly elected representatives.
"I want to work closely with the residents of the District, but first and foremost, I represent the people of Utah," he says.
And they don't like gay marriage, Chaffetz says. "You have a very vocal minority in favor of same-sex marriage, but most Americans believe marriage is between a man and a woman." (Actually, a slight plurality of Americans -- 49 percent to 46 percent -- now say gay marriage should be legal, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last month.)
Chaffetz speaks with forked tongue on the democracy question. He says it's fair and appropriate that someone like him should apply Utah values in making choices for the people of the District, yet he concedes that Washingtonians "should have full representation." He says he feels compelled to listen to D.C. residents, yet he has not bothered to meet with gay advocates, or any member of the D.C. Council, or even with the church members who he says support his view.
Barry, who owes a good share of his early successes in D.C. politics to the city's gay voters, has his own challenge with hypocrisy. A man who once argued that the battle for gay rights is of a piece with the black struggle for civil rights now dismisses gay couples as having less of a moral claim on marriage than straights. But Barry would emerge from a lunch with Chaffetz with one clear advantage: As much as the congressman might chuckle over any claim Barry might make to morality, it's the council member from Ward 8 who believes that every American deserves an equal voice.