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We're Stronger for the Voting Rights Battle

Sunday, June 14, 2009; C05

Through our combined decades spent fighting for civil rights and social justice, we have never seen a more resilient group of people than supporters of congressional voting rights for the nation's capital. Setback after setback has plagued a critical piece of legislation that would give the citizens of Washington their first vote in Congress since 1801, and passionate advocates have continually regrouped, shifted strategy and aggressively pursued the democracy they so rightly deserve.

The most recent barricade was erected by the National Rifle Association and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). The D.C. Voting Rights Act was poisoned by a gun amendment that would strip the District of its gun laws and remove the city's authority to enact gun legislation in the future, effectively placing this historic bill in limbo. It will take political courage by Republican members of Congress and Blue Dog Democrats to unclog the NRA's stoppage of our legislative system.

For inspiration, legislators should look no further than the tireless advocates of the D.C. voting rights movement, who have marched to the Capitol enduring high winds, blanketed House office buildings on icy February mornings and circled the steamy sidewalks outside the Hart Senate Office Building in the summertime. They have run up against obstacles but always kept their momentum.

Supporters recall a House hearing a few years back when combative Republican lawmakers were attacking the bill and civil rights heroine Dorothy Height entered the room. Every member on the dais sat up a little bit straighter, and supporters felt the momentum shift.

When lawmakers threw up roadblocks in 2006, Jack Kemp, the former Republican secretary of housing and urban development, called the setback "shameful, sad and worse." And Kemp, like so many others, helped breathe life back into the movement after the bill was cast aside.

For years, D.C. voting rights advocates have pushed for monumental steps toward democracy, and along the way, they have been guided and supported by friends in the Wilson Building and the coalition led by DC Vote. Last week was no different.

We have been overcome by messages of support as D.C. residents and grass-roots supporters across the country have pledged to keep fighting. They offer to put signs in their yard, stickers on their cars and posts on their Twitter accounts. In response, we tell them that we are taking the gun amendment head-on and that they should stay with us through this next battle.

We are fueled for change, and recent obstacles call attention to the need for more separation between congressional rule and the District. In fact, local efforts will be expanded to support full democracy and autonomy in Washington, in addition to pursuing voting rights for the District.

This round in the fight has made us stronger. The District's leadership stands united with a national coalition dedicated to aggressively taking on anyone who stubbornly stands in the way of democracy in our nation's capital.

Vincent C. Gray is chairman of the D.C. Council. Ilir Zherka is executive director of DC Vote.

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