A solid plan, dramatic action are needed to secure D.C. rights

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 15, 2010

It hasn't aroused a lot of attention, but the candidate who may well be the District's next mayor is offering to go to jail for committing acts of civil disobedience to advance the cause of statehood for the District.

D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray, who some observers say is leading Mayor Adrian Fenty in the race, hasn't specified what law he'd break: Block traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue? Chain himself to the gates of the Capitol?

He has said he wouldn't do it alone, but only if a lot of other people joined him in making a mass statement against two centuries of disenfranchisement of District citizens.

"A more effective approach would be not just me going to jail, but lots of other people there showing their commitment, their resolve," Gray said in an interview Wednesday, a week after he endorsed the tactic at a candidates' forum in Ward 4.

"I don't think we've ever seen large numbers of people consistently committed to achieving this kind of autonomy for the people of the District," he said.

Gray's call to the barricades is partly a campaign maneuver to show that he's more passionate about the issue than Fenty, but I'm mostly with him on it anyway. Voting rights are the keystone in the arch of democracy. Nonviolent, nondestructive civil disobedience is justified on their behalf. No breaking windows, throwing stones or resisting arrest, but it's okay to peaceably occupy a sidewalk, street or office.

Also, it's clear that dramatic steps are needed to raise public awareness in the District and nationwide about the problem. A prolonged campaign of civil disobedience could help, as such acts did in the historic campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the South.

If he were elected and went through with it, Gray wouldn't be the first mayor to break the law for the cause. Sharon Pratt, in whose administration Gray served, was arrested in 1993 for participating in a sit-in on Independence Avenue.

Still, I've got one reservation about Gray's position. He says the immediate goal should be full statehood. That would depart from the District's strategy of the past seven years: Start small by first getting a voting seat in the House. That quest was crippled and perhaps killed in Congress in April, so now Gray and some other political leaders want a new approach.

I'm fine with pushing for statehood, even quickly, but on one condition: Explain how we're going to pay for it, because it would cost a lot.

With statehood, the District would take on the burden of some services now handled by the federal government, particularly courts and prisons. It also would have to shell out more for Medicaid. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi estimates the total price tag to be about $1.2 billion a year, or more than a tenth of the total budget.

Statehood advocates say the city could pay for it in large part by levying a commuter tax on the large number of people who work in the city but reside in Maryland and Virginia. But for that very reason, the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegations, which have been leading advocates of a D.C. vote in the House, could resist statehood.

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