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

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 15, 2010; C01

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.

Gray says that as mayor, he would establish a statehood transition group that would study such questions. If statehood is the goal, then it's critical to provide a straightforward, transparent explanation of where the money will come from.

What's most important is for the District's leaders and friends to agree on a common approach to voting rights and then commit to it for the long term. If there's going to be civil disobedience and it's going to take years to win the battle, then advocates need a simple, single goal to rally around.

For instance, an alternative to seeking statehood could be a push for a constitutional amendment to grant a House seat and two Senate seats to the District, without making it a state. That's nice and clear but also terribly difficult to achieve, because it would require the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress plus three-quarters of the state legislatures.

For his part, Fenty is sticking to the strategy of pushing first for a House vote and later for statehood. That's the approach favored as well by the District's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

"Our 600,000 tax-paying citizens deserve nothing less than full statehood. The first step on that path is a vote in the House," Fenty said in a written statement.

At the Ward 4 forum, Fenty didn't say whether he would commit civil disobedience, but he criticized Gray for making it an issue now, when he hadn't done so in nearly four years as council chairman. In any case, a Fenty campaign official said, civil disobedience is "a style that's just completely not the mayor's."

Regardless of who is the next mayor, he should play a more assertive role in pushing the issue of voting rights, whether through statehood or otherwise. Fenty has mostly deferred to Norton, and perhaps that made sense as long as the House vote bill seemed to be moving forward. Now that it has been blocked, though, new energy is needed.

Gray's willingness to court arrest is welcome in that sense, and Norton endorsed it even if she differs with him on what goal to seek first.

Noting that she was a veteran of many sit-ins, Norton said "of course" she would support civil disobedience. "I come out of the movement where, as we called it, direct action was the way to get movement on issues," she said. "The point is that nobody has ever won their rights because somebody just gave it to them."

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