The one issue that can make D.C. 'one city'

By Ilir Zherka
Sunday, September 26, 2010

After a difficult primary season, uniting the District is a top priority. Rallying residents behind a D.C. government-led fight for full democracy would be the ideal mechanism for bringing us back together.

D.C. residents want to be equal citizens with equal voting representation in Congress and full control over local issues. Right now, we have the votes in Congress to pass the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which would enable us to take a significant step toward full democracy this year by giving the District a voting representative in the House. The bill has been passed in the Senate, but a gun amendment has stalled its progress in the House. Congress also is considering budget and legislation autonomy for the District, but our opponents are threatening even these small procedural changes to the home rule charter.

D.C. residents are angry and are eager to engage in a fight to demand their rights. But given the political climate, we are running out of time to enact this legislation.

Although the odds are long that Congress will enact any non-budgetary legislation in the "lame duck" session after the election, we have to make an effort because the District is likely to face even greater opposition in the next Congress. We must, therefore, demand more forcefully that congressional leaders find a way to expand the rights of D.C. residents.

For this fight to be successful, the D.C. government must take the lead. Both presumptive mayor-elect Vincent Gray and presumptive D.C. Council Chairman-elect Kwame Brown have spoken about the need to protest the District's second-class status more vigorously. They can do this, while uniting residents, by leading an aggressive campaign directly challenging Congress's denial of democracy in the District.

Not only do we have the votes in Congress but polls also demonstrate that the American people support voting representation for the District -- when they know about it. The principal barriers to D.C. democracy remain ignorance nationally and lethargy on the Hill. An initial, dramatic step is needed to quickly bring our issue national attention. One possibility is adding a ceremonial name to Pennsylvania Avenue, such as "D.C. Democracy Denied Boulevard." I am sure others have some creative ideas as well.

Further, the D.C. government should engage in escalating acts of protest directly related to the federal laws and procedures that infringe on our local democracy, by refusing, for example, to submit local laws for congressional approval. As long as Washingtonians are taxed without representation, our elected officials should refuse to abide by and participate in these laws and procedures.

By leading such a campaign, the D.C. Council, the incoming mayor and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton can bring together "one city," to use Gray's rallying cry, behind an effort that has wide support and that cannot wait until next year. They will also build a movement strong enough to resist possible encroachments on the District's home rule authority next year and to realize someday the dream of making Washington the state of New Columbia.

A D.C. protest campaign fits ideally into the "One Nation" campaign being waged right now by the civil rights movement. The United States will not live up to its pledge of "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" until D.C. residents have full and equal rights. A united country cannot leave out 600,000 people.

The writer is executive director of D.C. Vote.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company