D.C. voting rights activists took their case to an unusual constituency yesterday, calling on European legislators at an international meeting to lean on the U.S. government to give Washingtonians full representation in Congress.
"O-S-C-E, free D.C.!" chanted scores of demonstrators parading in front of the J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where legislators from countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were opening their annual meeting.
The 55-member OSCE includes countries from Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as the United States. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki process of the Cold War period, which established human rights as a global foreign policy concern and tried to spur greater freedom in the Soviet bloc.
The current OSCE meeting, which lasts through Tuesday, will address such issues as gender equality and human rights. But to local activists, nothing matters more than a proposed amendment that calls on the U.S. government to give D.C. residents "equal voting rights in their national legislature." The measure is expected to be considered today or tomorrow.
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's non-voting delegate in Congress, introduced the amendment with the support of four other legislators in the 12-member U.S. delegation to the OSCE meeting. Delegates from Canada and Switzerland also were sponsors.
At a noontime rally yesterday in Freedom Plaza, in front of the Marriott, Norton assured a spirited crowd that she would press European parliamentarians to back the measure.
"I will be telling them, 'Do not let the United States government get away with pushing around every other country, insisting on democracy, then coming home and pushing us out when we insist on democracy,' " she said.
Cheers rose from the audience of about 200, including perspiring office workers in shirtsleeves, mothers clutching babies and Faith, a dancer and six-time mayoral candidate, who was clad in a U.S. flag, fishnet stockings and red boots.
The activists hoisted signs in French, German, Russian and other languages demanding the right to full representation for the District. In case the message did not get through, however, organizers set up four voting booths enclosed by a chain-link fence in one corner of the plaza. The fence was festooned with yellow-and-black signs warning: "DC Residents Out! By Order of Congress."
"Our hope is that passage of the resolution will further the cause by putting international pressure on the Congress," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote.
Andreas Baker, a spokesman for the OSCE, said that if the D.C. measure passed, it would not have the force of law. It would, however, be included in a final document distributed to the member countries.
"It's essentially the voice of parliamentarians from the 55 [countries]. So it's a recommendation which tends to carry a bit of weight," he said.
An OSCE mission that monitored last year's U.S. presidential election issued a report recently that stated that the U.S. government denies full representation and voting rights to residents of the District.
It was not clear whether the D.C. voting-rights measure would be supported by the entire U.S. delegation, which is composed of six Democratic and six Republican members of Congress. A phone call to the office of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the head of the U.S. delegation, was not returned.
Voting rights activists were scrambling yesterday to make sure the approximately 300 OSCE delegates were aware of the District's special status. They handed out leaflets, marched with signs outside the Marriott and even buttonholed individual legislators.
David Bardin, 72, a retired D.C. lawyer, grabbed a Spanish official, Gustavo Pallares, outside the Marriott and quickly filled him in about the local voting situation.
"So you don't have a representative in the U.S. Congress?" said Pallares, puzzled by the idea.
Many legislators simply ignored the protesters. But not Jean-Claude Lefort, a parliamentarian from France. Slapping a "Taxation Without Representation" sticker onto his suit jacket, he walked up and down the line of protesters, shaking hands.
"I support them," he said, explaining his feelings with the French national motto: "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite."