With 7 percent of the city's registered voters in their fold, I don't expect D.C. Republicans to be trailblazers. Every four years, the local party leaders go to the national GOP convention and do what they do best -- blend in. Four years ago, when the party assembled in Philadelphia, one D.C. Republican leader told me she just "forgot" to bring up the critical issue of D.C. voting rights when platform deliberations began.
But this year, it's a whole new ballgame.
This week, District Republicans are headed to New York City to take part in pre-convention platform sessions and argue for D.C. voting rights. This is a fairly shocking development, considering that President Bush himself has publicly stated his outright opposition to any form of representation for District of Columbia citizens. I'm not being mean-spirited, just descriptive, when I say that D.C. Republicans are always polite, appropriately dressed, extremely cautious and, above all, protocol-obsessed. Yet this year, they've undertaken a radical organizational makeover. The word revolutionary could be used. And even though their efforts will undoubtedly be quixotic, their conversion to the cause is a good thing for the District.
Why would these traditionally compliant Republicans act so out of character? Why would they buck the national party and take the Bush administration head-on? Outspoken local Republicans such as Nelson Rimensnyder, former director of research for the House District Committee, and local activist Joe Grano have long lobbied leaders in their party to finally stand up and speak out for D.C. voting rights. But now, those leaders may well have been motivated by Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis. When I asked local GOP chairman Betsy Werronen what's driving the party's new activism on the issue, she referred to legislation that Davis has introduced to provide full voting representation for the District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In platform deliberations in New York, D.C. Republicans plan to offer eight proposals, with real teeth in them, on behalf of the city. Here's a sampling of some of the strong, precise language they're proposing:
"End the practice of Congressional riders to the District's annual appropriations bill that limits local government decision-making."
"Close District of Columbia structural deficit by annual federal payment for compensation for nontaxable land and/or permitting the District of Columbia to tax income earned in the District by non-residents."
"Support legislative autonomy so that District of Columbia laws do not have to be reviewed by Congress."
"Support local autonomy by establishing a locally elected, nonpartisan attorney general to prosecute District of Columbia law, funded by savings from the federal United States Attorney for the District of Columbia."
But the real profile in defiance tops the list:
"Support voting representation in Congress, starting with the House of Representatives."
This is precisely what Davis is doing with his bill, which would give the District a full vote in the House. Davis expects to have 25 co-sponsors by the end of the current session (several have already signed on, among them Republican Reps. Todd Platts of Pennsylvania and Christopher Shays of Connecticut). He told me he's convinced that by next year, if there is bipartisan support, the bill will pass both the House and Senate and "any president will be willing to sign it." Davis is living up to his public statements that no one can exclude D.C. citizens from our democracy "with a straight face," and as a longtime, fervent supporter of D.C. statehood, I believe he's acting in good faith.
One thing Davis is sure of. He says he will get his bill through the House Government Reform Committee. I'll take his word -- he chairs the committee.
As incremental as these moves appear, those of us who support D.C. statehood can't afford to dismiss them. Unlike D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who unilaterally struck the word "statehood" from the Democratic Party platform last month, the local Republican Party is not trying to delete, but to add. The Davis proposal, while not perfect, is clearly a critical first step on the road to full autonomy for our city.
The D.C. Council unanimously believes the same. All 13 members supported a resolution pushed by Ray Browne, the District's "shadow" representative in the House, that calls for supporting the Davis bill.
One would think that the leadership of the Democratic Party would show some support for the idea of representation in the House for D.C. citizens. But that's not the case. In fact, both House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry are opposed to the Davis bill.
There is, I admit, a catch to it, which involves a trade. If the District -- a Democratic city, undeniably -- gets a seat in the House, then Utah -- a Republican state -- will also get an additional seat (going from three to four). Utah has claimed that it deserves one more congressional seat because its population was undercounted in the last census. The state's leaders felt that Mormon missionaries traveling outside the country should have been included, but weren't. Davis openly told me that he can't get anything for the District without giving the Republicans something in return, so he is prepared to give Utah that additional seat.
Of course, this would mean that Utah would also get one more electoral college vote. And then comes the sticky part. Since Utah would get an additional representative, the state's congressional districts would have to be redrawn. Right now, there are two Republican representatives from the state, and one perpetually endangered Democrat, Jim Matheson. The fear is that the Republican-controlled state legislature would redistrict the Democrat out of his seat. Because of this possibility, Pelosi and Kerry have firmly stated their opposition to this deal.
Norton has not taken a position on the Davis bill. Yet by not coming out for this first step toward statehood, she is demonstrating that she cares more about the good wishes of her party's leadership than the desires and aspirations of her own constituents. Instead, she should be persuading Pelosi, Kerry and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), for that matter, to sign up for the Davis proposal.
For D.C. representation to be made more visible, there desperately needs to be a debate and a vote on the issue. Which is why the local Republican Party's efforts in New York this week are so important. Party chairman Werronen and member Ron Evans, chairman of the National Capital Revitalization Corp., are both on the platform committee, and they have their work cut out for them. The process of setting their strong and unprecedented language of advocacy for the District in the Republican Party platform will definitely be an uphill battle.
The procedural hurdles and internal numerical odds are enormous. To be frank, it would take a political miracle for the D.C. voting representation plank or any of the other local D.C. party proposals to be included in printed form in the platform. But as Tom Davis says, while he would "obviously like to have it in," if it does not make it, "it doesn't negate the ideas."
I am fully aware that Republicans will go just so far. But I say let's cheer them on and help them in any way possible. The battle to provide democracy for the residents of the nation's capital needs help from any quarter. This cause should never turn down unlikely allies.
When the final history is written, and the story of how the District of Columbia got full representation and then statehood is told, the role of the local Republican Party will have to be included. Even if District Republicans are turned down cold in New York this week, it will and should be noted that in their own way, they did their part and contributed to the ultimate victory.