The longtime leader of the District’s most prominent voting rights organization is leaving his post. Ilir Zherka, D.C. Vote’s executive director since 2002, will step down at the end of October to take a job leading another civic advocacy organization.
“It’s never a good time to leave an organization like D.C. Vote, where there’s so much going on,” Zherka said Thursday evening. “But this is a better time than any other time. We’re getting to the tail end of our fiscal year, our advocacy year and this Congress. The staff is strong, the board is very strong, and our finances are really in good shape.”
In his 10 years as executive director, Zherka has grown D.C. Vote in size and ambition, solidifying its role as the leading organizer of the often-fractious voting rights movement. His tenure has seen tantalizing progress on key efforts to expand D.C. residents’ democracy, only to have those efforts fall short of fruition.
D.C. Vote led the multiyear effort to get the District a full voting member of the House of Representatives via federal legislation. That effort stalled in 2009 after city leaders refused to accept a compromise that would involve gutting city gun control laws.
Since then, there has been significant hand-wringing over which direction the city’s advocacy should take. D.C. Vote has been more aggressive since, leading, for instance, a street protest last year that resulted in 41 arrests — including those of Zherka, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and several council members. The organization has also regrouped behind a measure to give the city more freedom from congressional meddling while making spending decisions, but that effort is also tied up in partisan politics on the Hill.
Previously a House aide and the leader of the National Albanian American Council, Zherka was hired for his expertise in navigating Capitol Hill. His Maryland residency occasionally prompted grumbles from fellow activists, but he has maintained the confidence of the city’s elected leaders, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who have praised him as a steady, focused leader for the city’s advocacy efforts.
Norton, in a statement released through D.C. Vote, called Zherka “one of our most skilled advocates for D.C. democracy” and called the organization “a critical source of energy and creativity for our movement.”
Zherka said he has not been frustrated with the setbacks, noting that the progress has also been significant. “This is the nature of advocacy,” he said. “It’s five steps forward, two or three steps back, two steps forward, three steps back. It takes a very long time to achieve your results, and you build as you go.”
“Obviously all of us would have loved to have the D.C. House Voting Rights Act passed into law ... but this is what it takes,” he added. “All difficult, controversial issues take time. Because D.C. Vote is around, when we have a setback, we can keep pushing. The valleys are not nearly as steep or as long.”
D.C. Vote’s board will soon begin a search for a new leader. An interim leader will likely be chosen from outside the organization in the coming weeks before Zherka leaves, spokesman James Jones said.
Zherka will become the executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship, a congressionally chartered nonprofit devoted to creating ”a more active and engaged citizenry.” It is roughly the same size as D.C. Vote, according to tax records.
Its mission, Zherka added, is simpatico with his old employer’s. “I will do whatever D.C. Vote asks me to do in the future,” he said.
UPDATE, 11:50 A.M.: The post has been updated to reflect that National Conference on Citizenship announced Zherka’s appointment as executive director and to include Norton’s statement.