The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a tweet inspired a show of defiance against GOP meddling with D.C. laws

D.C. Council member Charles Allen was in bed late on a recent Saturday night mulling how to channel wide-ranging public outrage over President Trump into a far more parochial concern: congressional Republicans meddling with District laws.

Allen (D-Ward 6) reached for his phone.

“Thinking about hosting #Ward6 meeting on various assaults on DC laws/values Trump & Co have headed our way & and how to fight back,” he tweeted. “Any takers?”

He and his wife, Jordi, a former council staff lawyer, decided to invoke a rallying cry and hashtag to help spread the word: “Hands Off DC.”

Just two weeks later, a rally and a subsequent town-hall meeting Allen organized together drew more than 1,000 people — on a Monday night. The crowd was large enough to astonish veterans of the statehood movement accustomed to anemic turnouts.

A couple of days later, more than 160 Washingtonians — double the usual crowd — showed up at the U.S. Capitol to lobby Congress on District issues.

“It was phenomenal,” Bo Shuff, a leader of DC Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for the District’s voting rights in Congress, said of the string of events. “All of them have blown the doors off what we thought would happen.”

With his professorial beard and measured tone, Allen, 40, would never be confused for a rabble-rouser, particularly in a city overwhelmed by lung-busting partisan bombast. Yet the freshman council member, perhaps more than any city leader, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), has emerged as a catalyst in the city’s opposition to congressional interference.

“He seized the moment,” said Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “He realized following the women’s march and the attack on home rule that people not only are concerned but they want to be active.”

Allen’s tactics have included public needling of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has led opposition to D.C. laws such as one that would allow terminally ill patients to die with the aid of a doctor.

On Jan. 31, Allen mocked what he contends is the congressman’s overreach by calling Chaffetz’s office to report problems with D.C. trash pickup, a call that was reported by a local television reporter.

Allen, in a tweet, then urged his 8,000 Twitter followers to telephone Chaffetz’s office to tell the congressman to keep out of the District’s affairs. The council member even provided the phone number. Chaffetz’s office received enough calls that it created a new recording for callers from outside his congressional district to leave messages.

“We overwhelmed his phone,” Allen said in an interview. Chaffetz, Allen said, has become a potent foil for District activists by turning the city into “an easy target” for his conservatism.

“He’s so afraid of D.C. he sleeps on his cot,” Allen said, referring to Chaffetz’s long-standing practice of using his House office as his living quarters when he’s in Washington. The congressman says the cot helps him keep costs down.

He won his seat after his boss, then-D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, lost his campaign for mayor. Allen said his goal is to help focus activists, not anoint himself the leader of a movement. His experience includes helping to organize support in the District for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“It won’t be a successful model if it’s Charles leading a parade,” he said, adding that his primary concerns at the moment are “how do I connect people?”

“This is the beginning. They’re coming at us,” he said of the Republicans. “I’m not the only voice here. I’m not trying to run a citywide campaign. There are a lot of people with me.”

Indeed, the rally that Allen organized outside Chaffetz’s office before last Monday’s town hall drew other city leaders, including Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But Allen presided at the town-hall meeting, which drew an overflow crowd to the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as well as two nearby bars where large screens showed panels discussing possibilities for future action.

The ideas included forming a political action committee and traveling to congressional districts to support the opponents of Republicans who vote against the city’s interests.

“It was inspiring,” Burch said. “But it was also challenging. When you have this type of opportunity, you don’t want to miss it. You want to keep people engaged and fired up. A meeting in itself isn’t going to do anything.”

The District’s quest for statehood is a decades-old struggle driven by a small group of activists who have had trouble sustaining support among Washingtonians, many of whom are transient, coming and going with each new administration.

Mark Plotkin, a political columnist and longtime advocate for statehood, said he did not go to Allen’s town-hall meeting “because I’m sick of going to things where no one shows up.”

“We are the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics even in our own city,” he said. “People don’t come out. They refuse to get angry. They accommodate themselves to whatever their situation is. But maybe the times they are a-changin.’”

Trump’s election, as well as Republican control of the Senate and House, has galvanized activism nationwide, with protests in major cities including the District, which hosted the massive women’s march the day after the president’s swearing-in.

The women’s march, Allen said, “energized people” and created a “palpable,” if undefined, urgency for further action.

“I heard a lot of people saying, ‘What do we do now?’ ” Allen said. “There were a lot of people asking for direction.”

Now, the council member said, “I’ve got to see if it can grow.”