Advocates for D.C. statehood found a way to generate extra cash the other night when they held their first fundraiser: selling dozens of golf balls emblazoned with the face of their favorite foil, Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The next morning, the Republican congressman from Utah announced he wouldn’t seek another term in 2018, leaving his adversaries in the District joyous but pondering who would replace him as their chief nemesis at the Capitol.
“He was our focus,” said Lynette Craig of Americans for Self-Rule, a political action committee founded to dethrone Chaffetz. The PAC sold the golf balls Tuesday at its fundraiser at an H Street bar in Northeast Washington. “He was definitely easy to rally around.”
As chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the District, Chaffetz routinely — and sometimes gleefully — found ways to infuriate D.C. residents.
He promised that the District would never achieve statehood, fought with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) over legalizing marijuana, sought to block the city from gaining fiscal autonomy and tried to overturn local laws such as one that allows assisted suicide.
At one point, Chaffetz suggested that the best way for District residents to gain voting rights in Congress was for Maryland to annex the city — a remark that further infuriated local activists.
Casting Chaffetz as a meddling bully, District leaders urged residents to flood his office phone lines with mocking calls demanding that he repair the city’s potholes. On Twitter, residents chided the congressman for choosing to sleep on a cot in his office when he’s in Washington and lampooned him for unabashedly identifying Five Guys as his favorite restaurant in Chinatown.
“Rhetorically, he did a good job galvanizing the opposition,” said Adam Eidinger, an advocate for legalizing marijuana. “He was pretty good for us. He was a useful enemy. He acted like the overlord of a rebellious province.”
Chaffetz, in a statement released by his office Thursday, said he has not ruled out the possibility of leaving office before his term ends. “In the meantime,” he said, “I still have a job to do and I have no plans to take my foot off the gas.”
In a letter to supporters Wednesday, the Americans for Self-Rule PAC declared Chaffetz’s decision not to seek reelection a victory for his District opponents. The PAC, which has raised more than $20,000 since early March, said the organization would now target “other members of Congress who recently introduced or supported legislation thwarting our right to self-rule.”
Josh Burch, a founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood, said in an email that he wished Chaffetz “good health, a happy family life, and a miserable professional future should he ever bring his cold heart & unprincipled soul back into politics.”
District leaders celebrated the congressman’s promised departure.
“I think it’s good for us and the people of Utah,” Bowser told reporters Thursday. “We don’t need anybody who wasn’t elected here in Washington, D.C., being the lawmaker for Washington, D.C.”
On Twitter, the D.C. Council on Wednesday linked to a Washington Post headline about Chaffetz’s announcement, adding sarcastically, “The leadership gap this will leave on the DC Council cannot be understated.”
Chaffetz, whose district in Utah is among the country’s most conservative, emerged as a polarizing figure in the city as Washington’s population grew younger and more affluent and local leaders pushed progressive social policies.
Two years ago, Chaffetz sent Bowser a letter saying she would be in “willful violation” of federal law if she carried out a promise to legalize marijuana after a D.C. ballot measure was passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.
“You can go to prison for this,” the congressman told a reporter at the time. “We’re not playing a little game here.”
Bowser countered that she was too busy running the city to go to jail, a posture that earned her widespread applause.
With President Trump’s victory in November and Republicans controlling the House and Senate, District residents’ antipathy for Chaffetz appeared to intensify.
In mid-February, more than 1,000 Washingtonians turned out for a “Hands off DC” rally and a subsequent town hall meeting.
Bo Shuff, a director at DC Vote, a statehood advocacy group, said Chaffetz’s profile as a target in the District grew because “of the context of the time in which we’re living. Part of the population that maybe feels they were asleep at the wheel are now activated and engaged. All politics is local, as we know, and our local happens to be Congress stomping us.”
Even with Chaffetz’s announcement, Shuff said, the congressman could remain in office for at least 20 months and use his committee perch to infringe on liberal District policies as a way to attract conservative votes in Utah if he decides to run for governor in 2020.
In some ways, however, Chaffetz was an easy enemy for District activists. Despite his threats to block D.C. laws, he has never stopped one.
His efforts, for example, led to the House voting to nullify an anti-discrimination bill. But it became law anyway because the Senate never voted on the House legislation. Neither the full House nor the Senate ever voted on Chaffetz’s bill overturning assisted suicide. And marijuana possession remains legal in the District.
A more pressing concern for D.C. residents at this point is who will succeed Chaffetz as chair of the Oversight Committee. One contender, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has repeatedly sought to gut D.C. gun-control laws. Another, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), is an avowed opponent of gun-control laws and has posed for photos with a semiautomatic rifle painted with the American flag.
Chaffetz is “the chief enabler of other congressional meddlers, but we should remember that all of the bills aimed at infringing on” the District’s self-rule “bore the name of members of Congress not named Jason Chaffetz,” Burch said.
“He gets the focus of our wrath because he’s turned the House Oversight Committee into the Home Rule Infringement Committee. There are too many bogeymen in Congress. As long as we’re the disenfranchised District, there will be other Chaffetzes,” he said.
At the fundraiser Tuesday night at the H Street Country Club, hours before Chaffetz’s announcement, guests relished the idea of raising money to oust him.
At the entrance, a bucket held dozens of Chaffetz golf balls, each of which sold for $10. By the end of the night, the PAC had sold most of them.
The balls the PAC did not sell, Craig said, would be sent to Chaffetz “as a retirement gift.”
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