Every Election Day matters. But for D.C. residents, this year’s Election Day may matter more than most. That’s because the actions of voters beyond the District are likely to be as consequential to the city’s future as those we cast ourselves on Tuesday.
Opinion polls suggest that the nation’s voters will give Congress a Republican Senate and a more Republican House. If true, that could spell trouble for D.C. hopes for expanded self-rule and voting rights. The city’s quest for democratic equality and the GOP’s dim present-day view of D.C. independence don’t mix. If the predicted Republican victory comes to pass, the city can expect to spend the next few years choking on the toxic brew a GOP Congress is likely to serve up.
That prospect makes this week’s commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Home Rule Act a moment that could well represent the high-water mark in the city’s push for full self-determination.
Unfortunately, city leaders used the occasion to celebrate themselves. The adoption of home rule, however, was not their triumph.
Credit for the limited measure of self-government that the city now enjoys belongs to past congressional and city leaders, most of whom are now deceased.
Not one member of the current crop of elected officials played a significant role in passage of the Home Rule Act. The same observation applies to most of the local crowd who toasted themselves at the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday evening, the one possible exception being Sterling Tucker, the city’s first elected council chairman and the chairman of the celebration. Tucker was a visible and vocal advocate in the years leading up to the act’s passage. But most local figures back then were sideline supplicants, not power brokers. The people who interacted most prominently and effectively on Capitol Hill in 1973 were Del. Walter Fauntroy, Mayor Walter Washington and City Administrator Julian Dugas. I saw it all from my perch as minority staff director of the then-Senate District of Columbia committee, where I — though not a Republican — worked for Republican Maryland senator and ranking committee member Charles McC. Mathias Jr.
But rather than cheer creation of the Home Rule Act or cringe in anticipation of a Republican congressional takeover, D.C. voters can concentrate on the men and women seeking city office Tuesday. Those winners will become stewards of the limited power given to the city by Congress 40 years ago. This is no time to put slick-talking, ego-tripping, lightweights in office.
As voters trek to the polls, it’s worth reviewing how well their elected officials have handled the powers of self-governance.
Corruption of the electoral process and abysmal financial stewardship are two of the more distinguishing characteristics of the past 40 years. And what has been done to political campaigns is sickening.
Realizing that the home rule election in 1974 lacked rules governing the electoral process, Congress enacted legislation to regulate political campaigns, including financial contributions. The aim was to control “the corrosive influence of big money and the abuses rooted in secrecy from the political campaigns and the new governing process” and “to provide for financial disclosure for candidates, elected officials . . . of the District government as a means for lessening public distrust and improving the political process.”
I drafted those words for Mathias, who presided over a June 13, 1974, hearing on the political campaign bill that was enacted a few weeks later.
And after a long struggle to gain home rule, it was all but lost when Congress took away control of the city’s finances from the mayor and council, handing over a virtually insolvent D.C. government to a federal financial control board in 1995 — 20 years after the first elected government took office. That home rule era was a monument to mismanagement, neglect, wasted money, wasted opportunities.
Today, though, the city is no more independent of Congress than it was when President Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act on Christmas Eve 1973. Yes, there have been outright congressional attacks on self-governance over the past 40 years. But many of the city’s wounds have been self-inflicted.
Remember the council member who bit the tow-truck driver during a fight? That got the council member convicted of assault and six months in jail in 1981 for failing to take a court-ordered psychiatric exam, as required by his probation. And remember the mayor with the crack pipe, a girlfriend and peeping Tom authorities in a downtown hotel room? And council members hauled off to jail?
Think of those things before casting a ballot.
Let’s not give home rule opponents more stones to throw our way.
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