For most politicians, stepping from Congress to a city council would be considered a backward move in a career trajectory.
Why leave behind the prestige, prominence, $174,000 base salary, franking privileges, allowance for travel, staff and office space, plus Capitol Hill real estate to legislate on municipal issues?
In the case of D.C. shadow Rep. Nate Bennett-Fleming, a Democrat currently campaigning for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, those are not his perks to lose.
The shadow representative, elected through the D.C. Board of Elections, gets the “Rep.” before his name but is denied access to the House floor. He has no vote. He receives no salary and no access to members-only parking spaces, elevators, dining rooms or the gym. His office can’t be found in the congressional directory. He sets up shop in the basement of the John A. Wilson Building in a shared office suite designated for the District’s shadow delegation, a cohort more than 200 years old.
Since taking office in 2013, the 29-year-old Anacostia native has served as “essentially an elected lobbyist” to Congress, staffed by fellows from local colleges and universities, to advocate for his top priority: D.C. statehood.
In that time, Bennett-Fleming says he’s taken an estimated 120 meetings on Capitol Hill and proudly notes that the New Columbia statehood bill introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., at the beginning of his term now has 64 co-sponsors.
That success, achieved with “limited authority and limited resources,” he says, is what encourages him to seek “higher office” on the city council.
But Bennett-Fleming can’t (and won’t) take all the credit for the statehood movement’s growing support on Capitol Hill. His understanding of the issue was shaped in his teens while working under Norton, the 12-term dean of the District’s congressional delegation. She remains Congress’ chief advocate on the issue. Her office declined to comment on Bennett-Fleming’s record or city council candidacy.
Working for Norton at age 16, Bennett-Fleming staffed the congresswoman’s DC Freedom Summer campaign and tried to raise awareness about the District’s lack of voting rights. He pressed petitions on National Mall tourists in an attempt to rally support for the No Taxation Without Representation Act.
He aspired to earn a law degree and pursue a career in public service, “but I thought, by the time I’m ready to do this, it will have already been done.”
Bennett-Fleming prepped for the political arena with a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and a public policy fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. As a student, he was the deputy national director of faith outreach for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, worked to get Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin elected and completed a fellowship on the House Financial Services Committee.
Bennett-Fleming also beefed up his résumé with top-notch private sector experience, including an internship at Goldman Sachs and law school apprenticeships at Patton Boggs and Alston & Bird.
His next move, at 25, was launching a bid against incumbent D.C. shadow Rep. Mike Panetta. Taking a page out of the playbook of former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., who campaigned for Congress while finishing law school at the University of Michigan, Bennett-Fleming stacked his final semester of law school classes for the middle of the week so he could spend extended weekends campaigning in D.C. for the unpaid and largely unrecognized position.
Bennett-Fleming lost that campaign, but was successful when he tried again after Panetta called it quits.
“When you have a certain level of educational opportunity, it gives you a license to go out there and try to fall on your face,” Bennett-Fleming said. “It would have been more convenient to take a more private sector or even a more conventional public sector path, but I felt that I was equipped and I had a responsibility to try to take a more unconventional path that could potentially have a higher return for the people that I care about.”
Two years later, when Panetta was ready to give up his seat, he opted to support and informally advise Bennett-Fleming’s second bid. Bennett-Fleming won, running unopposed.
As “the low man on the D.C. electoral totem pole,” he’s used to being the last one to speak at events, being cut short by restless, disinterested crowds and “just simply working very hard and feeling under appreciated for your work.”
Since announcing his bid for the at-large council seat in November, Bennett-Fleming has been balancing his shadow representative role and his paying job as an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia with campaigning.
He faces an uphill battle to defeat incumbent Councilmember Anita Bonds, who has more than three decades of experience in local government and politics. It’s a crowded field for the April 1 Democratic primary, including second-time candidate John F. Settles Jr., Latino activist Pedro Rubio and veteran Kevin Valentine Jr., according to the D.C. Board of Elections website.
Thirteen months representing the city’s 630,000-plus residents to Congress has been an “interesting training ground” for a career in public office, Bennett-Fleming said. Now he feels he could best serve his Southeast D.C. roots by trying to make sure everyone can benefit from the city’s recent prosperity.
As a councilmember, he would focus on education and business development, instead of just statehood, he said. He wants to create a city-run venture capital fund to encourage entrepreneurship and add more technology training to D.C. classroom curriculum.
“We have the highest income inequality in the country,” Bennett-Fleming said. He wants others to spread the wealth, but he needs the tools and platform to do so. “I’ve been working with nothing for so long ... I can do a lot more with resources.”