National Democrats parachuted into local District of Columbia politics this week to bolster D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser's campaign to succeed Mayor Vincent Gray, but neither President Barack Obama nor Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz made any promises to use their political capital on behalf of residents' longtime goal.
Statehood proponents see the chief executive of the District of Columbia as instrumental to building the political alliances that can give their cause some national traction. When Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., wanted to talk statehood last month, he invited Gray to be part of the first panel and speak on behalf of the city's residents. Gray gets to hobnob with the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the region's congressional delegation and occasional administration officials, and the activists expect him to be on message.
"The role of the mayor is so important," Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, said in a phone interview. Her organization has pressed this year's mayoral candidates for their strategies for working with Congress and the president. "It's so important at every opportunity that they get, whether they think it's practical or not, they have got to raise the issues of D.C. autonomy," Perry said. Obama's endorsement of Bowser, and a phone bank assist from Wasserman Schultz could have served as prime opportunities to elevate other D.C. priorities, such as budget and legislative autonomy, advocates of the cause say.
But, after hugging the Florida Democrat goodbye on the sidewalk outside her Ward 8 campaign office Tuesday, Bowser had little progress to report when asked if she'd been engaging national Democrats on statehood in particular.
“Well, there’s certainly a lot of federal issues before the District of Columbia, and statehood, and budget autonomy, and legislative autonomy are certainly tops of our list. So, as mayor, we’ve laid out a program of how we’re going to better work with the Congress and fight a new fight for that autonomy and statehood,” Bowser told CQ Roll Call.
The Ward 4 councilmember has said she would like to broaden D.C.'s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. In a candidate questionnaire developed and distributed by DC Vote, the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia and other local groups, Bowser pinpointed pursuing statehood and budget autonomy as the top issues she would raise if invited to the White House as mayor.
Perry was perplexed when Bowser told the Washington Post after the president's endorsement that she would ask Obama's help with Metro funding and affordable housing, but made no mention of D.C. voting rights. Perry said, particularly on budget autonomy, now is an urgent time to raise the issue. Later this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in a case on the matter.
Congress has the power to cut the District's local budget free from the federal appropriations process, and Perry said the city has "got to have the leadership of the mayor in order to get to the finish line."
Bowser's opponents were quick to criticize her for not asserting D.C. priorities during the interactions.
"She says one thing, does another," said Ben Young, campaign manager for independent candidate David Catania. He pointed out that Catania has engaged another prominent Democratic leader, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, on statehood.
Shumlin personally endorsed Catania recently, noting he had "witnessed David's courage" in standing up on behalf of D.C. residents. The governor has publicly vowed to advocate for congressional representation for the District.
After Obama's endorsement of Bowser, independent mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz congratulated her opponent and issued a tongue-in-cheek statement encouraging the president "to use his good offices to actively help us in our ongoing struggle for greater autonomy and full voting rights,” now that he's getting into local affairs.
Wasserman Schultz and other Democrats have defended the District from Republican attempts to attach budget riders related to social policy, but language preventing the city from spending local funds on abortions has remained. A bill to make the District the 51st state is stalled .
Wasserman Schultz is not among the 109 Democratic co-sponsors of a House version of the bill introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
"Democrats have been supportive of D.C. statehood for many, many years," Wasserman Schulz said outside the Bowser campaign office, when pressed on the legislation. "It’s been a part of our platform and, you know, that hasn’t changed. ... We’re focused on making sure that the voices of D.C. residents have the appropriate representation and to continue to fight for it."
The party's platform in 2012 called for "equal citizenship rights" for District residents, despite calls from Norton and Gray to use the word "statehood."
Norton, who is also backing Bowser, was not available to comment for this story.
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