Policy

Are the Obamas D.C.'s Next Secret Weapon?

Advocates hope First Couple will agitate for voting rights, budget autonomy

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia said it is incumbent on citizens of the capital to keep the heat on the legislative branch. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

PHILADELPHIA — Advocates for the District of Columbia are hoping that when Barack and Michelle Obama leave the White House in January to take up residence in Kalorama, it will mark a turning point in the city’s long fight for voting rights and budget autonomy in the nation’s capital.  

“From the most powerful man in America to the least represented,” said Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, one of the District’s elected and unpaid advocates.  

Strauss, along with the Creative Coalition and DC Vote, put together a packed “DC Statehood and Voting Rights” lunch on the second day of the Democratic National Convention here to stump for congressional representation and full budget autonomy.  

Advocates emphasized that many Americans aren’t even aware that the city's more than 670,000 residents do not have a voting representative in Congress, nor the budget autonomy to spend their own locally raised tax dollars.  

The D.C. government has been embroiled in fights with the GOP-controlled Congress over voting rights, including a nasty court fight that followed residents overwhelmingly passing an initiative in 2013 giving the city power over its own local spending.  

The lack of voting rights has also left the District open to members of Congress using the annual congressional appropriations process to dictate policy in the District, on everything from the decriminalization of marijuana to needle-sharing programs to abortions.  

One way to cut to the chase, local officials feel, is a renewed push for the on-again, off-again push for D.C. to become the 51st state.  

While Obama has spoken in favor of D.C. statehood in the past, it hasn’t been a high-profile issue for him to use the bully pulpit.  

But that could change with the renewed push for statehood, officials hope.  

[ What a Long, Strange Case: D.C. Budget Autonomy ]  

We do want to use every single podium, local and national, to get the word out,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s non-voting representative in Congress, told the standing-room only crowd in the Loews Hotel’s 33rd floor ballroom.  

“We need to take this debate nationwide,” echoed D.C. City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.  

The Creative Coalition’s members say they are ready to lend their star power. Present at the lunch were such luminaries as actress Ashley Judd, who considered a run for the Senate against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Reid Scott, who plays Dan Egan in HBO’s political satire “Veep.”  

“Giving a real voice in the Congress and Senate — that’s real inclusion,” Scott said. Echoing a key theme of the Democrats’ convention messaging, he added, “It’s time everyone in this country has a voice.”  

That’s something that will require reaching across party lines, said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “For us, statehood is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is an American issue,” she said.  

“Statehood is back in the Democratic Party platform!” D.C. Councilman Jack Evans told the crowd, praising presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for being an ally. “The Clintons have also been great friends of the District of Columbia,” he added.  

But the thought of having the Obamas as constituents has installed some hope in D.C. officialdom. The First Family plans to remain in residence while daughter Sasha finishes high school.  

“When people retire, they tend to take on causes, and we hope this is one of his,” said Strauss’ shadow senator counterpart, Michael D. Brown. “We want to remind them their daughters grew up in the District of Columbia, and some day they might move back and want representation,” he continued.  

[ House Votes to Block D.C. Law ]  

Mendelson, who’s come under fire from Republicans in Congress for his position on the front lines of defending budget autonomy, said those pushing D.C. rights need to make sure they don’t assume the Obamas will dive into local politics.  

“I think it’s on us to ask them. It’s probably not the first thing on their mind, and as full-time residents, we need to put it on their minds,” he said.  

Mendelson added that the composition of Congress and the new president after this November’s elections could be much more consequential. “The real change is going to come in what the Congress looks like in January — and in the White House,” he said.  

Norton, who has strived to bring attention to Republicans’ policy riders on legislation funding the District, said it was incumbent on citizens of the capital to keep the heat on the legislative branch, regardless of who is in the majority.  

“Where we need greater involvement is in the District of Columbia itself,” she said.  

Strauss, for one, is ready to put the soon-to-be-ex-president to work right away. “Maybe he wants to run for [Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner] or something,” he said, adding, with a grin: “Tell you what: He’d make a heck of a shadow senator. It’s his job if he wants it. I’ll gladly step aside.”

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