New Decade, New Mission: Voting Rights in 2009 and Beyond
||Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Looking back on my end-of-the-year reviews of the D.C. voting rights movement from 2006 and 2007, there was a trend in my thinking on the issue and the progress it was making -- I always assumed the coming year would be the one.
That held for 2009. With a Democratic president who had pledged his support for D.C. statehood during the campaign and Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, everyone seemed to think that this would be the year that the District would get something. The safe bet was that the legislation that would grant the District a voting seat in the House would finally make it through both the House and the Senate and get to President Obama's desk.
It almost did. While the Senate passed the legislation in February, it did so while attaching an amendment authored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) that would have done away with the District's existing gun laws and prohibited the city from enacting any new ones. House Democrats were unable to ensure that the same amendment would not make it into their version of the bill, and persistent threats from the NRA to score procedural votes threw the support of conservative Democrats into question. The amendment even divided local officials, with Mayor Adrian Fenty arguing that the District should just accept it while Norton and members of the D.C. Council adamantly argued against any intrusion into local affairs.
As the legislation floundered on the Hill, President Obama not only maintained a monk-like silence on the issue, but he refused to even grant symbolic support to the movement. Over the course of the year, the fact that Obama had not put the District's "Taxation Without Representation" license plates on the presidential limo repeatedly made news, even drawing criticism from RNC Chair Michael Steele and making its way into a White House press briefing. For the overwhelming support that Obama received from District voters, not once did he direct the soaring rhetoric he has become known for to a cause he once pledged to support -- especially when it was critically needed.
By June, the House Democratic Leadership conceded what everyone saw coming -- the legislation was likely dead. Having floated around the Hill since 2006 and centered around a compromise that would expire in 2010 -- an additional seat for Utah ahead of next year's Census and congressional reapportionment -- most voting rights advocates admitted that their primary legislative vehicle for advancing the cause wasn't likely to be revived anytime soon, if at all.
On local autonomy, 2009 dealt us some late surprises. It was only in the closing months of the year that Congress lifted longstanding prohibitions on a variety of District initiatives, from needle-exchange programs to funding for abortions to medicinal marijuana. Soon thereafter, the D.C. Council passed and Mayor Fenty signed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in the District, a move that will likely make it through the 30-day review period -- but could still suffer from future riders on D.C. appropriations bills. To better protect against congressional interference in local affairs, legislation is again making its way through Congress that would speed the review process and limit the amount of influence legislators can have on local initiatives and budget matters. We might see it move forward in 2010.
Some of the clues of what to expect may come from the D.C. Council's new Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination. Chaired by Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), the committee has so far kept a low profile. But in a recent meeting, a proposal was floated to use April 16 -- Emancipation Day in the District -- as "National Statehood Day," during which a large demonstration would be organized to demand statehood for the District. (As a point of reference, the last large protest for D.C. voting rights was in 2007, and it aimed to push Congress into passing Norton's legislation.) Sure, a gathering in front of the Capitol isn't groundbreaking news -- but that the council's only committee focused exclusively on D.C. voting rights has seemingly made statehood the end goal is.
This doesn't mean that 2010 will see the District gain voting rights, much less statehood. But it may see a shift in thinking and advocacy towards the much more ambitious goal. And while pushing statehood is an uphill battle likely to take years to win, the District's chances are better than the last time this was tried almost two decades ago. Activists and organizations have formed broader coalitions and used new technologies to better promote the cause. D.C. Vote has traveled to various states in order to put pressure on congressional legislators, while the D.C. Shadow Delegation has continued its creative under-the-radar advocacy efforts. Just as importantly, since 2008 the District has been allowed to spend its own money lobbying for statehood, something Congress prohibited for a number of years.
I'm not going to close out 2009 by saying that I think that next year will be the one, at least in terms of a groundbreaking or game-changing victory. It probably won't be. But that's not a bad thing. Given what's happened in the last few years, 2010 looks to be a year of transition and internal reassessment. A new and emboldened movement for statehood may well emerge. And though statehood is years away, no one can accuse District residents of being impatient.