Ilir Zherka, Leader of DC Vote, Leaves Group After 10 Years
||Friday, September 14, 2012
The sole organization dedicated exclusively to advocating for D.C. voting rights, self-determination and statehood will soon lose its leader, as Executive Director Ilir Zherka announced today that he will be leaving the DC Vote after 10 years at its helm. Zherka will take the same post in late October at the National Conference on Citizenship.
"Ilir has done an outstanding job of building DC Vote into the strong advocacy organization it is today," said DC Vote Board of Directors Chairman and Arent Fox Partner Jon Bouker in a statement. "He has helped lead the fight to defend D.C. from federal attacks and to bring an end to taxation without representation in D.C. The board has begun a nationwide search for a new executive director who will bring a passion for democracy in D.C., along with a strong expertise in advocacy that will build on Ilir's outstanding work."
Zherka took the post in 2002, having before served as the head of National Albanian American Council. In his years at DC Vote, he steered the organization through the difficult waters of voting rights advocacy, readily changing goals as the political context in Washington shifted between competing political parties and presidents. (He was criticized by some for opting to live in Montgomery County instead of D.C., though.)
"During Ilir's ten years of leadership, DC Vote has become a strong partner that I can count on in the fight for voting rights," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a statement. "I am confident that DC Vote will continue to be a critical source of energy and creativity for our movement."
In the mid-2000s, DC Vote was among the groups that pushed for a compromise offered by former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) that would have handed D.C. a single voting seat in the House of Representatives in exchange for an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah. The effort passed both the House and Senate, albeit in different sessions, but sunk as city leaders fought over whether to accept Republican amendments that would have gut the city's gun laws.
After that effort's failure and the Republican takeover in 2010, Zherka changed gears, adopting a more confrontational attitude and invoking a term that the group would often avoid: statehood. The organization's new approach peaked in April 2011, when 41 people—including Mayor Vince Gray, members of the D.C. Council, Zherka, and residents—were arrested during a protest on Capitol Hill against a federal budget deal that would again deny D.C. the right to use its own money to fund abortions for low-income women. All told, over 70 people were arrested at protests that spanned the months from April to August.
This year, DC Vote narrowed its focus, looking to push a bill on Capitol Hill that would grant D.C. enhanced control over its own money. Though the measure has received the support of various Republicans, it has again attracted conservative amendments that city officials have said are unacceptable.
DC Vote's Board of Directors said today that it will hire an interim executive director next month before finding a replacement for Zherka. In comments to the Post's Mike DeBonis, who first reported the story, Zherka sounds as upbeat as he ever was about an issue that can frustrate just about anyone else.
“All difficult, controversial issues take time. Because DC Vote is around, when we have a setback, we can keep pushing. The valleys are not nearly as steep or as long," he said.
That's certainly true, but whomever takes over for Zherka will have to possess the same diplomatic maneuvering skills that the group's outgoing leader developed over the years. Though most residents agree that D.C. voting rights, self-determination and statehood are noble goals, there are plenty of disagreement as to how the organization and the city's officials should advocate for one, two or all three of them.
And as has always existed, there's a significant gap between the pragmatists and the idealists in the cause, the people who support incremental steps and compromise versus those that demand what they think is only right—statehood.
DC Vote was founded in 1998, so Zherka has led the organization for all but four years of its existence. It will be interesting to see how a new executive director handles the organization, its goals and the fractious coalition of residents and city officials that it has to work with.