- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

Greg Rhett, a longtime D.C. voting-rights advocate, doesn’t want to get “that look.” “You know the one I’m talking about: that look you get from Eleanor,” he said.

So Thursday, Mr. Rhett will not be participating in Congress Day, an event sponsored by DC Vote designed to gain passage of the bipartisan voting-rights measure that would give Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and any successor, a binding vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

DC Vote organizers have enlisted the support of the city’s Democratic leadership, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, in this latest effort to lobby the Democrat-controlled Congress to do right by taxpaying disenfranchised D.C. residents.

DC Vote officials expect to cart busloads to the Hill to push for passage of a bill sponsored by Mrs. Norton and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, but some of the District’s staunchest home-rule activists will not be among them.

In fact, Mr. Rhett and others say the buses should be redirected to the John A. Wilson Building, the seat of city government.

“In my book, disenfranchisement is disenfranchisement, no matter which governmental body imposes it,” he said. “How can any one of us credibly go to Congress demanding full voting rights in their body, while ignoring the absence of those very same rights within our own legislative body?” These go-to-meetings-every-day folks you usually see at D.C. democracy rallies surely will be missed. But they are conflicted and angry about the “hypocrisy” they view coming not from Congress, this time, but from their own representatives.

“I can’t go in good conscience,” Mr. Rhett said. “I will not participate in this contradictory effort … and I don’t want to embarrass Eleanor.” These advocates argue that it’s bad enough that their novice mayor intends to diminish the representative role of the city’s elected Board of Education by marginalizing it into an advisory body.

Their displeasure with Congress Day also focuses on the D.C. Council’s apparent plans to turn over control of the school system to the mayor without voting representatives from Wards 4 and 7, where vacant seats await special elections.

They mainly object to Mr. Fenty’s plans to ask Congress, not D.C. voters, to adopt the takeover plan by circumventing the D.C. Charter requirement to put the measure to a referendum.

“D.C. residents are getting mixed messages from their leadership. I’m surprised that Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray, native Washingtonians, are going this takeover route. … The timing is bad, and they are dividing the city,” said Kay Pearson-West, a Ward 5 parent. “The real activists are not going.”

Among them is the Rev. Anthony Motley, a Ward 7 resident who will testify before the council later this month on behalf of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington.

“To watch this mayor and this council attempt to usurp the rights of the people because they can, and on top of that, so that they can go straight to ‘the Big House’ [Congress], is disrespectful and criminal in my mind,” he said. “If I do go, which I doubt that I will, it will be in protest of those who think they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Whether you support the Davis-Norton bill, which is a good start, is really not the issue here. Nor is this fracture a matter of whether you support Mr. Fenty’s school-takeover plan.

So, several people asked why DC Vote has been silent on the issue regarding the charter amendment and referendum.

Kevin Kiger, spokesman for DC Vote, said the two voting-rights issues were “not really related.” His organization’s targeted mission is to deal with congressional voting rights because “only the people in Congress can give us a vote.” The group cannot be “sidetracked by local issues.”

For her part, Mrs. Norton is on record saying she will present to Congress whatever bill the mayor and the council pass.

“I’m flabbergasted,” a busy Rick Lee of Lee’s Florists said yesterday. “It’s embarrassing. Here we are trying to get a little bit of home rule, asking for more but circumventing it by railroading this thing through that Fenty wants.

“The best way is by referendum; it’s our kids and our schools, so let us have an opportunity to vote,” he said while preparing flowers two days before Valentine’s Day.

“Democracy starts at home,” said Anise Jenkins, a member of Stand Up for Democracy, which did not take a position as an organization on Congress Day but is against the Norton-Davis bill because it falls short of full statehood.

“As long as we say we’re for democracy, statehood, full citizenship rights but don’t practice [it] in our own city and community, then that’s totally illogical and hypocritical,” she said.

The D.C. Statehood Green Party has encouraged its members to take part in Congress Day, “not to support DC Vote’s agenda,” but to make statements “for genuine democracy,” spokesman Scott McLarty said.

“Also, we want to send a message to Congress not to go along with the Fenty takeover because it would impose Congress’ will and be an insult to D.C. residents,” he said. “Tell Mayor Fenty and Delegate Norton that it is inconsistent to say you support D.C. voting rights … then go over the heads of D.C. voters and ask Congress to amend the D.C. Charter in order to strip the D.C. school board of its powers.”

Voting is voting. Democracy cannot be compartmentalized when it is politically convenient. That’s a slippery slope down which no one should want the District to slide. As its leaders seek to expand their voting rights, they also must maintain the voting rights that many fought to acquire.

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