- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mary Spencer is hoping for a very special present for her 63rd birthday next week — the right to vote.

“I hope I get my present when the [D.C.] Board of Elections and Ethics hands me my petitions,” said the grandmother, who was given the go-ahead last week to collect signatures forcing a referendum regarding the schools takeover bid by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

“If the mayor’s proposal is so great, why won’t he let the people of the District of Columbia vote on it?” she asked.

Unfortunately, although Mrs. Spencer won the opportunity to petition for an August referendum on the Home Rule Charter changes necessary for the takeover, the voting-rights advocates will not be allowed to pick up the petitions until Wednesday when a 10-day appeal period expires.

If the mayor waits until the last minute to appeal the Board of Elections’ ruling in D.C. Superior Court, as is expected at the beginning of next week, the voting advocates will have even fewer days to complete their Herculean task of collecting 20,000 signatures.

As it is, Mrs. Spencer and others in the coalition of organizations seeking their voting rights as well as school reforms have only four days to round up the signatures because they must be turned in by June 12 to meet the deadline before the legislation is enacted.

To call this an unfair and undemocratic situation does not begin to describe the slippery slope and hypocrisy evident here.

Timing is of the essence. So is the democratic principle. The referendum Mrs. Spencer seeks is a vote on the right to choose one’s representatives.

While Mr. Fenty’s amorphous and plagiarized plan moves at breakneck speed through the complicit political process, this determined group of concerned D.C. residents is planning a whirlwind blitz of the city seeking petition signatures.

“It’s an awesome task, but we think we will prevail,” Mrs. Spencer said. One D.C. teacher involved in the charter referendum effort said the group should not be underestimated because Mrs. Spencer “brings the grass-roots experience with her.”

“I’ve always been involved with anything that impacts low- to moderate-income wage earners,” said Mrs. Spencer, who is vice president of the D.C. chapter of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and a founding member of its watchdog committee on school modernization funding.

“The school issue just grabbed my heart,” said the grandmother who became concerned not only about her granddaughters’ education but also the disparities in academic experiences across the city. She worries that there are still a lot of questions about the takeover plan that have gone unanswered.

“My main issue is that I want an opportunity to vote on anything that happens,” Mrs. Spencer said, especially on any changes to the Home Rule Charter.

“My people worked too hard for my right to vote, and I just can’t let someone snatch that away without some opposition,” she said. “That’s a dictatorship, as opposed to a democracy.”

D.C. voters should not have to jump through hoops to exercise their rights at the federal or local level. They should have been given more time “to petition their government for redress of grievances.”

Since the mayor, the D.C. Council, Congress and the White House need a refresher course, that fundamental clause comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution. A constitution, by the way, which would never be amended or disregarded for political and societal expediency, or corporate will.

The District’s historic Home Rule Charter should be treated no less lightly. It is the city’s constitution. In 49 states in this country, a voter referendum is required to change the sacrosanct document. The District must uphold the same standard.

City leaders circumvented the voters by sending this major measure straight away to Congress for approval.

“I think it’s crazy that people don’t realize what they are giving up; this country is built on democracy,” said Mrs. Spencer in response to those who belittle the referendum process. “That’s what the mayor is trying to take away from us, our right to vote.” As a reminder, community activists are circulating an e-mail quoting Mr. Fenty as he stressed the importance of voter referendums when he proposed a commuter tax.

“Citizens have the right to vote to change the charter,” Mr. Fenty was quoted as saying in a 2005 Associated Press story. “Can you imagine letting the citizens vote in Baghdad and not D.C.? You can’t celebrate democracy in another country at the same time it’s being rejected at home.”

Mrs. Spencer is scheduled to answer questions at a meeting called by voting rights advocates at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at St. James Episcopal Church, 222 Eighth St. NE.

If anybody cares about improving D.C. public schools, it’s Mrs. Spencer. The school system will not improve until all the stakeholders are working together for change, she said. “It’s not just one man, we all need to get out there.”

She repeated that the mayor has no background in education.

A native Washingtonian, who returned two decades ago to the same Capitol Hill home she grew up in to care for an ailing mother, Mrs. Spencer is a proud graduate of Eastern High School, Class of 1962. A retired federal government worker, her four children attended and graduated from D.C. schools.

Today, her granddaughters attend the Capitol Hill cluster of schools, one a fourth-grader at Watkins Elementary and the other a sixth-grader at Stuart-Hobson Middle School.

The soft-spoken Mrs. Spencer is no stranger to advocacy. During her 10 years with ACORN, she has sought changes in predatory lending practices, minimum-wage laws and improving city schools.

She doesn’t want much for her next birthday, just her constitutional right as an American citizen — the right to vote even in the nation’s undemocratic capital.

For information or to volunteer for the charter amendment referendum, go to www.letmevote.org.

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