‘Shadow’ hopeful stakes bid on D.C. statehood efforts

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Nate Bennett-Fleming wants D.C. residents to ramp up the city’s push for statehood, but he isn’t taking any chances.

“I’m going to make President Obama pay attention,” said the Democrat, who worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign as a faith-based organizer.

Having studied and worked with local voting rights groups, Mr. Bennett-Fleming is anxious for full citizenship.

He is too young to remember the excitement in Washington in 1990, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson helped D.C. voters usher in a new era in voting rights called the “shadow” congressional delegation. So, as a challenger trying to unseat an incumbent “shadow” representative — Democrat Mike Panetta, who won 85 percent of the citywide vote in 2008 — Mr. Bennett-Fleming weighs his words carefully, mindful of the need to build consensus around his every political move.

“Statehood is a paramount issue,” he said.

Mr. Bennett-Fleming respects the power of the city’s nonvoting congressional delegate, a post held by Eleanor Holmes-Norton since 1991, and he acknowledges voting rights efforts made along the way. But he seems uncompromising in his mission.

“Statehood is what we deserve,” he said. “The entire buffet of statehood.”

The limits of home rule are a mere fact of life for this 25-year-old, whose candidacy for the “shadow” House seat is popular in all eight wards of the 68.3-square-mile city. If he wins, Mr. Bennett-Fleming’s job would be to lobby for statehood without the benefit of salary.

A student of political science who wants to become a professor of law, he is mounting a campaign that reflects the shadows of D.C. politics.

During one of the dog days of late July, Mr. Bennett-Fleming cooled down with bottled water at his campaign headquarters and sat with shoulders erect as he discussed his strategy to achieve statehood and win the September primary.

The site on North Capitol Street in Northwest, near a neighborhood once known as a notorious regional drug market, is in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where the city’s statehood hopes are consistently tamped down.

Mr. Bennett-Fleming spent much of his youth in other shadows, including that of Cedar Hill, the historic home of abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, where, by the time young Nate was an adolescent, it had become a neighborhood devoured by crime and drugs. But he did not fall victim to those violent environs.

How did he escape? “Hannah Hawkins,” he replies without hesitation.

She is the local godsend of Children of Mine who helped him attend a religious school in Montgomery County, Md., before attending Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Courtesy of his schooling by Ms. Hawkins, the Episcopal Church and Morehouse, Mr. Bennett-Fleming says he was ingrained with civility, responsibility, social and economic justice, and the importance of leadership.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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