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Gray takes D.C. rights lobbying to convention

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is poised to use the Democratic National Convention to promote the District's right to local budget autonomy, a goal apparently within grasp as the city battles for voting rights in Congress or even statehood.

Mr. Gray will be in Charlotte, N.C, from Monday to Friday and meet with various state delegations and ethnic caucuses to lobby for the District's right to govern itself outside the constraints of Capitol Hill, particularly the ability to set its own fiscal year and spend locally raised funds without being tied to the federal budget process.

"We've been on a long path and it continues to be a long path," Mr. Gray said last week. "I think the umbrella is statehood, but in the course of it there are steps along the way we can take — like budget autonomy."

The fight for increased representation on the Hill has been a strenuous and losing battle for decades, but this year's spotlight on greater fiscal freedoms is a deliberate move by D.C. delegates and advocates because it focuses on "what is feasible and possible during the current Congress," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote.

Members of the D.C. delegation will spread their pro-District message at breakfasts held throughout the week. Their pitch for a budget autonomy includes a dose of education — many non-District residents do not realize the city raises its own revenue — and typically gets a more sympathetic ear than the idea of D.C. statehood, said council member Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Democrat who also is going to Charlotte.

"We have Republicans and Democrats who support it," Mr. Evans said, noting he and the mayor will be instrumental in making the case to their fellow Democrats. "The two of us are very much involved in the budget, so we can cite the numbers off the top of our head."

The concept quickly became the most achievable part of the District's wish list from Congress after a powerful House member threw legislative support behind the concept last year. Yet there are still "some hurdles to overcome" before the bill by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, becomes law, Mr. Zherka said.

Most notably, some House Republicans delivered an early setback to the bill through a legislative rider that made a ban on using local dollars to fund abortions in the District permanent. In general, congressional objections to the city's aspirations for statehood or other expanded rights have revolved around the city's liberal abortion laws and strict gun control policies.

Opponents to the District's autonomy efforts also have alluded to recent corruption investigations into members of the city's Democratic leadership, such as the federal probe into a purported "shadow campaign" by Mr. Gray's 2010 team that enjoyed $650,000 in unreported funds, although there is no evidence it has tangibly impeded the city's efforts to achieve budget autonomy.

Nonetheless, the Republican Party's 2012 platform encouraged the D.C. Council to ease the city's laws so it is easier for residents to carry a firearm — a policy change the mayor does not support — and applauded House Republicans' efforts to ban abortions in the District after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the belief the fetus can feel pain.

The GOP dismissed talk of D.C. statehood in its platform, although it supports "the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine."

Mr. Gray acknowledged that the GOP platform "wasn't very flattering for the District of Columbia," yet his own party's platform has been a challenge. The Democrats mentioned D.C. statehood in their platform for 2000, yet left it out in 2004 and 2008. So far, the city has been unsuccessful in its pitch to include statehood in the 2012 edition.

Hoping to make a splash in Charlotte, "Shadow" Sen. Michael D. Brown announced Wednesday he rented two billboards near the convention center to promote the District's bid to become the 51st state.

The billboards, which depict George Washington crossing the Delaware River and the signing of the Constitution, are each 10-by-23 feet and paid for by the statehood funds maintained by Mr. Brown and "Shadow" Rep. Mike Panetta.

"I know you can only shake so many hands," Mr. Brown said of the convention. "I want all the rights [for the District] and I'm pushing for statehood. I've got nothing against budget autonomy -- that's one more step."

Mr. Gray said that despite the District's objectives, he recognizes the goal of the convention is to promote Mr. Obama for a second term. He hopes another Obama term will prove more fruitful for the city's self-determination than the first four years because the president will not have to focus on re-election and "the constraints of worrying about how he will be perceived for another term."

Mr. Zherka said his group takes heart in the support Mr. Obama has shown for the District, such as promoting budget autonomy in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal. If a pro-District bill made it through Congress, Mr. Obama would "sign it and celebrate it," he added.

But he acknowledged that the District's plight for statehood is probably not on the top of Mr. Obama's list when it comes to forging his legacy.

"A lot of people," he said, "project their own desires on a president's second term."

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