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D.C. self-rule campaign takes ‘step backwards for democracy’

Attorney general election at risk of being delayed

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2013

The District of Columbia, the city that has longed for statehood and self-rule, now finds itself facing uncomfortable questions about whether it is thwarting the will of its own residents.

The city's voters overwhelmingly voted in 2010 to make their attorney general popularly elected, instead of appointed. But the D.C. Council voted 8-5 this month to delay the election scheduled for 2014 by four years. Lawmakers must finalize the decision this year for it to take effect, and that has touched off pleas for city officials to change their minds.

"We think it's a step backwards for democracy," said Walter Smith, director of D.C. Appleseed, a Northwest-based think tank that advocated for an elected attorney general.

From its lawmakers to its "taxation without representation" license plate, the District has famously lobbied for decades to free itself from congressional rule and became the nation's 51st state. Congress most frequently meddles with the city's affairs through federal spending bills that fund the city while imposing mandates and restrictions using what are known as budget riders.

Congress also can nullify any legislation passed by the D.C. Council during a required review period of each law. But in the past 40 years, that has happened only three times. The last was in 1991, said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting congressional representative.

In comparison, the D.C. Council can nullify a citizen vote with a simple majority — a power it has exercised at least five times. The most recent notable example of city lawmakers overturning a referendum was in 2001, when lawmakers struck a 1994 vote imposing term limits.

Now the 2010 vote to make the attorney general accountable to the voters is in danger of being delayed.

"When Congress does it, they are not accountable to us," said D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, who holds a largely ceremonial position through which the city can lobby Congress on behalf of the District's interests. "When our own elected officials do it, they are questioning the wisdom of the folks who elected them. I think it's different, and in some ways worse."

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Democrat who proposed the measure that would delay the election and was among eight council members who co-sponsored the term limit bill a decade ago, said it is part of the council's job to vet all laws.

"We are the final analysis," Mr. Evans said.

The council has been well within its right to strike down referendums in the past, Mr. Evans said, noting as an unintended consequence of a right-to-shelter law mandating housing of the homeless that left the city "almost bankrupted."

D.C. lawmakers in recent years have passed bills recognizing and then legalizing gay marriage and approving driver's licenses for illegal immigrants — even with the threat of congressional disapproval resolutions.

Despite speculation that the proposal to elect an attorney general was politically motivated, it did not appear particularly controversial to voters — 75 percent of whom approved it.

But citing concern that the structure of the attorney general's office still needs to be defined and no candidates have filed for an election primary now nine months away, the council voted to postpone the election.

The vote infuriated council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who said he hopes when the council reconvenes in September and a second vote on the bill is held that the 2014 election date will be restored.

"I believe the effort to postpone the election is led by a lack of support for having an elected attorney general," said Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat. "I find that especially offensive."

Appleseed is planning to conduct and analysis of the delay to determine whether was imposed legally.

"If you can delay it for four years, that is to say you can delay it forever," Mr. Smith said.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who voted in favor of the election's delay, raised concern about the feasibility of holding an election at this time.

"I had a feeling of unreadiness," said Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat.

Mr. Graham is one of five officials also on the council in 2001 when it voted to repeal term limits. He is the only one of the sitting members who voted against the abolishment of term limits.

Comparing the two votes, Mr. Graham drew the distinction that the 2001 proposal killed a voter-approved referendum, whereas this time around it only delays it.

"If the proposal would have been that we were going to nullify the elected attorney general, I would have voted against it," he said.

Mr. Strauss said that, strategically, this is a poor time to give the perception that elected officials should substitute their opinions for those of voters. Federal lawmakers are in the midst of marking up the District's appropriations bill.

"If our own elected officials aren't going to respect our democratic choices, how do we expect federal officials to respect our democratic choices?" Mr. Strauss said.

In addition, a charter amendment passed in April, which grants the city budget autonomy, is nearing the end of its 35-day congressional review period, and though local officials worried it could evoke congressional ire, no objections have been raised.

A bill that would legislatively grant the District budget autonomy is also headed to the House floor.

"There is a certain irony, at the time the Congress is supporting the budget autonomy referendum and they are looking to fund the statehood delegation but at the same time the council members have kind of defied the will of the people," Mr. Smith said.

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