- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

“Those who cry for complete power have forgotten the words of [abolitionist] Frederick Douglass, who said, ‘We must capture what we can, when we can, and move on,’” civil rights stalwart Lawrence Guyot says.

Douglass, Mr. Guyot noted yesterday, was referring to those who refused to work for passage of the 15th Amendment because it did not include suffrage for women.

“Power provides for power,” Mr. Guyot said. “It is idiotic to wish for the unworkable when acquisition of real power is so near.”

Here’s to that half-filled glass.

For decades, the heavily taxed but disenfranchised residents of the District have lobbied, picketed, blocked streets and gone to jail to gain their fundamental rights as American citizens — a voting representative in the U.S. Congress.

On Friday, more than 500,000 people who live in the capital of the free world came one step closer to democracy when a bipartisan voting-rights bill was introduced by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the District’s nonvoting member of Congress.

The D.C. Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act bravely broached by Mr. Davis, who has received opposition from his own party, would give the District one vote in the House and an additional seat to Utah. The political trade-off supposedly means the Democrat-leaning representative from the District would be offset by a presumably Republican-leaning, at-large representative from Utah.

Voting rights groups, such as D.C. Vote, lauded the bill, calling it “the brink of a major voting-rights victory.” Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, called on District voters to “rise up” and lobby fellow Americans for passage of the measure.

“We are the closest we have ever been to voting representation in Congress, and D.C. residents should be shouting from the rooftops and engaging friends across the country to make this critical bill a law,” Mr. Zherka said.

Others are shouting, though not in celebration.

They are looking at a half-empty glass.

The Stand Up for Democracy in D.C. Coalition yesterday called for the withdrawal of the Davis-Norton “unequal representation bill.” The modified and renegotiated legislation gives the District “less-than-full representation in Congress” because it does not include two senators as well, spokeswoman Anise Jenkins said.

“Despite its title, this bill does not correct the lack of basic democratic rights in the nation’s capital. We call on Congress to support legislation that will make a real change and call on our own elected officials and the civil rights organizations that have supported this bill not to give up on attaining full democracy and equality for the people of Washington, D.C.,” Ms. Jenkins said. “We cannot buy into our own oppression.”

Hey, I definitely support “all power to the people.” But the traditional statehood holdouts apparently want all or nothing at this juncture. That’s not the most realistic stance given that there would be no mayor or D.C. Council had voters rejected home rule in the early 1970s while waiting for a then-Democrat controlled Congress to grant full state’s rights.

In the meantime, the District still can get local autonomy over its budget, laws and judicial system.

Let no one forget that it was Mr. Davis who once voted to create the imperialistic D.C. financial control board, which stripped the city — specifically, Mayor Marion Barry — of all local autonomy in the 1990s.

Mr. Davis’ slow turnaround should be encouraged as he faces a battle to get this measure passed. He will need all the backup he can get, because he is attempting to right what’s blatantly wrong.

Indeed, the District has jumped “a high hurdle,” as Mrs. Norton said last week when she divulged a personal wish to be the first District representative to cast a vote in Congress in honor of her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, a runaway slave who escaped a Virginia plantation in “a futile search for freedom itself.”

“Like home rule, which all D.C. residents embrace today, even though it is incomplete, the House vote is an offer no Washingtonian would refuse after two centuries of service in the armed forces, taxes paid and every obligation of citizenship met with no vote on the laws that enforce these obligations,” Mrs. Norton said.

Historically, Congress does not grant people what they ask for in one bill, Mrs. Norton pointed out, noting the incremental measures adopted during the height of the civil rights movement.

In an attempt to show her philosophical solidarity with the Stand Up organization, Mrs. Norton was able to negotiate with Mr. Davis to bring her No Taxation Without Representation Act — backing two senators as well as a House member — to a House vote, knowing full well that is a non-starter.

“I explained to Tom that I needed a bill ahead of time to send a message that I will never give up on the full rights of citizenship” for District residents, she said. “In all the joy, that message [from Stand Up] needs to be out there.”

The District should “plow ahead from here,” Mrs. Norton suggested, adding that she plans to meet with the city’s voting-rights advocates, especially those from Stand Up, to devise strategies to win seats in the Senate.

“Congress is not about substance, it’s about strategy,” she said.

District residents should not have to beg for anything that is rightfully theirs as Americans, especially those who are fighting in wars to bring democracy to others around the globe.

This hard-won incremental step beats a blank, and it undoubtedly will be wielded as mighty sword to gain full representative power that is long overdue.


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