Saturday, August 22, 2009

Advocates for a D.C. congressional seat are ramping up their lobbying efforts, seeking leverage on members of Congress by enlisting the help of their constituents far from the nation’s capital.

DC Vote is reaching out to people like 62-year-old Henry Perry of Tennessee.

Not until the advocacy group visited Mr. Perry in Mississippi earlier this month did he learn that D.C. residents pay taxes and serve in the military but don’t have a vote in Congress.

“I think it’s really a disgrace that they’re denied that right,” said Mr. Perry, president of the Teamsters Local Union No. 667 in Memphis, which also has members in Mississippi. “I was kind of shocked.”

DC Vote wants Mr. Perry and others like him to persuade their own representatives to support their cause. The group said its new, in-your-face strategy will involve visits with citizens across the country and with organizations such as the NAACP that are committed to civil rights and democracy. It will target congressional districts where there’s opposition to voting rights for the District, or where it could sway a vote. The group also plans for more aggressive language in ad campaigns, the first of which is scheduled to begin next month in Nevada.

“If you come after the District, we’re going to come after you,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote. “We’re going to travel to your states, travel to your congressional districts, and we’re going to engage your constituents and make sure they know … how you’re spending your time focusing on D.C. issues and not your own issues.”

The new approach has been spurred by efforts to attach to the D.C. voting rights bill an amendment that would change the city’s gun laws. DC Vote’s hope is that people who don’t live in the District will put enough pressure on congressional members to drop the gun measure amendment.

The challenge is to persuade people to work in the District’s interest, without any direct reward for them.

“I think there’s a certain level of ‘help us because you have the power,’ ” Mr. Zherka said, “and because these people care about voting rights and civil rights issues, they want to do it.”

D.C. residents have sought voting rights since 1801, when Congress took control of the newly created capital. The city has elected a representative since the 1970s, but that House delegate can vote only in committee, not the full House.

Hopes soared in February when senators easily passed voting rights legislation, two years after a similar measure died just three votes shy of a filibuster-proof margin.

The bill would expand the House by two seats, to 437. To offset the certain Democratic gain from giving D.C. a seat, the bill adds one for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed receiving another seat after the 2000 census.

The Senate bill was amended by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, to repeal the city’s tough gun registration requirements and restrictions on semiautomatic weapons. Mr. Ensign said he proposed the measure because the city hasn’t gone far enough to comply with the Supreme Court, which last year struck down the District’s 32-year-old ban on handguns and affirmed homeowners’ rights to keep guns for self-defense.

House Democratic leaders scrapped plans to consider the voting rights legislation this summer after acknowledging they were split on the gun provision and that D.C. leaders were unwilling to compromise. It’s unclear when the bill will be revived.

But DC Vote intends to keep the issue alive and continue pushing for amendment-free legislation.

Mr. Perry is doing his part, too. After meeting with the group earlier this month, he sent a letter to Rep. Travis W. Childers, Mississippi Democrat, who has led a drive to repeal D.C. gun limits. Mr. Perry told Mr. Childers that D.C. residents have the right to elect their own officials to act in their interests. He also urged Mr. Childers to pass the voting rights bill without “harmful amendments.”

Mr. Perry said he plans to let his members know about the District’s voting rights struggle and urge them to send Mr. Childers letters, too.

“We count on him for the rights of people,” he said, “not to take away their rights.”

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