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.
Now, he is emerging from the shadows of D.C. icons like Julius Hobson Sr. and Calvin Rolark, activists who helped push the statehood agenda to the top of the city’s political heap. He echoes their voices and those of such organizations as DC Vote, and says he relishes personal encouragement from Mrs. Norton, for whom he interned. But this young man vows to raise the bar.
That’s not surprising since Morehouse doesn’t merely churn out graduates. It grooms generations of “Morehouse Men” like Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Friendship Charter Schools co-founder Donald Hense.
Mr. Bennett-Fleming sounds like he has been passed the baton, using words like “galvanize,” “consensus,” “leverage,” “coalitions” and “capitalize” — themes constantly sounded by Mr. Hobson and Mr. Rolark.
Mr. Bennett-Fleming proposes updating the playbook of the civil rights movement by engaging Republicans, organizing a “freedom summer” next year, raising money nationally for the statehood fight and better use of social media to engage young people.
“I’m going to be more bipartisan,” he said. “There’s much more room for consensus … . Democracy is a common issue, no matter who you are.”
He also plans to harness the minds and resources of the religious, legal, trade and other special-interest communities — including Washington’s heavy-hitting lobbyists — behind a united statehood agenda.
As for his citywide primary race, Mr. Bennett-Fleming doesn’t criticize the incumbent. Instead, he parses his comments into a universal message so as not to alienate any voting bloc.
He won endorsements from the D.C. Latino Caucus, Ward 8 Democrats and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.
“Those endorsements show what kind of candidate I am,” he said, “and shows that I can relate to the culture of the city.”
It’s a city in recovery from the scourge of drugs, years of overspending, lax attention to rebuilding infrastructure and other problems.
It’s also a city that Mr. Bennett-Fleming says deserves to be treated by the federal government like a world capital — the way Austria treats Vienna and France treats Paris.
There is, he says, a “fierce urgency” for an aggressive and strategic push for D.C. statehood, and he wants supporters to take advantage of the momentum that is building for the national midterm elections.
“Mr. Obama’s attention will soon be on 2012,” Mr. Bennett-Fleming said. “We need to be organized and ready. It’s my hope we will make some progress by that time.”
And what if he loses the race?
“I’m committed to seeing this through,” he said. “I’m committed to making D.C. the 51st state.”