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Gray: Jail for Statehood?

Mayoral candidates debate civil disobedience

By P.J. Orvetti, NBC4.com, August 10, 2010

D.C. mayoral candidates assembled in a mostly civil candidate forum in Ward 8 Monday night. One of the few interesting moments came when the contenders were asked how they felt about civil disobedience as a means to statehood.

Mayoral challenger and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray won cheers from the crowd when he said he would be willing to go to jail for statehood, but "only if anyone here goes with me." Incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty was less sold on that strategy, noting that Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly was arrested in 1993 during a statehood sit-in and that nothing came of it.

But Mayor Fenty, who has been more vocal about pursuing statehood in recent weeks, said he agreed with Gray that a renewed push should be a priority.

The raising of the statehood banner for the umpteenth time shows how desperate the D.C. voting rights situation has become. Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer rejected a scheme to grant D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood in tandem - an approach backed last night by candidate Leo Alexander. There is no new voting rights legislation on the horizon.

The latest round of cries for statehood make the point: Half-measures are not going to work. D.C. needs to go for all or nothing - even if it means ending up with nothing.

On the Washington Post website last Friday, WTOP's Mark Plotkin - one of the city's veteran statehood crusaders - wrote, "Let's go for statehood for D.C. That's what we really want, and it is doable." Plotkin says "a change in citizen attitude" is required to get there. He writes that Jesse Jackson - who was arrested with Mayor Kelly in 1993 - once told him that D.C.'s "second-class status would change only 'when it rises to the level of personal insult.'"

Plotkin says D.C.'s congressional delegate should introduce a statehood bill each and every year, building support and momentum over time. He compares the issue to the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday holiday - "at first, very few signed on, but momentum grew," with Republicans eventually signing on and a Republican president signing the bill into law.

D.C. Shadow Senator Michael D. Brown, who is running for At-Large Council this year, also says statehood is the best, and possibly only, option. He wrote on the Post website, "Last year, Puerto Rico put $20 million into its effort to become a state; the District has budgeted $0 for fiscal 2011. I went to a statehood rally last week, and fewer than 100 people showed up. Until the city budgets real money and Washingtonians show their support, the movement will go nowhere."

Of course, the difference between the King holiday and the State of Columbia is that the latter would add two more Democrats to the U.S. Senate. It will be hard to convince even the most fair-minded Republicans that that is in their interest.



'Shadow' hopeful stakes bid on D.C. statehood efforts










Bennett-Fleming talks to passers-by in the District on Thursday. Mr. Bennett-Fleming, 25, is campaigning to unseat the incumbent "shadow" representative. (Nate Bennett-Fleming/Special to The Washington Times)

By Deborah Simmons - The Washington Times 8:52 p.m., Monday, August 9, 2010

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."

© Copyright 2010 The Washington Times, LLC.



A solid plan, dramatic action are needed to secure D.C. rights

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 15, 2010; C01

It hasn't aroused a lot of attention, but the candidate who may well be the District's next mayor is offering to go to jail for committing acts of civil disobedience to advance the cause of statehood for the District.

D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray, who some observers say is leading Mayor Adrian Fenty in the race, hasn't specified what law he'd break: Block traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue? Chain himself to the gates of the Capitol?

He has said he wouldn't do it alone, but only if a lot of other people joined him in making a mass statement against two centuries of disenfranchisement of District citizens.

"A more effective approach would be not just me going to jail, but lots of other people there showing their commitment, their resolve," Gray said in an interview Wednesday, a week after he endorsed the tactic at a candidates' forum in Ward 4.

"I don't think we've ever seen large numbers of people consistently committed to achieving this kind of autonomy for the people of the District," he said.

Gray's call to the barricades is partly a campaign maneuver to show that he's more passionate about the issue than Fenty, but I'm mostly with him on it anyway. Voting rights are the keystone in the arch of democracy. Nonviolent, nondestructive civil disobedience is justified on their behalf. No breaking windows, throwing stones or resisting arrest, but it's okay to peaceably occupy a sidewalk, street or office.

Also, it's clear that dramatic steps are needed to raise public awareness in the District and nationwide about the problem. A prolonged campaign of civil disobedience could help, as such acts did in the historic campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the South.

If he were elected and went through with it, Gray wouldn't be the first mayor to break the law for the cause. Sharon Pratt, in whose administration Gray served, was arrested in 1993 for participating in a sit-in on Independence Avenue.

Still, I've got one reservation about Gray's position. He says the immediate goal should be full statehood. That would depart from the District's strategy of the past seven years: Start small by first getting a voting seat in the House. That quest was crippled and perhaps killed in Congress in April, so now Gray and some other political leaders want a new approach.

I'm fine with pushing for statehood, even quickly, but on one condition: Explain how we're going to pay for it, because it would cost a lot.

With statehood, the District would take on the burden of some services now handled by the federal government, particularly courts and prisons. It also would have to shell out more for Medicaid. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi estimates the total price tag to be about $1.2 billion a year, or more than a tenth of the total budget.

Statehood advocates say the city could pay for it in large part by levying a commuter tax on the large number of people who work in the city but reside in Maryland and Virginia. But for that very reason, the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegations, which have been leading advocates of a D.C. vote in the House, could resist statehood.

Gray says that as mayor, he would establish a statehood transition group that would study such questions. If statehood is the goal, then it's critical to provide a straightforward, transparent explanation of where the money will come from.

What's most important is for the District's leaders and friends to agree on a common approach to voting rights and then commit to it for the long term. If there's going to be civil disobedience and it's going to take years to win the battle, then advocates need a simple, single goal to rally around.

For instance, an alternative to seeking statehood could be a push for a constitutional amendment to grant a House seat and two Senate seats to the District, without making it a state. That's nice and clear but also terribly difficult to achieve, because it would require the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress plus three-quarters of the state legislatures.

For his part, Fenty is sticking to the strategy of pushing first for a House vote and later for statehood. That's the approach favored as well by the District's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

"Our 600,000 tax-paying citizens deserve nothing less than full statehood. The first step on that path is a vote in the House," Fenty said in a written statement.

At the Ward 4 forum, Fenty didn't say whether he would commit civil disobedience, but he criticized Gray for making it an issue now, when he hadn't done so in nearly four years as council chairman. In any case, a Fenty campaign official said, civil disobedience is "a style that's just completely not the mayor's."

Regardless of who is the next mayor, he should play a more assertive role in pushing the issue of voting rights, whether through statehood or otherwise. Fenty has mostly deferred to Norton, and perhaps that made sense as long as the House vote bill seemed to be moving forward. Now that it has been blocked, though, new energy is needed.

Gray's willingness to court arrest is welcome in that sense, and Norton endorsed it even if she differs with him on what goal to seek first.

Noting that she was a veteran of many sit-ins, Norton said "of course" she would support civil disobedience. "I come out of the movement where, as we called it, direct action was the way to get movement on issues," she said. "The point is that nobody has ever won their rights because somebody just gave it to them."



Panetta Proposes Statehood Plates for D.C.

By Martin Austermuhle in  on August 12, 2010 1:00 PM







Virginia may have its Horse Enthusiast and Wildlife Mallard license plates, but if one local D.C. voting rights activist has his way, the District might get some special plates of our own.

Shadow Representative Mike Panetta has proposed that D.C. do away with the "Taxation Without Representation" plate, and instead go for one boldly declaring us to be the 51st state. "Here in the District we have our own 'Taxation Without Representation' plates, but they are about 10 years old at at this point, and I think they've lost their effectiveness. More importantly, they are out of line with what we really deserve - full statehood," Panetta wrote on his blog.

The current plates were rolled out in late 2000 by Mayor Anthony Williams. By 2006, more than a million of them had been distributed. President Bill Clinton even had them put on his presidential limousine, but they were then removed by President George W. Bush and have remained off the First Car while President Barack Obama has been in office.



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