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For D.C. Residents, a Vote in the House a Long Time Coming

Black America Web.com, Commentary, Jackie Jones Posted: Feb 24, 2009

While the House of Representatives takes up its version of a bill to give the District of Columbia a voting member in the House, Washingtonians have grown weary and wary of the hurry-up-and-wait routine.

The citys voting history has been relatively short, in historical terms. The 23rd Amendment, which gave D.C. residents the right to vote for president, was ratified in March 1961.

I recall, as a 10-year-old growing up in Washington, the excitement among the grown-ups in my household as they prepared to cast their votes in the 1964 race between Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater.

My maternal grandfather teased me unmercifully as he swore that he intended to vote for Goldwater. I had watched campaign coverage intently on television and read the newspapers yes, I was a nerd and listened to relatives and the nuns at my school about whether Johnson would protect the country from attack or if Goldwater would lead us into a nuclear holocaust.

On election night, my grandfather came home late from the polls, after closing up his barbershop, and threw a Johnson-(Hubert)Humphrey campaign button on the kitchen table and said, They told me to give you this in case they won.

Relief was just one of many words that came to mind when I realized my grandfather had indeed voted for Johnson.

By the time I reached high school, we had endured the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.s assassination and that of Robert F. Kennedy. President Johnson, hoping to tamp down the anger that smoldered in the city, appointed Walter E. Washington as the citys mayor. Part of the intent was to put a black face in a prominent position that could hold sway with black residents or at least encourage them that better days were ahead.

In many ways, it was largely a ceremonial position. The city had been ruled for years by a three-member commission and the House D.C. subcommittee, which controlled pretty much everything from the citys budget to the taxi fare system.

What Washingtons appointment did do, however, was encourage the movement for self-rule in the city and for representation in the Congress.

In 1970, Congress granted the District a non-voting delegate to Congress, and in 1971, my senior year in high school, the Rev. Walter Faunteroy, one of Rev. Martin Luther King's lieutenants, was elected to represent the city. He held the position until 1990, when he retired and the current delegate, civil rights attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton, was elected.

Congress passed the Home Rule Act for D.C., which provided for an elected mayor and council, in December 1973, and elections were held the following year.

Last week, a Senate committee voted for a bill to give the delegate a vote on the floor of the House and add a seat to Utahs House delegation because it is the state next in line by population, according to the 2000 census, to get another seat.

This is likely the Districts best chance for the foreseeable future to win the vote, as the heavily Democratic Congress could well pass the bill even without a lot of Republican support.

It certainly would be the democratic lower-case d thing to do. The city is more populous than Wyoming and doesnt see an equitable return on the taxes it sends to the federal government that other states do, despite the fact that it is host to the federal government (which doesnt pay taxes, but makes a federal payment for the use of the citys infrastructure) and has the responsibility of providing security for parades, protests and celebratory events like the presidential inauguration.

Opponents to giving D.C. the vote primarily Republicans - say the bill is unconstitutional because the District is not a state and that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress sweeping powers over the city, including the right to congressional representation.

What they wont say is that the overwhelmingly Democratic city will provide another Democratic vote in the House and in the Senate, if the right is extended to that chamber somewhere down the road.

Growing up, I heard jaded non-native Washingtonians blithely suggest that if we wanted the vote we should just move to a state say, Maryland or Virginia and register there.

When I countered that some folks couldnt afford to just up and move, that their location in Washington may not have been by choice, that geography in the United States should not define poor peoples worth as citizens, especially those who work, pay taxes, serve this nation faithfully in the military and have met every standard set forth to be considered an upstanding citizen, I was met with the silence of the shamed.

Its all well and good for the sake of argument to be glib about inside the Beltway Washington and whether its denizens deserve to be voters. Its quite another to be victimized by someone who cannot or will not put a face on those same residents.

President Obama co-sponsored a 2007 version of the bill when he was in the Senate and is expected to sign the measure if it passes.

"It's 200 years too late," Norton said recently, But we'll take it.

Related Articles:

District Gets Boost in Bid for Voting Rights

Despite Democratic Gains Voting Rights Uncertain

Voters Purged from Election Rolls

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