Shadows of D.C. Statehood
WASHINGTON- The door to the office of Democrat Paul Strauss in the John A. Wilson Building a little more than a block from the White House is marked "Senator."
A young intern cheerfully answers his phone with "Sen. Strauss’s office." He has official U.S. Senate stationery, embossed with a gold eagle, for sending letters.
Yet this obscure Washington political asterisk’s perks end there.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Sen. Strauss. Even some who live here and can vote for him have no idea he exists.
Strauss and Michael Brown are "shadow" senators representing the District of Columbia, members of its "shadow" delegation — along with "shadow" Rep. Mike Panetta — elected by D.C. voters.
"Basically, the voters can vote for me, but I can’t vote for them," Strauss said. "My job is to win statehood for the district."
Doesn’t that make him essentially a lobbyist?
"Not so," Strauss said. "Lobbyists are paid to do what I do for free. Just like my wife is not paid to do some things for me that I might have to pay for somewhere else."
None of these "shadow" guys should be confused with D.C.’s delegate-at-large, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is employed by the federal government, can serve on committees and vote in them, but cannot vote on passage of legislation.
Strauss said the district has been lobbying for statehood since 1801. Statehood would give its 600,000 voters full representation in Congress.
The district was created to serve as the federal government’s seat, thanks to Philadelphia’s refusal to provide protection to the Continental Congress.
A site near Harrisburg was considered first, but the district instead was carved from Maryland and Virginia. Virginia’s portion later voted to return to that state.
Congress, which controls the district, gave it limited home rule through a locally elected government. Like other U.S. territories and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it has a nonvoting House delegate.
Strauss hinted that past statehood attempts were blindsided by racism, because D.C. was and is predominantly black.
He admitted that the last two years — with a liberal black president and an overwhelming Democrat majority in Congress — brought the best shot at statehood.
"It sure should have been," Strauss grumbled. "We lost an opportunity to accomplish what was essentially our moment. Somehow we thought if we asked for less democracy we would get more. We ended up creating more diversion than solutions."
"Shadow" senators are nothing new. The practice dates to 1796, when Tennessee, then a territory, sent elected "shadow" senators to lobby for statehood.
The push for D.C. statehood is both passionate and gimmicky. To bring attention to it, a city effort is under way to ceremonially rename the country’s most celebrated street, Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We are thinking something like ‘Give D.C. Statehood Avenue’ to be used as a ceremonial street sign that could be placed under existing signs for Pennsylvania Avenue," Strauss said.
The idea underscores the mixed message: Are they serious or chasing windmills?
Experts disagree on D.C. statehood. U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said, "You’d think a democracy would be embarrassed to have a half-million of its citizens disenfranchised."
Ritchie’s argument is that, by setting aside a capital district, the authors of the Constitution clearly expected it to have a population.
Historian Jeff Brauer disagreed: "From the Framers’ viewpoint, the idea was the capital city would be a federal district … (not) part of any state, and a district that would not be a state itself."
The Framers, he said, feared that if the capital city were within a state, or if its citizens had full representation, it and they would have too much access to federal power.
"They saw it as more of a place of transition, not of permanence … especially since the ideal was a citizen government with a high turnover rate," Brauer said.
Back then, the federal government was expected to play a relatively small role. Therefore, a huge bureaucracy with lots of public employees living in the district was not anticipated.
So the district’s original purpose was to be the federal government’s seat — and not much more.
As for Strauss, he said his job is not without its advantages: "I do get to walk in parades."