Advocates Renew Fight For D.C. Voting Rights

The District of Columbia does not have a full vote in Congress, despite having more than half a million residents. But what many may not know is that every law passed by the city's council is submitted for congressional review, including the recent same-sex marriage bill which went into effect last year. Host Michel Martin speaks about the latest in the fight to gain voting rights for residents of D-C with R. Clarke Cooper. Cooper is Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that advocates for marriage equality in the District. Also joining the conversation is Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk about another very different story, but one that also speaks to questions of representation and participation. We're talking about Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia. It's one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, yet the half a million residents of D.C. do not have a vote when it comes to congressional action. They do have a delegate who serves in the House of Representatives and can advise his or her colleagues. But that representative does not have full voting rights.

Unlike other jurisdictions with similar arrangements, D.C. residents also pay all federal taxes. Why does this matter? To help us answer that and explore this question, we have Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, which is an organization with a mission that's true to its title. They seek to have full democracy and voting representation in Congress for D.C.

Also joining us is R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay and lesbian Republican grassroots organization. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ILIR ZHERKA (Executive Director, DC Vote): Thank you.

Mr. R. CLARKE COOPER (Executive Director, Log Cabin Republicans): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Ilir, let's start with you, since this is your organization's main purpose. Why do you think this is important and why do you think people who don't live in the District of Columbia - in the spirit of full disclosure I will tell you that I do - should care about this?

Mr. ZHERKA: Well, Americans actually have a lot more power over whether or not Washingtonians get representation and full democracy than Washingtonians themselves, right? Because D.C. residents do not have power in the Congress because they lack representation, and so Americans around the country have the ability to weigh in and they ought to, you know. Martin Luther King said injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And certainly that's true in the nation's capital.

MARTIN: But the logic of it is that citizens of all states should have an interest in how this particular territory area is governed and that's why they all have some voice in it.

Mr. ZHERKA: They have responsibility, because, you know, Washington, D.C. doesn't have the power itself. And so we ask our friends and, you know, fellow Americans around the country to weigh in. And oftentimes they do.

MARTIN: Then why should the status quo change is what I'm asking?

Mr. ZHERKA: Oh, I see. Well, you know, Americans who pay taxes and play by the rules and sit on juries and serve in the nation's armed forces ought to be treated the same regardless of where they live. And so if you're an American who lives in Maryland or in California or Texas or Washington, D.C., you ought to have full representation. You ought to be able to influence the laws under which you live.

And, of course, Washington, D.C. also sends up its budget and its local laws. And so not having representation and power over that process, I think is galling for Washingtonians.

MARTIN: So, I'd like to turn to R. Clarke Cooper of Log Cabin Republicans. We invited you to participate in this conversation because your organization is experiencing something that's indicative of why this is a problem for D.C. residents that every law the D.C. council passes has to go through congressional review.

Right now same-sex marriage is legal in the district, but now Republicans, of which you are one, are holding the House majority. And some members take issue with that and suggest overturning it. What is your message on this?

Mr. COOPER: Well, for starters, I have to disclose that I'm a homeowner and resident in the District of Columbia. So I'm also a D.C. resident and voter, a Republican voter. I want to remind folks that the party here, the Republican Party, has been a strong advocate for statehood, for self-determination and for self-governance. And in a previous Congress, Congressman Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia, actually introduced legislation in the House for that. It passed the House and it passed by a margin of 241 for, with 177 against. The companion bill didn't go anywhere in the Senate.

And then during the Bush administration, President Bush himself actually was supportive of autonomy for budgeting. It was just mentioned, budgeting and spending of local funds and having it happen at a local level. And of course the D.C. Republican Party, as well as Log Cabin, at a national level supports the legislative autonomy so the District of Columbia laws don't have to be reviewed by Congress. So it doesn't have to have an incursion.

But back to your earlier point about the marriage law, we're very concerned from two standpoints: one from a sovereignty standpoint, one from a conservative standpoint. It is counterintuitive from a conservative standpoint to have the federal government have the Congress take an incursion upon local law. The D.C. marriage law was passed at a local legislative level and we don't need Congress coming in and putting their hands on that. It is overreach. It's a federal overreach.

MARTIN: Your organization, as I understand it, having interviewed many of your members of your group, consider themselves largely conservative. And I'm curious why what you view as a conservative perspective, you know, in favor of, you know, small government with limited involvement in individual rights, that point of view does not seem to be holding sway where the District of Columbia is concerned.

Because over the years, you know, federal authorities have kept the district from using locally-generated taxpayer funds on things like needle exchange programs and other very specific issues of municipal governments. I'm just curious why you think your perspective does not seem to be holding sway.

Mr. COOPER: Well, it's shifted in a positive direction except for this one case where we - there's been discussion. Now, granted, no legislation's been introduced, this Congress, to repeal our state laws on marriage. But there has been - you have to remember, there's a history, and it's not too long ago, when this government, our local government, was really in a hole. And it's similar to where governors of states will maybe come in. There's - in Florida, the governor actually took over Miami-Dade for a short period of time.

More recently in recent history, the governor of Michigan took over running the city of Flint, Michigan, because they couldn't manage their affairs. So the District of Columbia partially suffers the tertiary effects of an earlier era when our fiscal responsibility was very weak.

MARTIN: OK, but the federal government's never taken over Louisiana, for example, from this governance. They've never taken over other states like California, which is having serious budget problems.

Mr. COOPER: Right.

MARTIN: So, Ilir, I'll ask you the same question. Why do you think this perspective that Clarke is expressing has not held sway?

Mr. ZHERKA: Well, I think people can't resist using the power that they have because it's unchecked, right? And so you get people who come to Washington, D.C. and they want to impress some interest group back home or they want to raise money from some national group or they want to make a name for themselves. All of those reasons have led people in the Congress to try to impose themselves and their will on Washington, D.C. because that power can't be checked, right?

Because Washington, D.C. doesn't have senators who could, you know, put a stop to it. Or another representative who says, wait a second, if you attack D.C., then I'm going to go after your state or your congressional district. And so this has gone on, for, really, the last 200-plus years. And so Clarke talks about the last 10 years and I understand the point you were making about the control board in the late '90s.

But, you know, this is another reason why, Michel, we really need full representation in Congress, full local control and eventually statehood.

MARTIN: And, finally, we only have about 45 seconds left. There are those who just argue it's unconstitutional. It may be a good idea - it may sound good, but it's just unconstitutional. So, and what is your response to that?

Mr. ZHERKA: And that's absolutely not right. The Constitution is silent on the question of representation, neither for nor against. And the Founding Fathers, there's no, you know, federalist paper out there that describes the intent of the Founding Fathers. Really, what happened in the early birth of this nation is the constitutional convention punted on the major questions of the day. And then when they created the District of Columbia, they punted again and they left all the major questions for another day.

MARTIN: Ilir Zherka is executive director of DC Vote. We're going to leave the conclusion to this for another day. But thank you for keeping us up to date. R. Clarke Cooper is executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. ZHERKA: Thank you.

Mr. COOPER: Thank you.

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