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‘Communities’ Organizer

From the Scrapbook

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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 It was issued by Robert McCartney, a Washington Post Metro page columnist, who was furious that the Democrats had “disrespected the District [of Columbia]’s quest for full voting rights” by barring any prominent D.C. officials from addressing the subject in Charlotte. So appalled was -McCartney, in fact, that he approvingly quoted Marion Barry’s angry tweet on the subject: “Let’s be honest,” the ex-mayor for life wrote to his Twitter -audience. “Does D.C. have to be ‘gentrified’ to get voting rights? Is that what we are waiting for? Democracy has no color, right?”

Marion Barry’s immediate resort to racial demagoguery is par for the course. But given the politics of race these days, it is worth noting that while the Republican platform is opposed to statehood and “full voting rights” for the District of Columbia, its opposition is based almost exclusively on politics: Washington, D.C., which is about evenly divided between black and white residents, is overwhelmingly Democratic—Barack Obama won 92.5 percent of the vote in 2008—and Republicans see no reason to hand Democrats any electoral advantage. Unfair, perhaps, in the eyes of some, but a purely political calculation.

The Democrats, by contrast, made a racial calculation. The D.C. officials who were barred from speaking in Charlotte—Mayor Vincent Gray and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—are both black Democrats, and, as McCartney acknowledges, their exclusion was the judgment of “Obama’s campaign operation in Chicago [which] wanted to avoid publicizing African American leaders or causes that might perturb some white voters or hand Republicans an issue to exploit.” 

And what might that issue be? Well, Delegate Norton and her husband once failed to pay their District income taxes for seven straight years (stiff fine, no prison time), and the Post has been expecting Mayor Gray’s indictment any day now for fraud and campaign law violations. The convention’s judgment to keep these prominent Democratic faces off-camera is, at the least, understandable.

But are voting rights for the District a matter of race, as Marion Barry and Robert McCartney believe, or partisan politics? Well, in The Scrapbook’s view, it is essentially neither. And therein lies an interesting tale, seldom told. The problem with “full voting rights” and statehood for the District of Columbia lies in the Constitution, which in Article 1, Section 8, very carefully defines the District as the “Seat of the Government of the United States” and places it exclusively under the control of Congress. Self-government has come and gone over the years—Washington currently enjoys a healthy measure of home rule, with indifferent congressional oversight—but there is a general legal consensus that any basic alteration of the District’s political status would require a constitutional amendment. 

Beyond that, it’s just politics. Democrats favor statehood because it would confer two new Democratic senators on America, and Republicans oppose it for the same reason—as well as the constitutional complications described above. Republicans have also suggested that Washington, D.C., simply revert to Maryland, out of which it was carved in 1790; but District Democrats have grown attached to the idea of statehood—they even have a name for the 51st state, “New Columbia”—and Maryland shows little enthusiasm for gaining territory largely under federal control, as well as a political establishment personified by Marion Barry.

So there you have it: The Obama campaign at its convention wanted to “avoid publicizing African American leaders or causes,” in McCartney’s words. The Scrapbook can only imagine the furor if a Republican convention had done the same.

Compare and Contrast

The Scrapbook attended both parties’ conventions this year, and beyond the obvious ideological distinctions, we noticed a few other differences. In Tampa, the prevailing mood was subdued. Anxiety permeated the convention hall, as if the Republicans in the stands seemed unsure how the rest of America would react to their speakers.

Meanwhile, from the arena to the streets of Charlotte, the convening Democrats were a raucous bunch. The speakers fed off the crowd’s energy, and the people were loud—deafening at times.

Does this mean the GOP’s much heralded enthusiasm advantage has been overhyped? Probably not. Rather, it reflects the fact that the personality cult surrounding the president is alive and well among the party engagés. The evidence was there in the paraphernalia that littered Charlotte: Messianic images of Obama on clothing, pins, stickers, and posters. “We Love Our President,” read a typical T-shirt. The official logo of the convention was set against the iconic Obama “O” to which we have all grown accustomed. 

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