WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama carried the nation’s capital in 2008 with 92 percent of the vote, and some local activists hoped he would push to give the District of Columbia representation in Congress and more autonomy in local affairs.
Four years later, nothing has changed—the district still has a nonvoting delegate in the House, and its budget and laws remain subject to congressional review. Even Obama’s staunchest local defenders are upset he’s not more vocal on issues important to them.
“There are many things I agree with the administration on. This is not one of them,” said D.C. Councilmember Michael A. Brown, a campaign surrogate for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. “I have been disappointed by their lack of leadership related to statehood efforts.”
Obama hasn’t met with Mayor Vincent Gray since a lunch in late 2010, before the mayor took office, and the president hasn’t invited Gray to the State of the Union address, a courtesy sometimes extended to district mayors. And he hasn’t placed the district’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plate on his official vehicles, a symbolic gesture Bill Clinton made when in office.
Gray, a Democrat, has been dogged by scandal since shortly after he took office—a likely barrier to friendly relations with the White House. Three former aides have pleaded guilty to crimes linked to Gray’s 2010 campaign against then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, including one who admitted she helped funnel $650,000 in illicit funds to the campaign. The U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to investigate the mayor, who denies wrongdoing.
The mayor said last week that he doesn’t feel personally snubbed by the president.
“I’m supporting the president’s re-election, and I hope in his second term that he will be able to do more for the District of Columbia,” Gray said.
Some activists say the mayor and other politicians are little more than apologists for a president who has ignored them.
“He’s snubbing the mayor, but he’s also snubbing D.C. Even if it was another mayor, he would have snubbed him, too,” said Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for WTTG-TV and a longtime statehood advocate.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 11 to 1 in the nation’s capital, and the Democratic candidate has received at least 75 percent of the vote in every presidential election since the district was granted three electoral votes in 1964. But Obama’s margin was the largest, and residents of what was then still a majority-black city partied all night in the streets to celebrate the nation’s first black president.
Although Obama has said when asked that he supports representation and greater autonomy for the district, his most forceful words on a local matter were a dagger to the heart of local leaders: “John, I will give you D.C. abortion.” That’s what he said to House Speaker John Boehner during negotiations that ended a budget impasse in April 2011, according to published reports of the meeting.
That concession meant that the city could no longer spend local tax dollars on abortions for poor women, something it has done when Democrats have controlled the House, Senate and presidency. It led to a protest outside the Capitol in which Gray was arrested.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress but cannot vote on the House floor, said she was disappointed by the concession on abortion. But she says the White House has backed the district since then, in part by inserting language in its budget proposals advocating budget autonomy for the city.
“If we want anything from the president, we would just like more forceful statements more often,” Norton said. But, she added, “we don’t have any illusions that if the tea party Congress hears from the president of the United States, they’ll do right. Give us a break.”
With Democrats controlling Congress, the first two years of Obama’s term presented the district’s best opportunity to gain representation. In early 2009, the Senate passed a bill to give Norton a vote on the House floor. But Republican senators added an amendment to dismantle the city’s tight gun-control laws, and with some Democrats also signaling support for the amendment, House leaders pulled the bill from consideration.
Since Republicans took back the House in 2010, the district’s most prominent champion has been a conservative Republican: California Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the committee that oversees district government. He has drafted a bill that would authorize the district to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval, and he has even floated the idea of a commuter tax, which is vigorously opposed by representatives from Maryland and Virginia.
Still, budget autonomy has eluded the city. District leaders rejected Issa’s bill because of an amendment that would make permanent the ban on abortion spending.
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