The editors figured you should know something about the federal enclave that you will call your home almost nine months out of the year. See below for a general history and profile of the District, from D.C. voting rights to race politics, and stay tuned for profiles of individual neighborhoods on Wednesday.
L’Enfant’s wet dream
As a consolation prize to the South for assuming Northern war debts, the capital city would take root firmly below the Mason-Dixon line.
In 1790, Congress asked President Washington to select the location. He gladly obliged with a location on the Potomac River that would be navigable to ships and just so happened to lie less than 20 miles from his house. The new city absorbed the old port towns of Georgetown and Alexandria (the latter returned to Virginia in 1847 because they were afraid D.C. would ban the slave trade).
Washington then appointed a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, to design the rest of the city. The planner offered up the city of grand avenues and plazas that we know today. Unique among American cities, they recall a European imperial capital.
However, L’Enfant was a temperamental prima donna, and Washington fired him before he could see the city developed. The designer of the capital city died in poverty. And they named an ugly modernist development near the Mall after him.
Taxation without representation
In a freak accident of history, the capital of the free world has no vote in its national legislature. The U.S. Constitution only gives votes to states and their residents. But the District of Columbia is a “federal district,” and the Congress functions as its local government.
Why ever would Congress need its own private fiefdom, you ask?
In 1783, angry Continental Army soldiers marched on Independence Hall in Philadelphia to demand wages the Congress had neglected to pay. At the time, there was no national army and Pennsylvania took a pass on confronting a mob of over 400 backcountry yokels.
At 6:05 PM yesterday, Capitol Police arrested Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Chair Kwame Brown, and Councilmen Tommy Wells, Muriel Bowser, Yvette Alexander, Sekou Biddle, and Michael A. Brown during a demonstration for D.C. voting rights and home rule. The lawmakers have been charged with “unlawful assembly” and face a $50 fine.
The bright side: at least the Council is sticking up for someone’s rights, and we can now also say that more D.C. mayors have been arrested for civil disobedience than for drug use (former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly was arrested during a similar protest in the 1990′s). The downside: Mary Cheh was in charge until everyone was released.
Although she opened her speech quietly and in a strained voice Monday night in Georgetown University’s ICC Auditorium, Eleanor Holmes Norton was soon speaking loudly and passionately about the defining issue of her nine Congressional terms: voting rights for the District of Columbia.
“We are on the verge of getting this bill through both houses,” she said of a follow-up to the D.C. House Voting Rights Act of 2009. Hinting at the significance of Emancipation Day this Friday, April 16, Norton was optimistic that D.C.’s “200 years of struggle” would soon be coming to an end, and said that the hard work put into the bill by Democratic leadership would soon “bear fruit.”
Norton said she has been working hard to rid the bill of “an odious amendment” that would limit D.C.’s ability to restrict guns, and repeal gun registration requirements and D.C.’s semi-automatic ban. a mission that took on new meaning for her after the gunshot deaths of four D.C resident’s two weeks ago. Despite efforts by the NRA’s powerful lobby, Norton said she would “try to save as much of D.C.’s gun laws as possible.”
Turning to other issues, Norton stressed the importance of bringing “incremental change” to the country, but she also said it is because of a dogged unwillingness to compromise that some Democrats will lose their congressional seats in November’s midterm elections. “Be prepared to lose congressional seats,” she said, because Democrats “were not willing to sell our souls and not sell out the American people on health care.”
Turning to the College Democrats, who brought her to speak on the Hilltop Congresswoman Norton issued a challenge to some of the most active members of her party, saying that recent losses in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts “should sober Democrats still drunk from Inauguration.” Norton charged the same Democratic base that helped elect President Obama with proving that he “not only has landing power, but also has staying power.”
“The fight is on, bring it on,” she said. If 2009 was all about Obama, “in 2010 it is going to be about all of us.”
In the interest of keeping you informed about the fine city we live in, Vox is starting a new feature, the District Digest, which will be a quick-and-easy guide to the most interesting and important D.C. stories of the week.
The big, sad, awful story of the week was the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday. James von Brunn, an 88-year-old white supremacist, opened rifle fire at the museum, killing security guard Stephen Johns.
Plans for the District to get a voting representative in the House were derailed on Tuesday when Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that she had decided to kill the D.C. House Voting Rights Actdue to the Ensign Amendment, a provision tacked on to the bill that would have all but eliminated the District’s gun control laws.
Although the prognosis was positive a few months ago when Obama took office and the Democrats swept Congress, it looks like the quest for D.C. voting rights has been derailed once again.
Caught between a rock (the Ensign amendment that was tacked onto the bill and would have undermined the District’s gun control regulations) and a hard place (the ongoing slight to democracy that is D.C.’s lack of representation), Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has decided to kill the D.C. House Voting Rights Act for now, according to City Desk.
In a statement to legislators and voting rights advocates, Norton said:
[T]he Majority Leader and I met on Friday afternoon to discuss our bill, a draft of a compromise gun amendment from his office, and other options for moving the voting rights bill to the House floor now.
We sent a memo summarizing the content of the meeting with the Majority Leader and of the compromise amendment and shared the memo before a conference call on Sunday with the bill’s major advocates whom we could reach, including the DC vote coalition. The conference call discussed in detail all of the options available to us at this time, none of which would result in the elimination of the Ensign amendment, as well as the split in opinion in the city about attaching a bill that carries a danger to public safety and elimination of the city’s authority over gun legislation. All agreed that there were good reasons to wait for now. Please understand that we are holding the bill for now, not giving up on voting rights.
Photo from Flickr user ellievanhoutte, used under a Creative Commons license.
Somebody get this Congresswoman a megaphone … and a full-floor vote
District citizens troubled by the irony of living in the nation’s capital without much representation to speak of themselves may soon get a break.
The Joe Liberman-sponsored D.C. Voting Rights bill has cleared the filibuster mark in the Senate with a vote of 62-34—the farthest a D.C. voting rights bill has ever gotten—and most expect the House to pass a similar bill shortly (both would also allot Utah, who some feel deserved an extra Congressional district based on the 2000 Census, an additional vote, which has helped shore up Republican support).
So our ten-term Congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton (above), is going to get a full-floor vote, not just a committee vote, on House legislation just like everyone else, right?
Not so fast, say D.C. Vote opponents. According to the New York Times, “The fight to overturn what advocates for the district’s voting rights call ‘taxation without representation’’ will likely wind up as a constitutional test in the courts, even if this measure is signed into law.” Objections to a D.C. vote abound, including Senator Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) insistence that Congress already represents us (and how).
Via DCist,the first (and best) rap about DC voting rights. It’s got Eleanor Holmes Norton crossing her arms, all sorts of DC residents asking for their rights, and a heartbreaking intro.Best of all, around 2:00 rapper Joe L. Da Vessel complains to Shadow Senator Michael Brown: “Now I know this is delicate, but I could go to war and all I get is shadow delegate?” Brown just shrugs and looks abashed, it’s priceless.