As Trump era dawns, D.C. lead­ers’ hopes dim

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PETER JAMI­SON AND AARON C. DAVIS

D.C. elected of­fi­cials are try­ing, and so far fail­ing, to find a way to fight back against the most hos­tile Congress and pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion they have faced in decades.

Part state, part city and granted self-gov­ern­ment only in the 1970s, the District has al­ways en­dured an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which retains the sel­dom-used power to med­dle with the District’s laws and bud­get.

But not since the 1990s — when a fed­er­ally em­pow­ered con­trol board seized the levers of gov­ern­ment to res­cue the city from fi­nan­cial cri­sis — has the District faced the prospect of such ag­gres­sive in­ter­fer­ence in its af­fairs, say long­time ob­servers of lo­cal pol­i­tics.

“I want to be op­ti­mistic, but I don’t wake up many morn­ings feel­ing good about things,” said Ar­ring­ton Dixon, who served on the first D.C. Coun­cil, elected in 1974. “The [fed­eral] lead­er­ship here seems to be so harsh and in­sen­si­tive. We’re at their mercy in many re­spects. We’re on the menu.”

The twin threats to D.C.’s au­ton­omy are clear. On one hand are con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans de­ter­mined to gut the city’s pro­gres­sive poli­cies, in­clud­ing the le­gal­iza­tion of as­sisted sui­cide and mar­i­juana use, and some of the na­tion’s strictest gun con­trols.

On the other is a pres­i­dent who has de­clared an un­of­fi­cial war on Amer­ica’s large, lib­eral cities, promis­ing a crack­down on their siz­able im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions and promis­ing to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act, which ex­tended Med­i­caid cov­er­age to many of the ur­ban poor, in­clud­ing more than 10 per­cent of D.C. res­i­dents.

The District’s per­ilous cir­cum­stances were il­lus­trated over the past week. Just days af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der that fed­eral dol­lars be stripped from cities that har­bor il­le­gal im­mi­grants, the House threat­ened to ramp up over­sight of the District — or per­haps dis­mem­ber it and re­turn its land to Mary­land, as Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) sug­gested Tues­day dur­ing a House Over­sight Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

Still un­clear is how lo­cal elected lead­ers will re­act to this on­slaught.

Demo­cratic of­fi­cials in other big cities have adopted a de­fi­ant tone to­ward Trump. In the District, with its unique vul­ner­a­bil­ity to fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion, such an ap­proach risks an­tag­o­niz­ing a pres­i­dent who could help de­flect at­tacks from mem­bers of his own party in Congress.

Such prac­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tions must be weighed against the mood of the District’s over­whelm­ingly Demo­cratic elec­torate, many of whom have joined

the protests that have con­vulsed the city since the pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion and 96 per­cent of whom did not vote for Trump.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has so far tried to walk a fine line. She has voiced clear, al­beit muted, sup­port for the District’s sta­tus as an im­mi­grant “sanc­tu­ary city” and wrote a let­ter to the House GOP lead­er­ship in de­fense of Oba­macare. But she has avoided spe­cific at­tacks on the pres­i­dent or mem­bers of Congress, and some say she has been too pas­sive.

Sapna Pandya, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the im­mi­grant rights group Many Lan­guages One Voice, said the District should be mak­ing backup plans in case Trump fol­lows through on prom­ises to cut fed­eral funds from cities whose po­lice of­fi­cers do not co­op­er­ate with im­mi­gra­tion author­i­ties.

Bowser and the coun­cil “need to be proac­tive in iden­ti­fy­ing some of the al­ter­nate sources of money in the city, so we don’t get the rug pulled out from un­der us,” she said.

Out­side the mayor’s of­fice, city of­fi­cials have pro­duced an ad hoc flurry of re­sponses to the new re­al­ity, from At­tor­ney Gen­eral Karl A. Racine’s ap­pear­ance on a Bri­tish tele­vi­sion news sta­tion to de­nounce Trump’s travel ban to in­struc­tions on the D.C. Pub­lic Li­brary’s of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count for res­i­dents who wish to down­load an au­dio­book of Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984.” (All hard copies were checked out.)

The dis­jointed mes­sag­ing has led to grow­ing frus­tra­tion among ac­tivists, and even among the politi­cians them­selves. Anx­i­eties boiled over at a break­fast meet­ing Tues­day be­tween the mayor and lo­cal law­mak­ers, with coun­cil mem­ber Mary M. Cheh (DWard 3) warn­ing that they were be­ing caught flat-footed.

“These peo­ple are bul­lies, and if we think that ac­com­mo­da­tion is go­ing to get us any­where, I think that’s wrong,” Cheh said. She said D.C. res­i­dents “are look­ing to us for lead­er­ship on this” but that the city had done “es­sen­tially noth­ing” to counter House Repub­li­cans’ threats.

The dis­cus­sion, which ended in­con­clu­sively, showed the ex­tent of city of­fi­cials’ dis­ar­ray. Bev­erly L. Perry, a se­nior ad­viser to the mayor, said she had iden­ti­fied 25 Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic mem­bers of Congress, in the House and Sen­ate, who might be “sen­si­tive” to­ward the District and was try­ing to meet with them.

That ap­proach dis­mayed coun­cil mem­ber David Grosso (I-At Large), who said it was a strate­gic mis­step to court mem­bers of the more right-lean­ing House.

“I think it’s an ab­so­lute waste of time,” he said in an in­ter­view. “We’re not go­ing to move the House, in my opin­ion. We can, is­sue by is­sue, move votes in the Sen­ate.”

Ap­pear­ing later that day at a news con­fer­ence in de­fense of the District’s law al­low­ing ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients to end their lives with the help of a doc­tor — a law Chaf­fetz said he plans to block — Bowser said her ad­min­is­tra­tion is work­ing to forge al­liances with Sen­ate lead­ers but de­clined to go into de­tails.

“Just un­der­stand that there are things you will see and hear about and things that will hap­pen and are hap­pen­ing be­hind the scenes that you won’t,” she said.

The GOP-dom­i­nated fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s new as­sertive­ness comes at a chal­leng­ing time for D.C. elected of­fi­cials, who en­ter 2017 in a frac­tious state.

Bowser’s re­la­tion­ships with some coun­cil mem­bers, in par­tic­u­lar Chair­man Phil Men­del­son (D), are in dis­re­pair af­ter a se­ries of drawn-out leg­isla­tive fights. She is work­ing with one eye on coun­cil mem­ber Vin­cent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), the for­mer mayor she un­seated in 2014 and who many be­lieve will try to re­turn the fa­vor next year.

Men­del­son said in an in­ter­view that he rec­og­nizes the need to guard against fed­eral in­ter­fer­ence but that there are no ob­vi­ous paths to agree­ment with Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill.

“There’s not a clear strat­egy,” he said. “The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that these are mem­bers of Congress who are not an­swer­able to the District, who can use the District to score po­lit­i­cal points.”

Since Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, ten­sion has been built into deal­ings be­tween oc­cu­pants of the John A. Wil­son Build­ing and their neigh­bors to the east and west on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue.

For much of that time, how­ever, the re­la­tion­ship stayed in a pre­car­i­ous bal­ance. Dur­ing only four of the 44 years of the Home Rule era have Repub­li­cans con­trolled both houses of Congress and the White House. For the past eight years, for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama was a last line of de­fense against Repub­li­can de­signs on the District.

Even dur­ing pre­vi­ous pe­ri­ods of GOP as­cen­dancy, the District’s lead­ers of­ten stayed on good terms with con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans of a more mod­er­ate bent.

Tom Davis, a for­mer sev­en­term Repub­li­can con­gress­man from North­ern Vir­ginia, said he worked well with District of­fi­cials when he served on and for a time led the House com­mit­tee re­spon­si­ble for the District.

That in­cluded the con­trol board pe­riod, which ul­ti­mately left the city on sound fi­nan­cial foot­ing af­ter years of over­spend­ing by May­ors Mar­ion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly.

“We worked re­ally well to­gether,” Davis said. “There was a recog­ni­tion that this was the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. We wanted to make it proud.”

Davis was a pro­po­nent of ex­panded con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion for the District and said that un­less con­sti­tu­tional or fed­eral pol­icy is­sues were in­volved, he pre­ferred to leave the District alone to gov­ern it­self.

“This is the cap­i­tal of the free world, and they don’t get a vote in Congress — but they pay fed­eral taxes,” he said. “My view is, you give them some lee­way.”

Chaf­fetz has in­di­cated that he thinks oth­er­wise.

He de­clined to com­ment through a spokes­woman, MJ Hen­shaw. She pointed to state­ments Chaf­fetz made in a re­cent guest col­umn for The Wash­ing­ton Post, co-au­thored with Her­itage Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Jim DeMint, in­clud­ing that the “awe­some re­spon­si­bil­ity of act­ing as the state for the cit­i­zens of the District lies not in the hands of a lo­cal gov­ern­ment, but with Congress.”

Bernard Dem­czuk, for­mer as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent for District re­la­tions at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, said city of­fi­cials have to bal­ance their con­stituents’ de­mands for moral lead­er­ship in the Trump era with re­alpoli­tik.

Dem­czuk said that the mayor, and per­haps other high-rank­ing city of­fi­cials, should make an earnest ef­fort to work hand-in-hand with the White House and Congress. At the same time, he said, coun­cil mem­bers and com­mu­nity ac­tivists can take a more fer­vent tone in op­pos­ing Repub­li­can ini­tia­tives that would harm the District.

“I think, quite frankly, it’s a good-cop, bad-cop sce­nario,” Dem­czuk said.

Whether such ma­neu­vers will have any ef­fect re­mains to be seen. Bowser’s cre­ation of a $500,000 le­gal-de­fense fund for D.C. im­mi­grants last month sug­gests the District could be in for a rough ride, no mat­ter what tone its lead­ers adopt.

For Bowser, the fund was an in­cre­men­tal step to­ward meet­ing the de­mands of im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists, who had crit­i­cized her mild state­ments in de­fense of the city’s sanc­tu­ary pol­icy. The fund was smaller than those in some other cities, and the mayor an­nounced it in a state­ment that did not men­tion Trump, let alone use the fire­brand rhetoric in which other big-city may­ors have de­nounced the new pres­i­dent.

For Chaf­fetz and Rep. Mark Mead­ows (R-N.C.), who heads the sub­com­mit­tee for District af­fairs and is chair­man of the far-right House Free­dom Cau­cus, it made no dif­fer­ence. Two weeks ago, they sent Bowser a let­ter say­ing they be­lieved the fund con­flicted with fed­eral law, and they planned to in­ves­ti­gate.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton (D), the District’s del­e­gate to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, lis­tens to D.C. Coun­cil Chair­man Phil Men­del­son dur­ing a news con­fer­ence.

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