With all eyes turning to the nation’s capitol today, I’d like to direct your attention to the District. Yes, D.C. The District of Columbia. Or as some residents call it, “the last colony.”
Perhaps because Barack Obama is the first black president of our nation, or maybe just as a contrast to the upper-class priorities of the most recent administration, we got a rare glimpse of the real day-to-day life in D.C. on Sunday.
The Obamas attended services at the Nineteenth Street Church that morning. The church was organized as the First Colored Church of Washington in 1839 as a place for slaves to worship alongside free people.
The Obamas have pledged to engage with residents in their new home city, as evidenced by their call to the nation to volunteer on Monday. And D.C. needs all the help it can get.
Today, the neighborhood in which the Nineteenth Street Church is located has a demographic you don’t generally see in mass media coverage of the city as a whole. Census data for the church’s zip code indicate the area is 80 percent black and has a higher percentage of individuals and families living below the poverty line than the national rate. Residents of the area are also more likely to be disabled and less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the rest of the country.
The city as a whole, one built on the backs of slaves, to this day has its fair share of problems.
According to RealtyTrac, an online real estate information service, foreclosures in D.C. have gone up more than 50 percent since October 2008 and more than 300 percent in the year before that.
The seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for D.C. is 8 percent, well over the national average, tied with Nevada and surpassed only by Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina and California.
According to the Department of Health, D.C. had the highest number of new cases of AIDS in the nation in 2007. Also, the AIDS mortality rate for the city in 2006 was ten times that of the national rate.
According to the FBI, the D.C.’s rate of violent crime in 2006 and 2007 was more than three times that of the national rate.
Furthermore, there’s little indication of improvement in the near future. In 2009, severe budget cuts will disproportionately fall on the economically disadvantaged, according to a study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
Still, this struggling city goes without formal representation in Congress. If the residents of D.C. were instead overwhelmingly white and wealthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that our outgoing president would have ameliorated the situation within the first months of 2001. Instead, he’s threatened to veto the recent attempts to grant such representation.
DC Vote is a 501 (c)(3) that has been working for the past decade to secure full voting representation in Congress for residents of the District. According to the organization, residents pay the second highest per capita federal income taxes in the nation, but have no control over how that money is spent. Furthermore, though they have local officials, the group says that municipal laws are “routinely overruled by members of Congress pursuing their own personal agendas without regard for the welfare of DC residents.”
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton represents D.C. to a certain degree. She is allowed to speak from the House floor and serve on committees, but has no legislative vote.
The citizens of the District have been clamoring for representation virtually since the establishment of the area as the nation’s seat of government more than two centuries ago. Since her election, Norton has been leading the effort to secure full representation.
No change to the constitution is necessary to grant representation for the area, just legislation. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
The District of Columbia votes overwhelmingly Democratic, making it tough to secure the support of Republicans on the issue of voting rights there. However, a scholarly article written by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) recently whipped up a passionate defense for D.C. voting rights.
Hatch was a Senate co-sponsor of the D.C. Voting Rights Act in 2007. The bill sought to establish a new congressional district for not only D.C., but Hatch’s home state, which is overwhelmingly Republican. A similar bill passed the House. However, this did not quell the concerns of conservatives such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who led a successful filibuster against the act.
But proponents aren’t about to give up now. Shortly after Obama was elected, Norton told the Trotter Group — an organization of black columnists — that she would reintroduce the legislation in 2009 and expected it to pass within the president’s first year in office.
Obama co-sponsored the 2007 bill as a senator. Norton was quoted in the Kansas City Star telling the group:
“The reason I’m looking forward to this next year is, not only do we have a president who I think instinctively understands, I think we now have a Congress which also believes the time has come for this city to cross over the divide and become a part of America like everybody else.”
With a city in such peril as D.C., which is as a natural symbol for the country as a whole, it’s only fair and right that its citizens have a vote in Congress.
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