Shadow in Doubt

Bradley, Gore Court D.C.'s Non-Voting 'Senator'

WASHINGTON—Senator Paul Strauss of the District of Columbia is indeed a senator; he's got the ID card, license plates, and dining room privileges to prove it. What he doesn't have is the actual right to vote—let alone set foot—on the floor of the Senate, which is what happens when the jurisdiction one represents is, effectively speaking, a colony. 'No New Yorker would stand for this,' D.C.'s "shadow senator" seethes as he tugs at the lump of rock and metal on his finger—a 1996 Yankees championship ring, given to his father by George Steinbrenner.

"Would a New Yorker put up with having to get permission from a congressman in Kansas—where they're still debating the merits of teaching evolution—to implement a working local AIDS policy?" he rhetorically asks, no trace of Washington deference in his combative New York accent. "We had an effective needle-exchange program that was working here, but a congressman from Kansas blocked it so he could score political points back home."

His eyes narrow. "Would a New Yorker stand for Bob Barr—Bob Barr, from Georgia!—using his power to make sure we couldn't even tally the results of a democratic referendum, in this case on medical marijuana? A New Yorker would go out of his mind." He settles back in his chair, eyes still focused. "Frankly, I think people in New York can understand quite easily why D.C. should be a state. But other people understand that, too—Republicans who don't want to see two more Democrats in the Senate, especially two more Democrats who represent an almost exclusively urban constituency in a Senate that's incredibly anti-urban."

In a town that genuflects to those with clout, it's easy for Strauss—whom many in the Senate don't really see as being one of The Club—to be relegated to a perennially marginalized slot. But a few weeks ago, Al Gore's people were paying him some mind as well as lip; Bill Bradley's supposed to be chatting him up this week. The reason? Even though Strauss has no voting rights in the Senate, his status as an elected official makes him an automatic superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention. And while all the other D.C. superdelegates have endorsed Gore, Strauss is refusing to commit until he's satisfied himself as to which candidate will most zealously champion the cause of a free D.C. "This is really the only vote I have that counts," he says, "and I want to be sure that that vote and what that vote means—a serious commitment to D.C. statehood—is not going to be taken for granted."

Though Brooklyn-born and Manhattan-raised (East 83rd Street and Fifth Avenue), Strauss—the son of Yankee Stadium's painting contractor, Victor Strauss ("George Steinbrenner told me when I was a kid, 'Your old man's one of the only contractors I've ever worked with who delivered what he promised' ")—loves Washington, D.C., so much he successfully ran for Jesse Jackson's vacated seat in 1996. At first blush, backing Gore would seem to be the natural thing for Strauss to do. That the vice president would choose Donna Brazile—a veteran D.C. Democratic activist and staffer for Eleanor Holmes Norton, the one non-voting delegate to the House that Congress allows the District—as his campaign manager was seen by many as a strong signal of Gore's commitment to D.C. And it was Gore, after all, who cosponsored the Senate's last D.C. statehood bill. But rather like '80s-era Christian conservatives who came to realize that the Reagan and Bush administrations were providing them with more symbolic gestures than actual policy successes, Strauss and other statehood advocates have begun to wonder just how committed Gore is to ending D.C.'s colonial status.

"There's a lot more [the co-sponsors of the bill] could have done, and frankly, there's a lot more the vice president, in his capacity as president of the Senate, could have done to facilitate my access to other senators," says Strauss. "Since election-year stuff has started, my access to the vice president has been better. But when I first got elected, I tried unsuccessfully to get time with the vice president—I spoke to Thurgood Marshall Jr. [then a top Gore aide] and other staffers about meeting with him, and nothing ever came of it. I had all these conversations in which they said, 'We're going to try to make it happen,' but it never did."

Nonetheless, says Strauss, the Gore campaign seemed to automatically expect his endorsement. "There was a local event that they wanted me to sign on to—when I said I wasn't quite ready to commit, they weren't pleased," he says. "They said, 'The vice president has been there for D.C., and it's just not right for you to turn your back on him when he needs you.' I said I needed a little more time."

Clearly aware that he's risking Gore's political affections by not falling in line, Strauss insists it's nothing personal; he'd just like to chat with Bradley about D.C. statehood before picking his horse. As Bradley is the candidate who's made racial reconciliation a campaign centerpiece, it seems only logical to Strauss that he'd want to talk with leaders of a majority black city whose citizens are disenfranchised. But while Strauss has been getting a slew of e-mails and has had numerous conversations with Bradley's staff, he has yet to hear from Bradley himself.

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