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.
“Earlier today, I had a conversation with one of his people, who was like, ‘You don’t care about national health care?’ I explained that I only get this vote because I’m a shadow senator, and I’m only shadow senator so I can advance statehood. I’ve got a lot of respect for Bradley, but he’d left the Senate by the time I was elected. I feel I owe it to him to hear what he has to say about D.C. statehood before I make my decision,” he says, gearing up for a rant.
“Look, every day, New York City welcomes people from New Jersey,” he starts. “New York gets some of its money up front at tollbooths; D.C. has been banned by Congress from enacting tolls or implementing a commuter tax. We don’t even have an elected federal representative who can help guide federal spending to stimulate our economy, while members from other states raid jobs by relocating federal jobs outside the district. Our citizens elected the president, but their representatives weren’t allowed to participate in his impeachment process. It’s ridiculous and it has to end.”
A fervent believer in the potential of electoral politics as a mechanism for proactive change, Strauss began his political career at nine, licking envelopes and posting flyers for Mario Biaggi (“The big kids were beating up on me, and I was attracted to his anti-crime positions,” he says, “though, ironically, Biaggi ended up not stopping crime but taking the Fifth and going to jail for a crime”). He did scut work for Hugh Carey and Jimmy Carter, and by 17 was interning for Ed Koch. “I even had my own desk and phone at the Tweed Courthouse,” he fondly recalls. Coming to Washington to attend American University in 1982, Strauss’s start in local politics was hardly for the noblest of reasons: there was talk of raising the drinking age to 21. “We registered thousands of Washington college kids and kept it at 18, even when Congress voted to tie a mandatory 21 drinking age to highway funds. But when we thought we’d won, Congress stepped in and basically said, ‘So what, we’re changing it for you.’ ”
Since then, Strauss has been a statehood advocate. It’s a point of pride with him that his numbers in Ward 8, the city’s predominantly black precinct, are almost the same as in his own predominantly white Ward 3. If only, he sighs, he got as frequently warm a reception from his brethren on Capitol Hill as he does the residents of Southeast D.C. “Congress actually more or less let us alone for a while, but it got worse in the ’80s, and hit bottom when Gingrich and his people came in in 1994—D.C. was like an opportunity for them to do whatever they couldn’t do to the rest of the country, or in their own districts,” he says. “When they tried to repeal our gun-control laws, this Duncan Hunter guy from California told me, ‘Well, the Second Amendment gives all Americans everywhere the right to carry guns.’ When I asked him about giving D.C. residents the rights of every other American to elect voting representatives, he said, ‘Well, that’s another political issue.’ ”
After the 1998 elections, Strauss says he was more hopeful for the future. But then last year, “Tom Daschle trampled over D.C.’s rights by putting a rider on a bill saying notwithstanding any environmental concerns, Bell Atlantic could put cell phone towers in Rock Creek Park,” he says. “And that’s my own minority leader.”