Salena Zito

WASHINGTON – When Democrat Paul Strauss walks into the John A. Wilson Building a little more than a block from the White House, the door leading to his office is marked “Senator.”

The young intern answering his phone cheerfully greets callers with, “Senator Strauss’s office.” And if he has to send a letter, he has official U.S. Senate stationary embossed with a gold eagle.

Yet the perks for this obscure Washington political asterisk end there.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Sen. Strauss. Even some people who live here and can vote for him have no idea he exists.

Strauss and Michael Brown are “shadow” senators representing the District of Columbia, one of three members of the district’s shadow delegation – along with shadow representative Mike Panetta –who are elected by D.C. voters.

“Basically the voters can vote for me, but I can’t vote for them,” Strauss said. “My job is to win statehood for the district.”

Doesn’t that make him essentially a lobbyist?

“Not so,” Strauss said. “Lobbyists are paid to do what I do for free. Just like my wife is not paid to do some things for me that I might have to pay for somewhere else.”

None of these shadow guys should be confused with D.C.’s delegate-at-large, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is employed by the federal government, can vote and serve on a committee, but cannot vote on any passage of legislation.

Strauss said the district has been lobbying for statehood since 1801. That would give representation in Congress to the 600,000 voters living there.

The district was created to serve as the federal government’s seat, thanks to Philadelphia’s refusal to provide protection to the Continental Congress.

A site near Harrisburg, Pa., was considered first but, instead, the district was carved from Maryland and Virginia. Virginia’s portion later voted to return to that state.

Although Congress controls the district, lawmakers established a limited form of home rule through a locally elected government. Like other U.S. territories and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it has a non-voting House delegate.

Strauss hints that past attempts to make the district a state were blindsided by racism, since its populace was and is predominantly black.

He admits the last two years – with a liberal black president and an overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress – were the best shot at achieving statehood.

“It sure should have been,” Strauss grumbled. “We lost an opportunity to accomplish what was essentially our moment. Somehow we thought if we asked for less democracy we would get more. We ended up creating more diversion than solutions.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.