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.”
Shadow senators are nothing new. The practice dates back to 1796 when Tennessee, then a territory, sent elected “shadow senators” to lobby for statehood.
The push for D.C. statehood is both passionate and gimmicky. Right now, a city measure is underway to ceremonially rename the country’s most celebrated street, Pennsylvania Avenue, to bring attention to it.
“We are thinking something like, “Give DC Statehood Avenue,” to be used as a ceremonial street sign that could be placed under existing signs for Pennsylvania Avenue,” Strauss said.
The idea underscores the mixed message: Are they serious or chasing windmills?
Experts disagree on whether the district should achieve statehood. U.S. Senate historian Donald Ritchie said, “You’d think a democracy would be embarrassed to have a half-million of its citizens disenfranchised.”
Ritchie’s argument is that, by setting aside a capital district, the authors of the Constitution clearly expected the area to have a population.
Historian Jeff Brauer disagrees: “From the Framers’ viewpoint, the idea was the capital city would be a federal district … (not) part of any state, and a district that would not be a state itself.”
The Framers, he says, feared that if the capital city was within a state, or if its citizens had full representation as a state, it and they would have too much access to federal power.
“They saw it as more of a place of transition, not of permanence … especially since the ideal was a citizen government with a high turnover rate,” Brauer says.
The federal government also was expected to play a relatively small role back then. Therefore, a huge bureaucracy with lots of public workers living in the district was not anticipated.
So the district’s original purpose was to be the federal government’s seat – and not much more.
As for Strauss, he said his job is not without its advantages: “I do get to walk in parades.”