News & Politics

Taking It to the Street

After a decade of setbacks and near misses, DC Vote’s Ilir Zherka says it’s time for a more aggressive fight to give District residents full representation in Congress. It’s a fight he thinks he can win.

As part of Ilir Zherka’s shift to what he calls an “outside game,” he has staged protests in front of House Speaker John Boehner’s Capitol Hill apartment, at a House subcommittee hearing, and near the Capitol with DC Mayor Vincent Gray. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

The headquarters of DC Vote have a lived-in feel, with scuffed blue carpets and hallways lined with stacks of cardboard boxes. The walls are a bricolage of candid photos from protests and posters from the group’s well-known ad campaigns (I AM DC, I DEMAND THE VOTE). When I first visited last summer, a couple of rumpled dress shirts hung over the backs of chairs in the office bullpen. A staffer apologized, saying they’d been tossed there by interns who had changed into T-shirts before going out to leaflet.

The corner office of DC Vote’s executive director, Ilir Zherka, was so tidy by comparison that I asked whether he’d cleaned up for my visit. There was a stand for his leadership awards, a single mounted news article, an impeccably trimmed ficus. Zherka said the slim pile of papers on his desk was a bit thicker than usual: “I don’t like clutter. It prevents me from freeing up my mind to work.”

A diagram tacked to the inside of his door added to the picture of Zherka as the cool tactician bringing discipline to the District’s long and messy struggle for full democratic rights. The nation’s capital has more residents than Wyoming–but no vote in Congress, which has the power to overrule the District’s leaders on local matters.

The hand-drawn diagram, of X’s and O’s yoked by arcing lines, looked like a page from a coach’s playbook. Inside the biggest loop was a list of what Zherka said were “opponents or problems.” These included Power of Elites, Ignorance, NRA, Republicans, Blue Dog Dems, Pseudo Strict Constructionists. The list had the gravity of a voting-rights Ten Plagues.

The diagram, Zherka explained, was a postmortem inked after one of the movement’s most spectacular defeats. Legislation that DC Vote had spent seven years fighting for–and that had won historic votes in both the House and the Senate–came to an ugly end in the spring of 2010, the victim of a fractured city leadership and of deft politicking by the national gun-rights lobby. The DC Voting Rights Act would have expanded the US House of Representatives by two seats. One would have gone to DC, whose residents are overwhelmingly Democratic, the other to Utah, a Republican-leaning state that had failed by a whisker to win a fourth House seat through the 2000 census.

In trying to regroup, Zherka–a tall 46-year-old man with narrow features, a loping gait, and a salt-and-pepper goatee–had organized a series of meetings to pick through the wreckage. The movement needed to pivot, to find a new way forward. At the front of everyone’s mind was the one-word question scrawled in big red letters at the top of the diagram: How?

As Zherka came to see it, the “inside game”–of lobbying Congress, of quiet meetings with elites–had to give way to something more aggressive. The District had to make Congress and the White House pay a higher price for denying greater self-rule to the 600,000 residents of the nation’s capital.

“Part of our strategy is to push this fight to the point where Americans weigh in in large numbers,” Zherka told me. “That’s the way the civil-rights movement worked, when people from the North called their congressmen and said, ‘Stop those dogs, turn off those water hoses.’ “

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We left Zherka’s office and walked to the small break room. Among the photos on the wall was one of Zherka wrapped in a taxation without representation flag and pointing skyward with his right hand. The gesture managed to evoke both the Statue of Liberty and Moses.

Zherka said that the day after Barack Obama won the presidency, he taped the Washington Post’s front page to the same wall. It was a totem to the man who was supposed to be the movement’s redeemer; the man who had backed the voting-rights bill as a US senator, who ate at Ben’s Chili Bowl, who played basketball with then-DC mayor Adrian Fenty and won Fenty’s endorsement in the Democratic primary; the man, an African-American, who said he saw this historically black city on the Potomac as something more than a seat of federal power.

That now felt like a long time ago. Last spring, Zherka removed the Election Day front page and replaced it with one more attuned to the times. Its centerpiece was a photograph of current DC mayor Vincent Gray being handcuffed by the Capitol Police on April 11 of last year, a day when 41 people, including Zherka, the mayor, and six DC Council members, were arrested in the movement’s largest act of civil disobedience in decades. The arrests made headlines around the world.

The television cameras , the turnout among local leaders, and the location–a tightly policed street near the Capitol–gave the appearance of significant advance planning. But Zherka had put the entire demonstration together in about 48 hours. The catalyst was news that President Obama had agreed to a Republican-sought ban on locally funded abortions in DC in a last-minute deal to avert a federal-government shutdown. “John, I will give you DC abortion,” Obama had told GOP House speaker John Boehner, according to a Washington Post article reconstructing the negotiations.

From his iPhone that weekend, Zherka sent an e-mail summoning his staff to a 10 am conference call. This latest attack on self-governance demanded a response, he said. They would need to e-mail supporters, contact the media, work Facebook and Twitter, and get permits from the Capitol Police. Zherka and his deputies would need to track down Mayor Gray and the council over the weekend and urge them to attend. In less than three hours, an e-mail to supporters announced a 5 pm demonstration that Monday, at Constitution Avenue and Second Street, Northeast.

Zherka’s plan was to have speeches and then lead perhaps a half dozen protesters into the street, blocking traffic and refusing police orders to move. Zherka suspected that Obama’s concession would inflame DC leaders, particularly those who had worked to elect him. But how many were willing to be thrown into the back of a police van? Zherka had run into Mayor Gray at a social function the night before, but Gray had been noncommittal.

The next day, after the speeches, Zherka was the first to defy Capitol Police and set foot in the busy street. To his relief, Gray was right behind him.

When I caught up with him not long afterward, Zherka told me that the 41 arrests were a “huge turning point.” But a year later, the movement’s prospects seem anything but clear.