1985: TEN YEARS
OF HOME RULE
By Sam Smith
From a speech at UDC's home rule commemoration, 1985
Quite by accident, I recently ran across an article I wrote in 1966 on the subject of home rule. it was bombastic and righteous in the extreme and appeared under the headline: "We Are Fed Up.,' (I believe it was E.B. White who noted that only monarchs, editors and tapeworms get to use the editorial "we.") I realized as I reread these words nearly twenty years later how appealing that sense of righteousness was at the time - and that some of us have had the singular good luck to live a portion of our lives with the confidence that what we were saying, doing and writing was indisputably right. If those too young to have been involved in the home rule, civil rights or anti-war movements sometimes find among those who were involved an almost perverse longing for those essentially evil times, it is not that we want to return to the days of three commissioners, segregated schools or Saigon, but simply nostalgia for a time when we knew what the hell we were doing.
So one thing that stands out today about a movement such as that for home rule was the pure sense of righteousness. The other was the spirit of selflessness and the comradeship. Don't try to find the hero of home rule - there were too many. It was a community of the weak becoming strong. And it was a time -- despite the inevitable fractiousness (Julius Hobson vs. Walter Fauntroy, Marion Barry vs. Channing Phillips), of an underlying understanding that personal claims would have to be restrained until victory was won. That was good, too.
And it was good that we had battles to win and that we won them. But now with a little time elapsed, now with real power gained and distributed, it doesn't hurt to ask what we dropped along the way. Some of the issues we failed to discuss then plague us now and will into the distant future.
They plague us because we, at the start, never discussed what we meant by home rule. It may seem strange that the idea of constitutional parity did not come until late in the home rule struggle. The statehood movement began only fourteen years ago and was, for many years thereafter, considered an odd and radical effort incompatible with the course of true home rule.
The issue of home rule for whom was never truly raised and discussed. By the time we approached having an elected government, it was assumed by most that what we were seeking was a government that imitated, in all virtues and faults, other city governments. It was only by accident that a stranger to the city, Representative Donald Fraser, inserted in the home rule legislation the one truly innovative idea - that of neighborhood commissions. This idea, incidentally, was opposed by those who would most likely be the immediate beneficiaries of home rule as first office holders. There was even an attempt - the source of which never discovered -- to sabotage the whole neighborhood commission effort in the Senate through legislative sleight of hand.
But this gift of neighborhood commissions aside, the established home rule advocates at no time considered the question of who should govern under home rule. The question was considered moot - it was assumed that they would. Further, the interconnections between political, social and economic democracy were not discussed. The home rule advocates, for the most part, happily assumed that political democracy would cure all ills -- that the Board of Trade, I guess, would move its offices to the Shirlington shopping center once its battle against self-government was lost.
Nor was there any inkling of the radical undercurrents of today -- in which the concept of government being evil or benevolent depending upon the right winner is challenged by the concept of government as one of those powers that can threaten human freedom and happiness no matter who is elected. I saw a T--shirt the other day that read "If Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Illegal." And the bumper sticker: "Don't Vote; It Only Encourages Them."
No. Home rule was' going to take care of everything.
The fact that this turned out not to be true does not cancel the mighty benefits that home rule has brought us, but it will not help us in the present or the future to pretend that we still do not have many miles to walk before achieving something that is, in a real, lasting and human sense, home rule.
Those who came closest to sensing this and the importance of this were led almost inevitably to the more radical forms of home rule effort: Marion Barry's Free DC Movement in the sixties and Julius Hobson's statehood movement in the 70s. And I believe, although this may be my own self-deception, that there was a relationship between these movements upping the ante of home rule and the tangible benefits that shortly accrued - an elected school board following Barry's effort and four years later elected mayor and council after Hobson's. Both the Free DC Movement and the statehood movement proved the efficacy of demanding more than half a loaf.
The statehood movement was also unusual in another way: alone of the home rule movements it presented a holistic view of what a home rule community should look like. It presented a platform that covered everything from neighborhood councils to taxis. I believe, in fact, that the Statehood Party was the first Green Party. Compare the West German Green Party's platform of today with that of the Statehood Party of the 70s and you will be struck by the similarity of concerns and attitude. Decentralist, environmentally committed, strong for human freedom and against the abuse of power, the early Statehooders, led by Julius Hobson -- who would never rest his faith on the election of some benevolent ruler --perceived the need to define home rule as more than a mere transfer of power. He understood that home rule meant more than replacing John McMillan with Walter Fauntroy.
Today, statehood has succeeded traditional home rule as the standard by which our success is measured. We have come a long way. We have a constitution --at least for the time being. We have bills in the House and Senate and an increasing aura of respectability.
But, as fifteen years ago, I would have said that home rule is not enough; so I suggest today that statehood is not -enough. Yes, we still need and deserve constitutional equity, but once we are equal with other states we will still be behind where we should be. To understand why, let's look at the first ten years of home rule:
* The election of local officials has become a normalcy, but instead of the hope and enthusiasm with which we greeted the early votes, we have learned that those we elect can, too often, neither inspire nor be trusted.
* The business interests that were once the major obstacle to home rule now enjoy more sweeping power than they did prior to the granting of home rule. I would submit that the average politician in city hall today is at least, if not more, beholden to these interests than was the case under the three commissioner system. There remains little economic home rule in DC.
It is important to note that during the ten years of home rule, and endless dollars for and talk about, economic progress, sales tax revenue in DC has just barely kept up with inflation. And jobs for DC residents have declined. Yet millions have been spent and the ownership and character of the city has dramatically changed. Who has been the beneficiary?
* In ten years we have seen some of our politicians turn from forthright and often courageous defenders of the interests of the people into their manipulators and parasites.
* Amazingly, these politicians have become so insensitive to self--government -- defining it primarily as their reelection and greater acquisition of power -- that they can approve such assaults on home rule as canceling neighborhood commission elections for bureaucratic reasons and postponing the election of our surrogate senators and representative.
Further, none that I know of saw the conflict with home rule in the turning over of much of downtown to the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission. And Mayor Barry even considered at one point proposing the abolition of the school board on the grounds, presumably, that he could make better selections than the people.
* We have dealt neither honestly nor well with the social and economic problems that beset the city. Those issues that have refused to go away -- despite two administrations best efforts to evict them to Prince Georges County -- we simply ignore. Housing, health, and poverty lie waiting to be rediscovered in some new Great Society era by another round of Pulitzer-winning reporters who will move us with tales of what we should have known all along.
In trying to come up with the good news. -- real, human, good news -- not mere technological or bureaucratic improvement of which there has been plenty but which can occur under fascism as easily as under democracy, my mind drifted to that backwater of the DC political system: the Board of Education. That's where it all began, where home rule came some years earlier than at city hall. And here is where home rule has perhaps best met its promise. What a haul it has been. Yet I don't know anyone who would argue that the schools are not demonstrably better than they were at the time the elected board took over. During the more rambunctious era of school politics I used to argue that the schools wouldn't get better until their constituency -of black mothers and fathers demanded that they get better. I think that is what has happened and I think one of the reasons it has happened is that the school board has been largely exempt from the temptations of political power that afflict the mayor's office and the city council. If there were power and money in schools, it would be to our loss.
I think the demand for a better sort of mayor and city council will come too, and it is with that optimism that I keep working for statehood. But the obstacles are much greater. We have, I fear, in home rule (and more so in statehood) created both an opportunity and an attractive nuisance. The temptations are simply too great. But the answer is not to go back to the good old days; the answer was given by Al Smith in 1933: "All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy."
We can continue to rely on seeking the same status as New York City or Iowa or we can, once again, set our sights higher, saying that we can be better than just equal on paper. We can demand a form of home- rule that dispenses power not to just a few at the top but to the mass of the people.
We do not have to wait to elect the benevolent or for statehood. We have already given ourselves the power of initiative. Julius Hobson didn't wait for statehood. He pressed for an initiative bill so the people could correct for themselves what their legislators would not.
I think we should come to regard an election without an initiative or two like a day without sunshine. I think also that the chairs of the neighborhood commissions should organize themselves into an assembly to exert political pressure on the city government that will reflect the concerns of the neighborhoods.
In any case, we should in the next ten years redefine home rule not as a mere acquisition of the status enjoyed by others, important as this may be but -- by big and little actions, by pressure on the council and Congress, by strengthening the powers of the neighborhood commissions or by voter initiative -- define it as the granting of self-government to as many as possible and not to a score of people at the top who seem to have forgotten what home rule is really all about.