Nonprofit's fight to get district representation gains momentum using nonpartisan efforts
Washington, DC, has the most defiant license plates in the country: All of the cars in the district drive around with the slogan "Taxation without representation" plastered to the backs of their cars. It's a small, but telling sign of the underlying anger that many residents share at the fact that the nearly 600,000 city residents have no voting representation in the US Congress.
One organization is leading the charge to change that fact. DC Vote, a nine-year-old nonprofit with a skeleton staff, is harnessing and channeling a growing rumble of discontent into concerted political action. And after years of banging the drum among policymakers and media outlets, the group may be close to reaching its goal.
DC Vote began in 1998 as an all-volunteer project of concerned citizens. Its creation was spurred by a legal challenge of the district's disenfranchisement, which failed in court. The group decided that congressional action was the only way to move forward and focused its efforts on public education that would lead to political pressure.
"We've done work to find out what Americans know about this issue, and about 80% have no idea that DC residents don't have equal rights - they don't have voting representation in Congress," says Kevin Kiger, DC Vote's communications director. "But what we also know is that once they find out, about 82%... support full congressional voting rights for DC. Americans believe in American democracy."
Armed with that knowledge, the group has inserted itself forcefully into the dialogue surrounding the issue and has reaped the rewards in its own support. It's grown from a volunteer effort to a registered nonprofit with seven full-time employees, a budget in excess of $1 million, and a coalition of more than 70 groups that endorse its cause.
Now, a more sympathetic Congress is considering a bill to give DC a voting member in the House of Representatives, and the group believes it is the most promising one to come along in years. Communications work is taking on an increasingly important role as it scrambles to crystallize public opinion around supporting the bill, bringing to a head all of its far-flung backers in the most visible fashion possible.
"In today's media and marketing world, [where] people have access to a lot of different [outlets]... the issue has been raised," Kiger says. "We've worked very hard to get members of the media across the country and internationally to do stories on this. We use all kinds of different angles."
Those angles include the effects of congressional oversight on DC (which restricts the city's ability to set its own budget and priorities) on public health, education, gun control, and other hot-button issues. At the same time, the group is using its nonpartisan status to gather support from opinion leaders, grassroots activists, and politicians.
"We have a lot of support from Republicans and Democrats. We're not partisan. While, especially in the current political landscape, this has become a political issue, it's [really] not," says Kiger. "Democracy shouldn't be a political issue."
Indeed, Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, DC Vote's outreach coordinator, says the group has designed its coalition to represent all aspects of the community - even drawing in business supporters by emphasizing DC's high taxes.
"We were strategic and said, 'We need to make sure that the business community supports this effort,'" Kinlow says. "The DC Chamber of Commerce is a partner, as well as the Greater Washington Board of Trade."
While the group sets "broad guidelines" for goals and actions its coalition members should consider, they are free to pursue their own initiatives, as well, says Kinlow.
Ironically, the group had some political points scored on its behalf when President Bush last month threatened to veto the voting rights bill if it reached his desk. DC Vote, however, was not too upset.
"We saw an enormous jump in the number of media stories, hits to our Web site, and individual donors when he did that," says Kiger. "I immediately knew that was not going to be a negative thing for us."
DC Vote also sponsors a steady stream of events to keep the issue visible. Its latest is a march, scheduled for April 16 in Washington, to support voting rights for the district. Kinlow promises it will be the most successful DC voting rights march in history.
The group draws communications expertise not only from its in-house staff, but also from volunteers who work in PR, pro bono work from agencies, and paid engagements on a project basis. It also runs paid advertising campaigns in targeted regions to generate public interest in the cause.
Former Cabinet member and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp has signed on to support DC Vote and is helping to draw interest from the media and to energize supporters. If the current bill does pass, Kiger says the group will focus its attention next on gaining Senate representation. It is a fundamental issue of fairness, the group argues.
"Can you imagine someone from Montana or Florida dictating what goes on in Manhattan, with no input from the people of Manhattan?" he asks. "That is exactly what's going on here."
At a glance
Roll Call, The Hill, The Politico
More than $1 million annually from foundations, grants, and private donors
Kevin Kiger, communications director Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, outreach director
Marcomms agencies (including pro bono): Arnold, Edelman, M&R Strategic Services, and Medialink