Postcard From the Last Colony

Political power is not just the ability to make law, but also the real influence that elected leaders have on their communities. Children learn a lot about moral choices by observing the decisions of influential adults and public figures.
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Disenfranchised. Completely.

The good citizens of D.C.'s Ward 5 might have a hard time shaking off that feeling upon hearing the news that members of the D.C. Council think that their colleague Harry Thomas, Jr., should take a voluntary (paid) leave of absence from representing their interests in the local legislature. Why a leave of absence? The people need representation. There must be a better solution.

In a city famously known as "the last colony" for lack of the real citizenship rights that other Americans enjoy, the very idea that Ward 5 would now suffer an even worse state of suspended local representation is an insufferable insult to the people who deserve better --- or at least some semblance of a functional local government.

(Full disclosure: I have worked in Ward 5 for 23 years, but I live and vote in Prince Georges County where our former County Executive Jack Johnson just got sent up for seven years in federal prison for his corruption activities. Hyattsville residents can feel just as betrayed as Brookland citizens when it comes to the alleged moral failures of our elected officials. But at least we Marylanders have other elected officials to represent our interests, unlike DC citizens whose options for political representation are painfully slim.)

Councilmember Thomas stands accused of serious misconduct involving $300,000 of grant funds intended for the children's sports charity he runs, Team Thomas. The accusations of misconduct may turn into a criminal indictment pending the results of the FBI/IRS raid on his home last weekend. Of course, Harry Thomas has a right to the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty in court, and many of his constituents and friends pray that he will be exonerated. However, the sight of armed agents of government searching his home and carting off property was ominous.

For a city that has had its share of truly sleazy political escapades, this one might seem like small change. But the District of Columbia, long beset with a reputation for inept self-governance, can ill afford the kind of national mockery that comes fast on the heels of corruption charges for local politicians. Comedy writers are probably already in overdrive over the fact that Mr. Thomas made a point of showing up for Tuesday's Council meeting on the new ethics bill.

Well beyond the blow to D.C.'s fragile reputation, however, the issue of effective political representation for the people and institutions of Ward 5 is a serious matter. By proposing that Councilmember Thomas take a leave of absence, the other members of the Council seem to devalue the needs and interests of the citizens who will have no representation at all if Thomas steps back from his duties. While apparently trying to be either compassionate or self-protective with a colleague in serious trouble, the city's elected leadership is ignoring the more profound problem of the further disenfranchisement of D.C. residents.

This is a moment for firm moral leadership, not equivocating or quibbling. Justice demands that the people of Ward 5 have an effective representative. The incumbent, whether guilty or innocent of the charges, is distracted and under a cloud, and surely unable to carry the flag firmly and high for Ward 5 while he plans his defense. We can wish him well in that defense. However, the responsibility of the other elected leaders is not to defend their colleague, but to ensure the rights of the citizens of the city to full and effective self-governance. Council Chairman Kwame Brown should surely have more to say to the people of Ward 5 than that he will "speak to" Councilmember Thomas. Really? This is a time for backbone, not back-slapping.

Ward 5 is home to a number of major religious and educational institutions --- Trinity, the Catholic University of America, Gallaudet University, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Providence Hospital, and many others. We are part of the economic, intellectual and spiritual assets of the ward and the city. We devote considerable resources to ensuring the vitality of our neighborhoods. At Trinity, we educate a sizeable population of the citizens of Ward 5, and welcome our neighbors onto our campus for events, meetings and recreation continuously. We respond willingly and eagerly whenever political leaders request our assistance, and we also appreciate their assistance on issues that are important to our campus community.

At Trinity, we try mightily each day to educate our students to make good ethical and moral choices. Our century-old Honor System teaches students that they must uphold the good of the community, and that lying, stealing and cheating harm everyone. A major part of the Honor System is taking responsibility for your own actions, which is the essence of real integrity. Trying to teach students about ethics and integrity is one of the hardest jobs we have in the face of the daily news of scandal and allegations of corruption among people who hold themselves out as leaders.

Political power is not just the ability to make law, but also the real influence that elected leaders have on their communities. Children learn a lot about moral choices by observing the decisions of influential adults and public figures. Councilmember Thomas and his colleagues can exert considerable power for good in the way they address the current situation. Ignoring reality, acting like nothing is wrong, doing business-as-usual sends the wrong message.

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