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The Colonialist Targeting of D.C. Officials

We should not accept the self-fulfilling logic that if a media drumbeat is loud and relentless enough, the object of its noise must go. Calls for Mayor Vincent Gray's resignation are premature.
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The thinking goes something like this: Either D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray knew about the $653,000 in illicit cash reportedly spent on his 2010 campaign or he didn't. Either answer is damning. He can no longer be effective. The city needs to move on. He should resign quickly.

Why am I not jumping on this bandwagon? It is about more than, but begins with, the fact that Vince Gray is a longtime friend and ally of D.C.'s LGBT community. In his former post as chairman of the D.C. Council, our city's legislature, he strongly supported marriage equality despite losing friends and drawing the wrath of some ministers. As mayor, he provided job training and employment opportunities to help struggling transgender women escape the streets. He appointed the first two transgender members of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, and supported anti-bullying legislation. Unlike his aloof predecessor, Adrian Fenty, he gives LGBT activists real and meaningful access to himself and top agency staff.

Beyond loyalty, I take pause from the behavior of U.S. Attorney Ron Machen's office, whose slow dribbling out of information has set off a media feeding frenzy and a rush to judgment that serve neither justice nor the city's interests. The prosecutorial targeting of Gray and other top D.C. officials also picks at the scab of colonialism which has long characterized the federal government's treatment of the nation's capital and its residents, most recently prompting Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) to try to substitute his abortion policy for that favored by D.C. voters.

According to its own website, "The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia is unique among U.S. Attorney's Offices in the size and scope of its work. It serves as both the local and the federal prosecutor for the nation's capital.... In both roles, the Office is committed to being responsive and accountable to the citizens of the District of Columbia." That fine bit of rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. Attorney for D.C. is a creature of the U.S. Department of Justice, not our city's local government. As the DOJ website says, the arrangement is unique. This is a continuing sore point, and is part of the taxation without representation to which the District's residents are still subjected 239 years after American patriots rebelled against British tyranny by staging the Boston Tea Party.

The targeting of D.C. officials reminds me of the stop-and-frisk policy of police in New York City, which mainly targets blacks and Latinos. A D.C. police official once admitted to me that if he picked any commercial establishment and brought in city regulatory and fire code inspectors, he could find a violation if he looked hard enough. (He was conceding that this would be unjust.) I do not condone lawbreaking, but the targeting of D.C. officials by a prosecutor not answerable to us does not please me any better.

Contrary to the cries that Washington's well-being requires an immediate resignation, our city is thriving. Gray has been an effective mayor. Homicide is down and the city's population is up. Construction cranes proliferate across the skyline. The D.C. Council is taking a two-month break. And the mayor has not been charged with any crime.

I told Mayor Gray of my support on July 11 after his swearing-in of new members of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights. I relayed a message from Rev. Mark Thompson, former chair of the NAACP-DC Police Task Force, who texted me from the NAACP convention in Houston that Machen appeared to be serving the interests of the Washington Post editorial board and Fenty more than the cause of justice. Mark is right.

The history of colonialism is replete with examples of colonial powers setting up elite groups within the colonized populations to manage the colonies. This has exacerbated inter-tribal conflicts in the post-colonial period. The federal government's treatment of the District of Columbia bears marks of the same phenomenon.

Adrian Fenty's base of support in the 2010 election was in the mostly white and wealthier western part of the city, while Vincent Gray's was in the mostly black and poorer eastern part of the city. One of the factors that drove Fenty from office was his school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who demonized teachers and showed little interest in the concerns and criticisms of African-American stakeholders.

Fenty's and Rhee's high-handedness and arrogance so alienated the voters they had ignored that Fenty's $5 million re-election war chest could not repair the damage he had done to his own brand. This being the case, it is implausible that the off-the-books $653,000 reportedly spent on Gray's behalf by health care contractor Jeff Thompson materially changed the result.

Chuck Thies at NBC Washington says there is evidence that the "shadow campaigners" disguised their operation, possibly as an independent committee: "In fact, it was widely known that labor unions were campaigning on Gray's behalf. How was he, or anyone else, supposed to discern a legal expenditure from a clandestine one?" Thies adds, "At best, the shadow effort delivered a couple thousand people to the polls. Gray won by 13,000 votes."

In any case, those who are shocked, shocked by influence peddling can hardly believe that it only affected Gray's campaign and not that of Fenty and every other politician in town. Then again, Machen says he is not finished with his investigations; so who knows how many more of our chosen leaders are in his sights?

We should not accept the self-fulfilling logic that if a media drumbeat is loud and relentless enough, the object of its noise must go. I agree with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who stands to become mayor in the event of a vacancy, that calls for Gray's resignation are premature. We can wait for the investigation, even as we question the motives behind it while also asking Gray to clarify what he knew and when.

There is too great a cost in discord posed by a coerced resignation, not to mention the damage to our city's self-government from a continued DOJ targeting of our elected officials. As to members of Congress who seek to score points back home by caricaturing and insulting the District, they should clean their own houses before presuming to judge us. Our birthright of self-determination should not be stolen by overzealous, paternalistic prosecutors.

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