David Grosso’s Defiance: Council Member Emerges as a Champion for D.C. Rights

The council member is part of a new generation of leaders willing to be confrontational with Congress, even if it means breaking the law.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Oct. 17, 2013, 6:49 a.m.

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Many took note of May­or Vin­cent Gray’s out­spoken ap­proach dur­ing the shut­down, when he did things like crash a Sen­ate press­er at the Cap­it­ol to de­mand that fed­er­al law­makers take up the Dis­trict’s fund­ing bill. Coun­cil mem­ber Dav­id Grosso thinks he didn’t go far enough.

The is­sue at hand was fed­er­al con­trol of the Dis­trict’s budget. the Dis­trict of Columbia is the only jur­is­dic­tion in the United States whose budget and rev­en­ues are con­trolled by Con­gress, and as the fed­er­al shut­down dragged on, the city was run­ning out of emer­gency re­serves. “It’s a new at­ti­tude in D.C.,” Grosso told Na­tion­al Journ­al at the time. “We’re no longer go­ing to ask for per­mis­sion. We’re go­ing to stand up for our rights and spend our loc­al money.”

The shut­down is over now and with it, the fight for con­trol of the D.C. budget. But Grosso and his con­front­a­tion­al ap­proach aren’t go­ing away. He already has his eyes on the next D.C. autonomy fight: the free­dom for D.C. to pass its own le­gis­la­tion without ap­prov­al from Con­gress.

The Dis­trict is the only place in coun­try where le­gis­la­tion must be sent to Con­gress for ap­prov­al be­fore it be­comes law, a pro­cess that can take weeks. While its le­gis­la­tion is al­most al­ways ap­proved without con­flict, mem­bers of Con­gress do have the power to put D.C. laws on hold, as was the case with a bill to leg­al­ize med­ic­al marijuana, which was stalled for years after Con­gress im­posed a rider block­ing money to im­ple­ment the meas­ure.

“My ar­gu­ment would be that we should simply stop send­ing our bills up there for le­gis­lat­ive ap­prov­al,” said Grosso, an at-large coun­cil­man who rep­res­ents all eight wards in the city. “The may­or should sign them and then we should im­ple­ment them.” The polit­ics of it is a bit nu­anced, he ad­mits, since wheth­er D.C. has the leg­al au­thor­ity to do that and wheth­er their laws would have any im­pact at all without ap­prov­al from Con­gress re­main out­stand­ing ques­tions.

“That’s a little trick­i­er,” said Grosso, who stud­ied law at Geor­getown Uni­versity. “I haven’t figured out how I’m gonna do that yet. But I’m work­ing on it.”

The back­drop of course is that due to its des­ig­na­tion as a fed­er­al en­clave, D.C. has long been dis­em­powered, with no vot­ing rep­res­ent­a­tion in Con­gress. The shut­down gave Dis­trict lead­ers a rare op­por­tun­ity to broad­cast their con­stitu­ents’ dis­en­fran­chise­ment at the na­tion­al level. Some, in­clud­ing James Jones, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion D.C. Vote, cred­it Grosso with turn­ing the shut­down in­to a show­down for the Dis­trict.

“I think Dav­id rep­res­ents a new­er gen­er­a­tion of polit­ic­al lead­ers in the Dis­trict who are go­ing to be more con­front­a­tion­al with Con­gress, and we need that,” Jones said. “In­stead of try­ing to play nice all the time, we have to be a little more ag­gress­ive, and if there’s one thing Dav­id is on is­sues he cares about, it’s ag­gress­ive.”

Grosso isn’t the first politi­cian who’s been will­ing to break the law and risk ar­rest for Dis­trict rights. In 2011 a budget deal hammered out between Pres­id­ent Obama and House Speak­er John Boehner in­cluded fund­ing for a con­tro­ver­sial vouch­er pro­gram, des­pite the city’s wishes. It also banned D.C. from spend­ing its own loc­al tax dol­lars on abor­tion ser­vices for low-in­come wo­men.

May­or Gray and sev­er­al mem­bers of the D.C. Coun­cil were ar­res­ted at a Cap­it­ol Hill protest of the ac­tion. But it was a sym­bol­ic ges­ture, meant to il­lus­trate the Dis­trict’s pre­dic­a­ment. Grosso is ad­voc­at­ing something else: dir­ect ac­tion.

“It’s ac­tu­ally the most dir­ect form of civil dis­obedi­ence,” Grosso told Na­tion­al Journ­al at an event hos­ted by D.C. Vote last week. “In­dir­ect is when you block the streets and say we want our rights. Dir­ect is when you ac­tu­ally do something that moves for­ward the is­sue that you care about.”

Grosso was elec­ted to the coun­cil in Novem­ber 2012, after serving as an aide for D.C. coun­cil mem­ber Shar­on Am­brose and later, as a le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or for the Dis­trict’s con­gres­sion­al del­eg­ate, Elean­or Holmes Norton. “The coun­cil is for­tu­nate to have Dav­id back, this time in its of­fi­cial lead­er­ship,” Norton said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “After hav­ing served as a staff lead­er in the coun­cil so well that I asked him to be­come my con­gres­sion­al le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or. I am not sur­prised that early on in his ten­ure, Dav­id has be­come an in­flu­en­tial and in­nov­at­ive thinker on the coun­cil.”

Norton praised, among oth­er things, Grosso’s “cool idea to re­name our foot­ball team the Wash­ing­ton Red­tails” and sought to dis­pel any ru­mors that she is try­ing to “in­filt­rate the coun­cil” with her former staff mem­bers, two of whom now serve on the coun­cil. (The oth­er is Kenyan Mc­Duf­fie.)

“I do not en­dorse races in D.C.,” Norton said, “but I must say that I ap­pre­ci­ate how both Dav­id and Kenyan have fo­cused on get­ting money out of polit­ics, a con­cern of mine in the Con­gress.”

Oth­er Dis­trict ad­voc­ates offered more cau­tious praise. D.C. Apple­seed’s Wal­ter Smith said he sup­ports Grosso’s new ap­proach “to the ex­tent it cap­tures a new zeal­ous­ness and as­sert­ive­ness and a will­ing­ness to take strong stands and push the en­vel­ope.”

“Where I won­der about it,” he ad­ded, “is wheth­er in the long run we can suc­cess­fully vi­ol­ate fed­er­al law and make it stick, wheth­er it’s the right strategy if we in fact have leg­al ar­gu­ments in sup­port of what we’re do­ing.”

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