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The Washington Post

City Can't Get A Quarter's Worth Of Respect

By Marc Fisher

December 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

In the eternal struggle to win a place at the table with our fellow Americans, residents of this city find ourselves scrambling pathetically for tiny symbolic victories -- an in-your-face slogan on our license plates, a revision of our town's flag, a place of honor in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

But each time we grasp for some emblem of our equality other than the right to pay taxes and die for our nation, we run the risk of losing sight of the only goal that matters: The vote.

In the latest mini-drama illustrating the deep animosity toward granting voting rights to half a million citizens of the mainland United States, we have a snarling match pitting departed Texas Sen. Phil Gramm against the District's non-voting delegate to the House -- a position so meaningless that it likely does more harm than good.

One or both of those characters was responsible for the last-minute death of the "District of Columbia and United States Territories Circulating Quarter Dollar Program Act," that is, a D.C. quarter, just like those real 50-state quarters that the Mint is pumping out these days. Our quarter was supposed to be minted at the end of the states series, in 2009.

Except that the D.C. quarter, which the House voted 377 to 6 to approve, died in the Senate -- put down, Democrats say, by Gramm because he loathes this city (where, by the way, he has a lovely house in American University Park, in which, according to neighbors, he plans to stay, because life here is vastly better than in Texas, because for Gramm, as for so many other pols who make their living pretending to hate Washington, this is home).

But Gramm's staffers and defenders say the senator did no such thing, that he was merely "insisting that proper procedure be followed" and that it was the District's own delegate who killed off the quarter. The Republicans say the delegate failed to sign up the required 67 co-sponsors in the Senate and failed again by lumping the District together with a bunch of silly, far-flung territories, none of which should mar official American currency.

Both explanations -- that the coin died because a bitter Texas senator grabbed the chance to kick the District on his way out, or that a powerless, non-voting delegate from the District managed to uphold the city's reputation for incompetence and botch the job -- are so easy to believe and yet so hard to understand.

I'd love to have a quarter with my home town on the back. My kids, like so many millions of Americans, collect the 50-state series. I was looking forward to the debate over what symbol we'd have on the back of our quarter: A half-smoke in a bun? A scrum of TV cameras chasing pols around the Watergate? Pothole? Homeless people in the shadow of the Capitol dome? A smoking gun? Or simply a representation of fact: a lovely portrait of a plantation, complete with some of our congressional overseers.

But it is not to be, at least for now.

And you know what? I'm glad of it, because the notion of being tossed in with Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and something called the Northern Mariana Islands is beyond insulting. Those places, while they may be owned by this country, are relics of some weird colonial fantasies of another century; the District should never have considered occupying the same bill as those dots in the ocean.

Why would the District want to be part of an addendum, tossed in with, for example, American Samoa, whose delegate in Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, made his plea for a Samoa quarter with this remarkable argument to a House committee: "One thing in particular that I want to share with you, Mr. Chairman, is quite unique to American Samoa. We probably export more sumo wrestlers and National Football League players than any other state and territory in our nation."

Yet, according to Rep. Mike Castle, the Delaware Republican who first pushed the 50-state quarter idea, it was the District's own delegate who threw Washington in with those obscure territories, thereby feeding the notion that we are some sort of comic appendage to the United States rather than an original part of the nation differing from the 50 states only in legal status. (The delegate's office didn't return calls seeking comment.)

The District deserves a quarter, but only on equal terms. We don't need any more chump change.

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