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Mayoral bid runs afoul of Hatch Act

(Published September 23, 2002)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

When Steve Donkin announced his candidacy for mayor in May, he was simultaneously interested in becoming one of the mid-career professionals being heavily recruited to improve the D.C. Public Schoolsí teacher corps.

Now, fresh off a primary victory as the D.C. Statehood Green Partyís candidate for mayor, Donkin has a dilemma. His status as a first-year public school teacher, enrolled in the cityís teaching fellowship program and working toward a teaching certificate, puts him in technical violation of the federal Hatch Act.

The law restricts partisan political activities by federal and D.C. government employees. D.C. teachers are the only local public schoolteachers covered by the act.

"Nobody can justify a legitimate reason why this law exists," said Donkin, 40, who holds a Ph.D. in biology and is teaching science at H.D. Woodson Senior High School. Donkin previously worked as a toxicologist and project manager for an environmental consulting company.

He noted that he was not in violation of the federal Hatch Act provision when he became a candidate and said he did not become a teacher to create a political issue.

The D.C. Board of Education was ordered in April by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which enforces the Hatch Act, to fire Dunbar Senior High School teacher Tom Briggs. Briggs, who has since been rehired, ran as the Statehood Green candidate for the Ward 2 city council seat in 2000.

The Briggs incident prompted the school board to unanimously approve a resolution calling on Congress "to declare the Hatch Act inapplicable to professional educators in the District of Columbia." The resolution noted that the 1942 Hatch Actís "original and noble intent was to remove partisan political activity as a basis for career advancement of federal government employees" and that it did not apply to D.C. government employees until 1993.

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz declined comment on Donkinís status.

The boardís resolution in the Briggs case said "good teachers are de facto leaders in our communities who encourage students, through their example and everyday presence, to participate in the civic life of our nation."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Districtís non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, introduced legislation in late April "to eliminate the discriminatory treatment of D.C. employees" as the only local government workers in the country who are barred from partisan political activities by the Hatch Act.

However, Nortonís legislation is not expected to be enacted during the current session of Congress. The delegateís press secretary, Doxie McCoy, said part of Nortonís proposal Ė removing teachers from Hatch Act coverage Ė has garnered general support in the Senate. But opposition remains to a blanket exclusion, and there has been no movement on the measure in the House.

Donkin expressed a mixture of anger, frustration and acceptance over his current situation. He said he hopes a controversy over the Hatch Act doesnít overshadow discussion before the Nov. 5 election about "serious issues facing our community." Among issues he identified: revamping the Districtís tax structure and advocating for affordable housing, universal health care, public education, environmental health, D.C. democracy and a greater voice within government for the people.

"I kind of expected this at some point, but I made a decision a long time ago that I would stay as a candidate," he said. "Iím a very qualified teacherÖ. Our leaders will have to make a choice."

Donkinís past political activism includes his arrest two years ago as part of the "D.C. Democracy Seven" on charges of disrupting Congress by demanding full citizenship rights for D.C. residents during congressional debate over the D.C. governmentís budget.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator