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The mayor needs a civics lesson
(Published October 7, 2002)


All of my grandparents and three of my aunts emigrated from Hungary to the United States roughly 100 years ago. They were part of the tremendous wave of Eastern European immigration that helped create the "melting pot" image of American citizens, as well as much of the rich ethnic diversity of major U.S. cities that so many of us treasure today.

They worked hard to get here. Crossing the Atlantic was no pleasure cruise - especially for my father's mother, who had her three young girls in tow when she boarded a freighter bound for Baltimore and reconciliation with her husband in a new land.

They worked hard after they got here, too. My father's dad helped build Cleveland's landmark Terminal Tower in the boom times leading up to the Great Depression.

They lived a rough life, with language barriers restricting many of their choices - including when it came to finding jobs and housing. Language problems even affected something so basic as my dad's surname: when my aunts enrolled in school, the teachers decided to change the spelling so that they could pronounce it. "Dolgos" became "Dolgosh." One of my uncles, though born in the United States, refused throughout his life to add the "h" that the rest of the family accepted.

Against this backdrop in my own life, I bristled last week upon hearing Mayor Anthony A. Williams blithely assert during a press conference sponsored by the Council of Latino Agencies that U.S. citizenship should no longer be the standard for eligibility to vote in the nation's capital.

My mother often tells the story about her father's stern admonition to his children, who were all born on U.S. soil: the most important thing they had as American citizens, he said, was their vote. My mother wouldn't miss voting in an election if she were on her death bed. Her father couldn't vote, because he never became a U.S. citizen. But he made sure his children valued their birthright.

And while my grandfather worked long hours to support his family, my mother - the youngest child - came home from school and tutored her stepmother to help her learn English and the basics of American government, so that she could become a U.S. citizen. My mom credits that experience with sparking her own lifelong interest in government and her insistence that her children, from an early age, recognize and exercise our responsibilities as citizens. I still remember getting my first hands-on lesson about tax referendums and campaigning when I was just 5 years old.

I have to wonder if Mayor Williams has ever seen the personal pride reflected on the joyful faces of new, naturalized U.S. citizens as they swear allegiance to the United States and abandon loyalty to their homeland. It's a look of great accomplishment. And the most important thing about their accomplishment, reinforced when many of them immediately become registered voters, is that they have gained the right to vote.

Voting is the essence of U.S. citizenship. It is the basis of arguments for full voting representation for the District of Columbia. It is the reason so many people refer to "D.C. citizens," not simply "D.C. residents."

Voting is not about being a "taxpayer" or a "resident," the standards Mayor Williams says he's ready to accept for eligibility. Ten-year-old kids who plunk down money for a burger and fries are "taxpayers." Live in the District for just 30 days and you become a legal "resident" - it doesn't matter if you have plans to relocate elsewhere on Day 45.

Voting is about being a citizen. It is the essence of America's democratic, representative government.

It appears that Mayor Williams doesn't really understand the long fight for D.C. voting rights. He also apparently doesn't appreciate the long struggle and the sacrifices endured by black Americans and women to gain the right to vote.

And to publicly state that paying taxes "sounds like a good standard to me" for determining voter eligibility raises the question of whether the mayor remembers the days when poll taxes were used to take away people's right to vote.

U.S. citizens make the supreme sacrifice for their country when they lose their lives on the battlefield, fighting for their country. Drafting thousands of young men right out of high school to fight in Vietnam, sometimes against their will, ultimately resulted in Congress lowering the eligibility age for voters from 21 to 18.

Non-citizens don't pledge allegiance to the stars and stripes. Non-citizens can't be drafted to fight a war in defense of the United States. Elections - whether local or federal - are about politics, and world politics creates wars.

Even those "minor" elective offices - like seats on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission or the school board - sometimes are used as stepping stones toward gaining greater political influence. And lest we forget, our locally elected mayor used his political influence earlier this year to raise funds for the re-election campaign of Maryland Republican Connie Morella. Morella's votes in Congress have a direct impact on U.S. government policies that affect the lives of all citizens.

American citizenship used to mean something, and it still should. People who are unwilling to disavow their allegiance to another homeland and make a commitment to this country by enduring the struggle to gain U.S. citizenship should not be allowed to participate in running the government.

When our government gets involved in international political disputes, who is legally duty-bound to defend our government's actions? Non-citizens who reside and pay taxes here can simply choose to opt out.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator