For incumbent Phil Mendelson and challenger Clark Ray, the D.C. Council at-large race is about many things: streetcars, public safety, education. For Shadow Sen. (or, if he insists, U.S. Sen.) Michael D. Brown, it's about one thing: statehood.
As a way to hammer at Mendelson and the rest of the council for what he sees as their insufficient support for statehood, Brown said the following during this morning's debate on TBD NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt: "We spent $100,000 on statehood last year. The Puerto Ricans spent $20 million."
That’s quite the gap, and it piqued our interest. Do Puerto Ricans (a significant portion of whom don’t actually support statehood) spend that much more in their quest for statehood than comparatively united Washingtonians?
The belief that the Puerto Rico dwarfs D.C. in statehood spending seems to be widespread. At a shadow representative forum in Ward 8 recently, other candidates nodded their heads in agreement as incumbent Mike Panetta made a similar point (although Panetta was fuzzier on the specifics).
Puerto Rico does spend a lot lobbying. Since 1998, it led all other states, municipalities and territories in the amount it spends lobbying the federal government. But its entire lobbying budget in 2009 was only $1.25 million, not $20 million.
And that $1.25 million is to lobby Congress on a wide variety of issues, including everything from health care to economic policy. (Sarah Echols, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, said the exact amount they spent lobbying on the statehood issue in general couldn't be pulled out of the total.) And they don’t actually lobby for statehood. Instead, according to Echols, they lobby for the passage of HR2499, which would set up an island-wide referendum allowing Puerto Ricans to vote for statehood, independence, a free association with the U.S. or to continue with their current status.
Puerto Rico used to spend a lot more on lobbying. In 1999, they spent $5.1 million, an amount which has steadily declined over the past decade.
Still, D.C. clearly does spend a lot less. The D.C. Council allocated no money for direct lobbying this year, after allocating only $100,000 last year. That money went to the Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination, which has since been disbanded. The council also funds D.C. Vote, which has received $1.6 million in public money since 2006.
We asked Brown about the discrepancy, and it was hard to keep him on-target. But he made a compelling case that the council needs to be more focused on statehood.
"Every day I work on this and every day the people in the Wilson Building ignore it," Brown said, later adding: "Whose dumbass idea was it to put volunteers on this?" (Shadow senators and the shadow representative are not paid, and Brown said he gave up his job and works 60-hour weeks on the issue.)
We don't know whose idea it was, but we do know that while Brown was off on how much Puerto Rico spends, he had the numbers for the District correct. And his general point — Puerto Rico outspends D.C. on lobbying the feds — is accurate. That's good enough for a 50/50.