City Desk

Why Rep. José Serrano Is D.C.’s Staunchest Defender in Congress

P1140612D.C.'s love for Democrat Rep. José Serrano of New York is nothing new. In 2010, he was on the receiving end of a ceremonial resolution from the D.C. Council after he unsuccessfully proposed ending Congress' control over the District's budget. In 2013, he received a "Champion of Democracy" award at DC Vote's annual gala. Serrano is his party's ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which oversees D.C.'s budget.

That means Serrano often finds himself speaking out against House colleagues who use their positions to introduce laws that would impact how D.C. can spend its own money. In the last month, there have been high-profile attempts to gut D.C.'s gun laws and block the city from enforcing its own marijuana decriminalization law through the appropriations process. Each time, Serrano delivered a floor speech arguing against what he described as violations of the basic rights of U.S. citizens. Both times, he was unsuccessful.

The Puerto Rico-born Serrano's District covers part of the Bronx. He also has a place in Arlington—yes, Arlington—and says that any U.S. congressman who wants to mess with D.C.'s laws should quit Congress and run for D.C. Council. He spoke to City Desk today about what it's like to make headlines defending a city he doesn't represent.

You've been giving a lot of pro-D.C. speeches lately. Do you have a stock, go-to speech at this point?

I don't have a stock speech...I just think it's unfair and it's cheap politics [for politicians] to put issues on the agenda that they can't accomplish at home...While I understand that we have constitutional oversight duties in D.C., and that's just the way it is, I still feel that you can use your own personal judgement and sentiment and humaneness in trying to not make that more difficult for [D.C. residents.]

You represent the Bronx. What's it like constantly delivering speeches on behalf of the District?

When you are a member of Congress, you have to pay attention to things that are happening in the country. But D.C. is special to me. It's a place where I work, it's a place where I spend x amount of days, it's a place where I shop, or go out for a bite. I run on the Mall every morning, and I know that it may be the federal Mall, but it's part of D.C. I feel that the people should have their rights and should be treated as such.

The big headlines this season have been attempts to overturn D.C.'s marijuana decriminalization laws, gut D.C.'s gun laws, and, as always, an attempt to block government funding of abortions. Do you find any of these more egregious than the others?

The guns laws bother me a lot, because D.C., like all urban centers, has a crime problem and we should not be telling them how many guns they can have. I'm troubled by any attacks on the needle exchange program, because I know D.C. has a great need to fight HIV and AIDs and so this is a public health issue, but again something they want do. But I'm also troubled by the constant attack on women in general, but in D.C. specifically, where you can't even use local funds to provide freedom of choice for poor women. It really gets me upset because you should allow people to use their own money for what they want to use it for.

If you look at what D.C. proposes that Washington wants to do away with, it actually makes for a more progressive city, a more interesting city, a District open for everyone to come there, and live there, and share there. It is not going to ruin this place or ruin the nation.

What do you think  of the job Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is doing?

Every time we are discussing D.C., she is in the debate. And she continuously lobbies for her city, which she is supposed to do. I can use my vote to do something, but she has a voice, and it's a strong voice. I knew her from her days in New York. She had a strong voice then and she has a strong voice now.

You two disagreed during the government shutdown when you voted to defeat a bill that would have allowed D.C. to spend its own money during the shutdown. Why did you vote against that bill?

The government shutdown was a very unfortunate situation where it was bad for everyone, so was sequestration. There were things done during that time that we want to put behind us. But in general, I keep defending the District of Columbia and I tell Congress you need to respect the wishes of the people of the District of Columbia and you can do that within the constitutional mandate.

You are from Puerto Rico and you advocate on its behalf in Congress. Do you see parallels between Puerto Rico's status in the United States and D.C.'s?

Puerto Ricans should have the right to self-determination. They should have the right to tell people what they want and Congress should abide by it. If Puerto Rico chooses to be a state, then Congress should grant that. The way I compare it is that both places should not have members of Congress treating it like a colony and that is how D.C. is treated in so many instances, like a colony, not like a part of our nation, and I don't like that.

Are you for D.C. statehood?

Sure, absolutely. Yes, I am.

Do you see D.C. becoming a state?

I don't know if that issue will even move anytime soon, but I support D.C. statehood because the people are saying that they want it. And in Puerto Rico I support anything other than what we have now. Puerto Rico should not be a colony of the U.S. and I'm hoping the people of Puerto Rico decide what they want and then I'll be very supportive of that.

Why do you think these members of Congress who continuously introduce bills to change D.C. laws?

D.C. has always been a good punching bag so they continue to do that. It's a mindset that says they are the governor of the city, on the City Council and the mayor of D.C. I don't see myself that way. If I ever see myself that way, I will quit Congress and run for the D.C. City Council and hopefully will win.

Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky told some reporters last week that he, in part, introduced the amendment to gut D.C.'s gun laws to show his constituents from Kentucky that he is very much the pro-gun representative they elected. 

He admitted that?

Yep.

So you see! That's my whole point, they mistreat D.C. to make a point back home. And you got it straight from the guy. That's like me slapping you so I can go back home and say "Hey, I'm capable of slapping someone."

Photo by Azi Paybarah via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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