D.C. Rights Group Takes on Montana Senator

Radio ads criticize Montana's Tester

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Wednesday, Jul 21, 2010  |  Updated 6:36 AM EDT
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D.C. Rights Group Takes on Montana Senator

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Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

Mike Panetta has a message for federal legislators who mess around in D.C.’s local affairs: Washingtonians can do the same back at you.

Panetta, who has served as D.C.’s shadow representative since 2007, heads the Free and Equal D.C. Fund, which is working to defeat members of Congress who oppose D.C. home rule on their home turf, and to elect District supporters.

His first target was freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a vocal opponent of a D.C. vote in the House. Panetta’s group promised “targeted campaign activities and independent expenditures” in Chaffetz’s district, warning, “We’ll make sure his constituents know he’s been spending his time in Washington attempting to do the job of a D.C. Council member, instead of representing the interests of Utah’s 3rd District.”

The group is now taking on Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers, sponsors of a bill that would eliminate any locally enacted firearms regulations within the District. Panetta said if their bill became law, “anybody would be free to walk around with a semiautomatic rifle in D.C. … It’s a slap in the face to local governments everywhere, and was only done to gain cheap political points with the National Rifle Association.”

The group is running a radio ad in Montana, charging Tester with ignoring Montana’s interests and wasting time on D.C. issues. The spot says Tester is not doing his job as an elected representative of the Treasure State, and that if he cares so much about District affairs, he can always resign from the Senate and run for D.C. Council.

(Montana, by the way, has two U.S. senators and one U.S. representative to serve its 974,989 residents. D.C. has 599,657 residents -- and you already know how many senators and representatives we have.)

Chaffetz is a conservative Republican. Tester and Childers are both Democrats, like Panetta and like most of D.C.’s elected officials. I asked Panetta if this is a problem for him.

“I don’t give a rip what party someone belongs to -- no member of Congress should attempt to change laws passed by our locally elected legislature,” Panetta said. “I know some Democrats may not be comfortable with that approach, but to stand around and do nothing isn’t an option for me.”

Panetta was elected with 77 percent of the vote in 2006, faced no primary opponent in 2008, and was re-elected with 86 percent of the vote. But this year, he faces an energetic challenge from Nate Bennett-Fleming, a 25-year-old recent Harvard graduate. In the June D.C. Democratic Party Straw Poll, Panetta took 253 votes to the challenger’s 185, and Bennett-Fleming easily won a Ward 8 straw poll earlier this month.

Panetta’s D.C. voting rights activism predates his 2006 election, but I asked him if a loss this year would dampen his enthusiasm about the cause.

“I’m going to keep doing this work whether or not voters entrust me with another term as their shadow U.S. representative," he said. "I hope to continue serving in that role, but win or lose, when it comes to ending the second-class status of D.C. citizens, there are more important elections than my own.”

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