20 Questions: Michael Panetta

This week, 20 Questions profiles Michael Panetta, D.C.’s shadow representative.

What are the shadow representative’s duties?
There are no official duties, but each person that has had the job has been tasked with securing D.C. voting rights.

How many predecessors do you have?
I think there were five before me. Ray Brown did it for three terms.

It’s a two-year term?
Yes. D.C. voted on a Constitution [which was adopted by voters in 1982]; the Shadow Delegation was part of that. [There are] one statehood representative and two statehood senators.

What are the perks?

The perks are few and far between. It’s a platform. It gives me a sense of legitimacy of what I do.

What sorts of things have you done?
[We had a campaign] to rename RFK the Stadium Taxation without Representation Field. A grassroots effort to name the grass. In early 2006, we started a D.C. curling team [to be] part of the Olympics. [Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands can have teams] but D.C. does not have its own Olympic team. Papers all around the world did stories on it.

What are the drawbacks?
Beyond having a small office, there is really no support for District government, and the District is prohibited from spending its own funds. The shadow [delegation] operates in a gray area. We’re elected and on the books, but there is no funding.

How do you pay the bills?

I work at Grassroots Enterprise, a public-affairs consulting firm that uses technology to help clients achieve goals.

Do you ever get recognized?

Not like on the street … I’m never recognized at Safeway, which is fine because usually I look like a mess when I’m in public.

How often are you on the Hill?
Probably a couple of times a month. I don’t do a lot of visiting offices — pressing the flesh up there, it’s not my strength. I’m much more valuable at getting people in [a lawmaker’s] district and state to contact them.

What are the chances that D.C. will get a voting member in the House?

We’re getting close. We’re as close as we’ve ever been at getting a vote in the House. [We need to get] six [more supporters], maybe, if you count the president. We have five [Senate] Republicans on record.

If D.C. does get a voting member in the House, will you challenge Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)?
No. I would not do that. It would be a fool’s errand. Norton would likely run and win.

Was it a close election to become the shadow representative?

It literally was the last job on the ballot, but a lot of people wanted it. I ran against two people in the primary. There was a Republican on the general ballot and a Green Party candidate.

Do you ever actually “shadow” any lawmakers?
People say “shadow,” but it’s not an apprenticeship or an internship … When new states [entered into] the union, representatives were called shadows. I don’t actually shadow.

Do you ever feel like you are a shadow?
Sometimes. Sometimes the position personifies, in flesh and blood, the fact that we don’t have voting rights.

Why do you do it?
I’m in it for the issue. It’s the wrong thing to run for if you’re looking for glory.

Are you allowed on the House floor?
No. I’ve never tried.

Do people ever refer to you as “The Shadow,” like the 1930s and ’40s “furtive crime solver” made popular by Orson Welles?
I had to get a lot of signatures [to be on the ballot — 2,000]. That was a lot of standing in front of Safeways, Metro [stations]. Older people would say, “The Shadow!” Friends do jokingly [call me The Shadow] sometimes.

When did you begin campaigning for the position?
May of last year.

Would you run again?
I hope not, because I hope [the position] does get eliminated when this bill passes [and D.C. gets a voting member of the House]. But I’d run again if for some reason it doesn’t.

Who are you supporting for the White House in 2008?
I’m supporting the presidential candidate who’ll take the most proactive stance on addressing the disenfranchisement of the citizens of the District of Columbia. I’m not sure who that is yet.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or email at betsyr@thehill.com .