Making Waves

District of Columbia shadow senator Paul Strauss has no voting or floor privileges, but that doesn’t stop him from making waves in Congress.

Aboard the Shalva, a 60-plus-foot houseboat docked at the Potomac River’s Gangplank Marina — the setting for his latest reelection fundraiser — Strauss recalls a waterborne triumph in his ongoing quest to have federal lawmakers grant voting rights to D.C.’s congressional representation.

The 44-year-old Democrat, an avid boater, remembers sailing the Potomac a few years back with other boat-loving constituents in an attempt to stir the tempest surrounding the voting-rights movement.

“Boats were in procession, honking for rights,” recounts Strauss, sitting on a plastic deck chair just a few feet from a slide that plunges down the houseboat’s side and into the dock’s opaque waters.

According to Strauss, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) was on a different boat that same night, and when the sailing protesters floated by, Voinovich had to explain their cause to a group of foreign nationals with whom he was keeping company. Voinovich found himself stammering for thorough answers, Strauss says, and he decided to examine the issue more closely. Voinovich supported the D.C. voting rights when the issue came up in the Senate last year, a vote Strauss attributes — rightly or wrongly — to the boat demonstration. (The bill didn’t pass.)

Strauss is now reminding his constituents of his water protests and other work he has done during the last six years as he campaigns for another term in what might well be Congress’s most invisible and thankless job. In fact, Congress doesn’t even recognize Strauss’s office; his public service is sanctioned through D.C.’s city government and comes with none of the perks — or even basic benefits, like a salary — that other senators enjoy.

Hence the “low-dollar meet-and-greet” that attracts approximately 20 people atop the gently swaying Shalva. While many aspiring politicians worry about name recognition before their first election, Strauss, who also runs a local law firm, constantly has to educate his constituents about who he is and what he does, even after 12 years in office.

“It’s important to remind voters that we’ve been out there working hard,” he says. “We’re making phone calls, we’re going door to door, we’re running a very grassroots campaign.”

This being a fundraising event, Strauss is concerned about campaign finances. But in a year when presidential candidates have burned hundreds of millions of dollars on private jets, television ads, armies of staff and other components of their campaigns, Strauss’s financial worries are on a much smaller scale.

“The posters have to be paid for,” he says, referring to the red-and-white “Reelect Paul Strauss” signs strapped to lampposts around town. He brought a few of the posters to the fundraiser to decorate the boat but plans to take them down after the event soa he can reuse them. Because “economically, times are bad,” he says, he knows he has to be wise with the resources he has.

Strauss faces one opponent in the Democratic primary in September. If he advances, he’ll be on the November ticket against a mix of other candidates, including an Independent and a Libertarian.

Despite this, Strauss’s campaign hardly seems in dire straits. What he lacks in flashy campaign materials and endless cash he makes up for in the authentic testimonials a couple of the fundraiser’s attendees shower on him.

“Paul is a friend and a fellow boater,” says Debbie Ruttenberg, 41, the fundraiser’s hostess and the captain of the Shalva. She and Strauss met two years ago at an annual event called the Blessing of the Fleet.

Then there’s Johné Forges, who has known Strauss since his long-haired, sandal-wearing days as a freshman at American University. Forges, a tap dancer and bartender who declined to give his age, proudly says he started the petition for signatures Strauss needed for his first campaign for shadow senator in 1996. He rattled off the things he’s seen Strauss do: court and marry his wife, graduate from college, graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, raise his children, bring “troubled kids” to his boat, “do stuff” for muscular dystrophy and, most recently, put a different batch of kids to work for him while at Safeway to pick up the chips and dip for the fundraiser.

“I was taken by his ability to adapt in every environment,” Forges says. “The bottom line of Paul is Paul is solid and willing to reach out.”

Strauss does have his off days, when the tirelessness required to be a shadow senator catches up with him (“In my low moments, I’ll go by the statue of Ernest Gruening,” he says, referring to the Statuary Hall sculpture of one of Alaska’s shadow senators). But aboard the Shalva, looking out at the Potomac’s calm waters and the clear sky, Strauss expresses faith that his work will not be in vain.

Will he be up for serving another term as shadow senator if he wins in November’s election?

“I think what we’re looking at is hopefully we won’t need another six-year term,” he says.

 Editor's Note: This story was updated after publication. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) was on the other boat.