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Meet Trey Gowdy, Tea Party Politician and D.C.'s Most Unlikely Friend

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of the District’s budget being taken up by Congress, I joined D.C. autonomy activists at a small press conference tucked away in the back corridors of the U.S. Capitol. The District’s lone delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and its mayor, Vincent Gray, took the opportunity to rally representatives from various organizations to join in D.C’s most awkward annual ritual: attempting to beg, scold, or otherwise shame Congress into abstaining from attaching riders to the city’s budget. After almost 40 minutes of impassioned speeches on the importance of local government control, needle-exchange programs, same-sex marriage, gun control, and reproductive rights, Norton laid into her GOP congressional overlords. “I don’t expect the Republicans to see the light by themselves anymore than I expect the Southern racists to see the light!” she exclaimed. “They will never come our way.”

But when I later asked Norton about the Republican who is actually in charge of the subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia—a South Carolina freshman named Trey Gowdy—she had gentler words. His colleagues may be impossible, but Gowdy, according to Norton, is an honest “gentleman.” “I so appreciate his attitude, which is very different from [the other Republicans],” she told me. Mayor Gray agreed in an email, calling Gowdy “open and honest.” This begs an obvious question: If the Republican leadership is provoking so much ire among D.C. autonomy activists, what exactly is this Tea Party congressman doing right? Norton and Gray, of course, might be couching their words because, whether they like it or not, Gowdy is the man to whom they must plead the District’s case. But as it turns out, there’s good evidence that their opinions of the congressman are more than empty flattery, as Gowdy’s done more than a few things to indicate he’s not all bad for D.C.

CONSERVATIVES HAVE A long history of meddling in District affairs. One of Gowdy’s most infamous predecessors, a fellow South Carolinian named John L. McMillan, was chairman of the subcommittee on D.C. every session but one from 1945 to 1972. An ardent segregationist, he prevented the majority-black city from achieving any kind of self-government—until black activists organized in his home district and voted him out of office in 1972. And while the Home Rule Act was passed in 1973, that hasn’t prevented conservatives from continuing to intervene when it suits their agenda. For example, from 1992 to 2002, Republicans prevented D.C. from creating a domestic partnership registry, which would have allowed unmarried couples the same rights as married couples. In 1998, Congress banned the use of local funds for syringe exchange. (The ban was lifted in 2007.) Also in 1998, Congress forbade the city from using local tax dollars to count the votes in a referendum on medical marijuana. Between 1995 and 2001, Congress instituted a Financial Control Board to decide the municipal budget.

The past couple years of a Democratic-controlled Congress provided only a short reprieve, and, following the 2010 election, D.C. autonomy activists feared that the new Republican majority in the House would further intervene in District affairs. They predicted their new foe would be Republican representative Jason Chaffetz, a staunch conservative from Utah who had been outspoken about his plans to repeal gay marriage in the District, block attempts at D.C. voting rights, and “retrocede” the District into the state of Maryland. But then Gowdy, not Chaffetz, was made chair of the subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives, and D.C. observers quickly tried to size up their new ostensible opponent.

A 46-year-old former prosecutor from upstate South Carolina, Gowdy won in South Carolina’s 4th District by running to the right of six-term Republican congressman Bob Inglis. Though he had some Tea Party support, others on South Carolina’s talk radio circuit accused him of not being conservative enough. He told Congressional Quarterly that his litmus test for legislation was whether the bill’s sponsor could “point to the portion of the Constitution that empowers Congress to legislate in that area.” “Gowdy is something of a blank slate, albeit one with heavy Tea Party leanings,” Martin Austermuhle wrote at DCist in January. “This should be interesting.”

As it turns out, Gowdy has been a surprising chair not because of what he’s done, but because of what he’s chosen not to do. Given the opportunity—and constitutional authority—to meddle, he’s been remarkably hands-off. He has said he does not plan to add any amendments to this year’s D.C. municipal budget. For activists who had predicted a return to the reign of terror like that which took place under GOP control during the 1990s, when funding for programs related to needle exchange and medical marijuana was nixed, Gowdy’s restraint has been a welcome surprise. And while the D.C. budget, as it currently stands coming out of the appropriations committee, prohibits the use of local funds for abortion, it says nothing about other traditional conservative points of contention like gay marriage or gun control. Moreover, instead of attempting to reinstitute a Financial Control Board to decide the District’s budget, Gowdy has backed an idea to decouple the D.C. budget from the federal budget process. While Congress would maintain its oversight role, local funding would be approved after the D.C. City Council votes on the city budget in June, instead of having to wait, as is now the case, until the fall for Congress to approve it as part of the federal budget.

As a result, Gowdy has won himself fans among some of the District’s most diehard activists, even as they criticize other Republican leaders. “I would separate House leadership from Trey Gowdy,” Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, told me. Though Zherka has not met with Gowdy personally, he understands that Norton has a good relationship with him. “The House Republican leadership has gone on the attack. We have the sense from Trey Gowdy so far that he is not been interested in serving as an overlord and trying to impose himself. … Hopefully he will continue to respect home rule rights of D.C. residents. So far he’s been pretty good on that front.”

But doesn’t Gowdy understand the time-honored tradition of exploiting the District in exchange for scoring political points back at home? When I finally tracked him down and questioned his hands-off approach, he framed it as a matter of simply listening to his constituency. “I was on the campaign trail for 18 months,” he told me. “I never got a question about the District of Columbia in South Carolina. I didn’t come up here with a mandate. [Eleanor Holmes Norton] doesn’t go out of her way to tell us what to do in South Carolina. I’m not searching for ways to tell the District of Columbia what to do.”

If anything, Gowdy’s words seem to imply a veiled but principled respect for local control. “I was not elected the mayor of the District of Columbia,” he said plainly. Then he joked, “I’m unelectable in the District of Columbia.” For past conservatives placed in charge of D.C., a general philosophical commitment to local autonomy appeared to matter little when it came to the District. But Gowdy’s emphasis on deferring to local authority appears more consistent. He’s chosen to meet with D.C officials in their offices instead of his own, sought areas of agreement instead of contention by reaching out to address boring but manageable topics like Metro safety, and largely abstained from digging into local minutiae.

Of course, Gowdy did support legislation prohibiting the use of local funds for abortions, calling himself “unabashedly pro-life.” And he’s been consistently vague on the most important issue: D.C. voting rights. “I would hasten to add that when the other side had the House, the Senate, and the White House, D.C. voting rights didn’t fare any better,” he told me. He explained that the District of Columbia is “constitutionally unique,” as the only jurisdiction mentioned by name in the Constitution. Though he wouldn’t comment on specific solutions, he expressed openness to different proposals. “The only thing I would ask is that the argument would be made consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and I’m willing to listen to any arguments anyone has,” he said.

I asked Norton if she thought Gowdy had more respect than his compatriots for local control. “I think he probably would, in a different world,” she said. “But he can’t, [as] a freshman Republican, be a renegade from the beginning.” Zherka, for his part, had hoped that 2010 might sweep in a new flock of “renegades”—Tea Party Republicans who might split with House leadership and see D.C. autonomy in a new light. “When Democrats lost control of the House, we talked a lot internally about the Tea Party and the possibility that some of the folks elected under that banner would actually see … D.C. home rule as under their philosophy,” he recalls. On the whole, Zherka has been disappointed. But he remains optimistic about Gowdy, of whom he says simply, “We’re watching him with curiosity and interest.”

Kara Brandeisky is an intern at The New Republic.