Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s announcement that he will retire from Congress at the end of 2018 has made some folks in Washington, D.C., very happy.
Advocates for District of Columbia sovereignty see Chaffetz, the chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as one of their biggest tormentors. The Republican lawmaker especially riled local groups to action by attempting to exercise the committee’s authority to overturn D.C. laws under the Home Rule Act, long a sore spot for District residents.
“We’re thrilled,” said Lynette Craig, a Utah native who started a fundraising political action committee to overthrow Chaffetz. “Now we need to plan the early retirement of other opponents to self-rule, and there are plenty to choose from, unfortunately.”
Craig’s group, Americans for Self-Rule, handed out golf balls with Chaffetz’s face imprinted on them at a celebration of its launch this week. The group has raised $25,000 so far, she said.
The sum would be a drop in the bucket for a race against a lawmaker with Chaffetz’s national profile, and it is not clear how much of a factor it played — if any — in Chaffetz’s decision to retire from Congress. But for many D.C. residents, eager to find a way to take action in a political system that often ignores them, it represented the start of something remarkable.
Other local residents with varying levels of political experience have held similar events in recent months. After the November election, a surge in local activism pumped new life into the long-simmering movement for D.C. home rule.
One group of Capitol Hill neighbors held a block party — with a band, a popcorn machine and a pickle jar to collect donations — to raise money for a front-page ad opposing Chaffetz in a Utah paper. Hundreds of Washington residents have flooded the phone lines in the congressman’s office.
Chaffetz’s announcement raises new questions about whether that momentum can be sustained. But activists say they are not concerned.
“Congress has meddled for years in trying to overturn D.C. laws,” said Bo Shuff, director of advocacy at DC Vote, a pro-home rule group. “This has gone on since the Home Rule Act was passed [in 1973]. I don’t think it’s going to go away.”
Chaffetz has not publicly responded to the local efforts to challenge him. An aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday those moves did not play a role in his decision.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Chaffetz said there were “no ulterior motives” behind his decision, and he was confident he would still be re-elected by a wide margin if he ran again.
Foe to Democrats
The Utah Republican is a galvanizing figure. Photogenic, well-spoken and a magnet for the press, Chaffetz has relished antagonizing Democrats in his role as chairman of the powerful Oversight panel.
But when President Donald Trump took office, Chaffetz was widely criticized for his reluctance to exercise the same oversight over a Republican administration. That would have been enough to irk residents of liberal D.C., where Trump took only 4 percent of the vote last fall.
But there were other issues that hit much closer to home for District residents.
Most recently, Chaffetz tried unsuccessfully to overturn a local assisted suicide law in February. D.C. home rule advocates found the congressman’s position toward the District hypocritical after he had complained of federal overreach in Utah.
That’s what got the attention of the residents of the Capitol Hill Lexington Place neighborhood.
Several people along the street had already been talking about what they could do to channel their dissatisfaction over the November election. Those conversations resulted in a neighborhood meeting, where Chaffetz’s name came up, several residents said.
“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s get rid of this guy, let’s meet up and talk about it,’” said Charles Walston, who was part of the discussion. “We were all kind of feeling a need to do something and said, ‘Let’s get together and talk about what we can do so we feel like we are engaged.’”
Walston, who sings in a band called The Truck Farmers, offered to provide entertainment at the party to raise funds for the front-page ad opposing Chaffetz in a Utah paper. Other neighbors who had worked at newspapers wrote the text for the ad. A cartoonist next door did the art.
They held the party at a local garage and advertised through word of mouth. It was a hit — well exceeding their $1,800 goal. Their ad ran on Easter Sunday.
Residents said they would like to think Chaffetz saw it, and that he was thinking about it when he decided to leave Congress. Whether or not that’s the case, they were energized by the experience.
“It showed us that when people work together you can have a voice, and that politicians might not want to admit it, but they hear those messages,” Walston said.
For that reason, residents said they were confident that they would find a new outlet for their activism.
“It’s nice for us that he doesn’t want to run for office, but the next person could be just like him,” said Julie Woodford, who also lives on the block.
Shuff, of DC Vote, made a similar point. He pointed out that almost all the Republicans on the Oversight Committee voted with Chaffetz to overturn the D.C. Death with Dignity law in February.
“That indicated they are all good with messing with D.C. home rule,” he said. “And one of them will most likely become the chair.”
Craig, who started the Americans for Self-Rule PAC, said she already had some idea of whom her group could target next. Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans, have introduced measures that would void D.C.’s strict gun laws. And New Jersey GOP Rep. Christopher H. Smith wants to prohibit the District from using local money to pay for abortions.
“We don’t have to stand for any of that,” Craig said. “I hope that everyone takes heed that we are here, we are organizing, we are raising money and we are not going to stop.”
Chaffetz will still be around, at least for a while. And his D.C. opponents may not be through with him yet.
He is rumored to be considering a run for Utah governor in 2020.
If that’s the case, Shuff said, Chaffetz would probably be more likely to want to take on policy issues in D.C. during his last year and a half in office that would appeal to the national conservative base.
As for those golf balls?
Craig said there were some left over from the party. She plans to send them to Chaffetz as a retirement gift.