Pete Ross, a candidate for the D.C. shadow senator seat, was sentenced to one day of jail time and ordered to pay a $50 fine in the wake of a December arrest for blocking traffic on Independence Avenue during a D.C. voting rights protest. But if you think that jail time is excessive for a relatively insignificant misdemeanor that was dealt with in D.C. traffic court, consider this-Ross asked to be locked up.
The sentencing capped off a bizarre week in the race for the unpaid shadow senator position. On Tuesday, Ross stumped one judge with his request that he be locked up instead of put on probation as is usually the case with such arrests. (Three people arrested alongside Ross completed community service.) Judge Elizabeth Wingo asked if there was any precedent for such a request; Ross attorney Ann Wilcox argued that peace activists have in the past refused to pay fines and instead served jail time. Wingo postponed sentencing for two days so she could explore what her options were.
At a second sentencing session held today, Wingo told the court that incumbent Shadow Senator Michael Brown had called her on Wednesday night to discuss Ross’ sentencing. According to Wingo, Brown told her that Ross was using the sentencing and possible jail time for political purposes; at that point, Wingo told Brown that the nature of the phone call was inappropriate and ended it. Upon hearing of the call, Wilcox asked that another judge consider Ross’ case. (We’ve left a message with Brown, but have yet to hear back. We’ll update once we do.)
The sentencing was transferred to Judge Fredrick J. Sullivan, who handled the trial of other D.C. voting rights-related protesters last year. In an almost surreal hearing, a government prosecutor stressed that he wold not ask for jail time, but Ross insisted in a statement that he was willing to be “stepped back” for the cause of the city’s voting rights.
“For far too long residents of the District of Columbia have been disenfranchised, refused the right to vote and govern ourselves. As a result, we’ve had the opinions, laws and mandates of outsiders forced upon us. And the leaders that we’ve elected are often left impotent, forced to accept the mandates of those who respect neither their offices nor their abilities,” said Ross, reading from a prepared statement.
“You wanna go to jail?” asked Sullivan. “It’s not a pleasant place over there,” he said. It’s also not free, he added-a single night in the D.C. Jail costs taxpayers $125.
Ross did not seem swayed, and Sullivan agreed to one day of jail time. (The charge carries a maximum of 90 days in jail.) “As a judge, I’m not entitled to the privilege of agreeing or disagreeing with you,” said Sullivan of Ross’ decision as he was led off by marshals.
Of the close to 80 people arrested at D.C. voting rights-related protests last year, Ross was among the few to go to trial-and he’s certainly the only one to have been sentenced to prison time. (In 2007, he served 90 days at a halfway house for tax evasion.) Brown was arrested in April, went to trial, was found guilty and ordered to pay fines. According to Nelson Rimensnyder, a Republican running for the shadow senator position and resident D.C. voting rights historian, Ross may be one of the only protesters he knows of to spend time behind bars for the cause.
Today’s hearing only adds to what has been a surprisingly bizarre campaign for the unpaid position. Ross, a former furniture salesman and president of the Foxhall Citizens Community Association, has dumped $202,000 of his own fortune into the race. (He’s got a $7,500-a-month campaign consultant, seven other paid staffers and plenty of flashy campaign signs around town.) Brown, on the other hand, loaned himself $1,200 and said he’s relying on his record and his campaigning prowess to earn him another term.
“I’m not a lightweight,” he told us during an interview yesterday. “I campaign hard. I just don’t have $200,000 of my own money to put into this. I don’t think this should be an office you should buy.”