Stumping for the Vote

Mark Schaefer’s Idea for Democracy for DC Has Put Down Roots

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday , August 7, 2000 ; C01

One day, out of nowhere, a little elm tree appeared in a clay pot on Mark Schaefer’s balcony.

Well, of course, it wasn’t really out of nowhere. It must have been growing in the pot all along, perhaps from a seed that drifted in on the wind.

We can say with certainty, however, that there came a day when Mark first noticed the little elm.

Mark Schaefer and his taxation without representation elm
Mark Schaefer and his taxation-without-representation-is-tyranny elm

He stood there, looking at it. No particular idea, other than wonderment, came to him in that moment. Oh, he was also aware of the need to care for it—water it, that sort of thing.

But the idea, the Big Idea, would come a couple of years later.

Along about this June, actually.

Mark’s balcony is on the sixth floor of Hamilton House, a large downtown apartment building on New Hampshire Avenue. His view looks out over the avenue, just north of M Street NW. There are some old houses across the way and a good deal of commercial activity on a busy nearby corner.

The apartment itself is small, an efficiency. It looks like a college dorm, like what every guy’s apartment looks like the minute he gets away from his mother. There’s stuff everywhere.

There are dog bowls on the floor. “I don’t have a dog,” Mark says, “but I do dog-sit.”

There’s even a piano, though it’s hard to imagine how you’d play it, with all that stuff piled around it. Mark’s desk is cluttered, too. There’s a Book of Common Prayer on it, open to the wedding ceremony.

He’s planning a wedding for friends, and since they’re getting married in Massachusetts, he’s going to perform the ceremony. The rules on who can do that are fairly loose in Massachusetts. That’s a fact.

Out on the balcony, also quite cluttered, there’s a patio table and some gardening tools—shovel, rake, weed whacker. There’s a watering can and a container of Miracle-Gro, too, plus a number of clay pots.

Inside a couple of them, it appears that grass is growing. From each of four others, a single small stalk of corn sticks up. Yet others contain marigolds, a lilac, a little oak tree. A cherry tomato vine crawls up a wall.

Mark finds all this amusing. After all, he’s living in a tiny apartment in the city, and he has a lawn and is growing corn.

What about the elm tree, though?

“In May or June I started thinking about what to do with it,” he explains, “because I had to water it so much. One weekend I went away and wasn’t watering it for three days and it almost shriveled up and died. That gave greater urgency to the problem.

“I was also realizing how it was unfair to this tree to keep it in a pot. It was too small. The idea of moving it hit me sometime early in June. I needed to get it in the ground where its roots could stretch out and take in a lot of water.”

Gazing across the avenue, he noticed a vacant tree box. That is to say, a space deliberately left unpaved in the sidewalk to allow for some greenery.

“I looked down and saw this tree box basically growing wild, unweeded, unkempt. No one was using it. I figured no one would object to having it cleaned up and having a tree put there.”

It was a good idea, and he did it. It was not, however, his Big Idea.

That would come a couple of weeks later.

A Higher Law

What kind of a guy is this Mark Schaefer, anyway?

He’s a perfectly normal-looking 31-year-old guy. He’s tall, with a mop of brown hair, hazel eyes and a sincere gaze—not overly sincere, not so sincere as to be off-putting. Just pleasantly sincere.

Professionally speaking, Mark is an attorney who, sometime last year, decided to give up the law to become a minister. Last fall, he began his studies at Wesley Theological Seminary up near American University.

His extensive library, packed against one wall of the apartment, reflects this interest—E.P. Sanders’s “The Historical Figure of Jesus” and “Jesus and Judaism,” Craig C. Hill’s “Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division Within the Earliest Church,” and so on.

Mark read books in Hebrew and Greek, too. The growing spiritual rapprochement between Christians and Jews is one of his passions, and he hopes to promote this in what he calls “my future ministry.”

It’s not entirely clear, even to Mark, how this came about. It just did. He was going along fine, being a lawyer, and then one day the education minister at his church, Foundry United Methodist on 16th Street NW, asked him if he’d ever thought about becoming a clergyman.

No, Mark said, he hadn’t.

A while later, the missions minister asked him the same thing. When Mark bounced the idea off friends, he was surprised when they said they’d always thought he might do something like that.

“I thought, ‘What is this?’ Someone planted this bug in my ear and I couldn’t shake the idea. I was the last one to be aware that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

Growing up in Troy, N.Y., there’d been no hint of divine futurity. Mark’s dad was a junior high school art teacher, his mom worked in a hardware store. They’d divorced.

Mark was a Russian major at SUNY Albany, got a master’s in it, then came to George Washington for a law degree in ’94. He began working for a small law firm, the first of several low-key jobs.

He was in kind of a “funk,” actually. Drifting a bit.

In the meantime, he’d joined Foundry, where he sang in the choir and was gradually becoming more involved in church activities. Before he knew it, he’d even started something called the church’s Democracy Project, to advocate voting rights for D.C. citizens.

That’s another little story all by itself.

Wrongs and Rights

It wasn’t so much that Mark was “political”–not the way people are “political” in this town, anyway.

But on Election Day 1996 he was in the voting booth, having transferred his registration from New York, when he suddenly realized that—as a D.C. resident—he couldn’t vote for members of Congress.

“I’d been mildly aware of D.C. politics,” he recalls, “but this really hit me. The battle that year was really about Congress and I thought, ‘I’m not getting to participate!’ I really felt disenfranchised.”

Mark—a relative newcomer to Washington, a standard everyday ordinary American outside-the-Beltway guy—had just been hit squarely in the gut with what people here live with year after year.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress power “to exercise exclusive Legislation” over the District. It was an important housekeeping item for the framers, who wanted a secure sense of control in the new seat of federal government.

It’s not clear, however, that they realized this could permanently disenfranchise citizens here. Mark sees it as “a historical mistake,” perpetuated now by Republican opposition to new voting members of Congress from Washington, which is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Be that as it may, Mark recalls, “I began to think, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’ ” Mulling it over, he realized that lawsuits and political action had failed to change things.

“It occurred to me that there was one argument that was hard to refute–it is wrong. Consider it simply as a moral issue. You have half a million residents, you tax them, you send their sons and daughters to war, and then they don’t get to participate.”

Mark began talking about it at church, and appeared before Foundry’s Council on Ministries to propose a mission group to advocate D.C. voting rights purely on moral grounds.

Not political. The details could be sorted out, once people realized what’s going on. Abolitionists, prohibitionists, suffragists, civil rights activists–moral crusaders all, sprung from the soil of American pietism, nourished in communities of faith.

By May of ’98, Mark’s Foundry Democracy Project was up and running, and soon the Baltimore-Washington Methodist conference approved a resolution supporting voting rights for the people of Washington.

Mark wrote it.

His small idea grew. Three months ago, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church nationally approved the same resolution–the first major denomination to do so.

The resolution notes that the people of the District “have given their undivided allegiance to the United States.”

It continues: Governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Methodist Church has always championed “the equality of all persons before God and the law.” Therefore, “the continuing disenfranchisement of the citizens of the District of Columbia is an egregious moral wrong, which must be rectified.”

Which brings us back to the elm tree.

Seed of an Idea Takes Root

A week or two after he’d thought of moving the little elm to the tree box, Mark was watching TV and having dinner with a couple of female pals in one of their apartments.

“I was mentioning the tree and I said, ‘You know what I ought to do is put a sign on it saying it’s devoted to D.C. voting rights.’ And as I was saying it I knew it was the right thing to do.

“I thought as long as I was making an aesthetic change to the neighborhood, I should have it work toward some noble purpose.”

Thus do Big Ideas get their start, sometimes.

“It was just one of those things that came out of nowhere,” Mark says, smiling in his sincere way, “because my main concern had been just to have the tree survive.”

two men look at the sign in front of the democracy tree

So, on the July 4 weekend—appropriately—Mark headed downstairs with the elm, dug a hole, planted it. He drove in some stakes and secured the tree to them.

He weeded and mulched. He went up to Murphy’s on Wisconsin Avenue and bought some red, white and blue flowers and planted them around it. He doesn’t know what they are.

He stuck a little American flag amid the flowers.

Finally, he built a wooden plaque and secured it on a post at the foot of the tree. It says:

is dedicated to the more than half million veterans, taxpayers and citizens of the District of Columbia who, despite fighting in foreign wars, paying their full measure of taxes and faithfully serving their country, continue to have no voting representation in the Congress of the United States of America.
“Taxation without Representation is Tyranny”

By chance, Mark’s elm became Washington’s newest monument just as citizen groups–backed by the mayor and City Council–arranged for D.C. license plates to proclaim “Taxation Without Representation.”

By happenstance—or some strange interlocking of fate—one of Mark’s ancestors on his mother’s side was Roger Sherman, a Connecticut lawyer who was one of America’s Founding Fathers.

It was Sherman who, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, forged the Connecticut Compromise, under which the House of Representatives is apportioned by population and the Senate has two senators per state, no matter how small the state.

Which is how Connecticut’s license plate slogan came to be:

“Constitution State.”

A Tree Grows in Washington

It’s a fairly ratty-looking little tree, to tell you the truth.

But so what? This was once a fairly ratty little country. And who’s to say Mark’s elm won’t live to see the day when citizens of the District can vote like any other citizen?

That would be apt. After all, the mythos of the elm in the American imagination speaks of peace and calm, of tree-lined streets in small towns and village greens where people stand and speak their minds in public meetings and Norman Rockwell is there to paint it.


Mark has noticed a great deal of interest in the tree just in the short time it has been on the street.

“There’s a lot of people on weekends, and in the mornings and evenings on their way to and from work, who stop and read the sign. They seem to appreciate it.

“It’s funny to see the reactions. One person was scratching his head, ‘What is this?’ A woman saw it and shouted, ‘Yes!’

“If they’re from out of town, they’re usually not even aware of the issue. If I’m there weeding on the weekend they’ll say, ‘Is that true?’ “

Mark gets to explain things to them. At heart, though, he’s still not that political a guy. Something else is driving him.

“I’m happy this tree will just shoot up,” he says, “now that it’s got the room to grow.”

© 2000 The Washington Post Company