Washington’s New Columbia State of Mind

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks as Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton listens during their news conference in the Cannon House Office Building on Monday, May 9, 2016, to discuss efforts "to protect D.C.'s local laws during the upcoming fiscal year 2017 appropriations process." 

Next week’s D.C. primary, a blip on the presidential primary schedule, probably won’t attract much notice. But there is one intriguing event on the Washington political calendar next week: a constitutional convention on D.C. statehood, where Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city officials will draft the governing precepts for what they are calling the state of New Columbia.

Leaders in the fight for statehood have passed the torch from one generation to the next. But the 2016 campaign season marks the culmination of a strategic push by the District’s statehood supporters to use the constitutional convention, a November statehood ballot question, and the current presidential election cycle to launch a national debate over the city’s political status.

Longtime statehood backer Bernie Sanders reiterated his support for statehood Thursday. Hillary Clinton shared her pro-statehood views in a local African American newspaper. Even Donald Trump says he favors expanded D.C. voting rights over a 51st star.  

For all this political attention, and for all the passions around the issue in D.C.—where support for statehood has been a longtime litmus test in District politics—most Americans have no clue that the U.S. is the only democracy in the world where residents of the national capital lack representation in the national legislature. It is a situation that one Huffington Post columnist noted makes the United States the “North Korea of federal district voting rights.”

One of the city’s goals is to dial up the urgency on statehood. Currently, D.C. statehood is not in the Democratic Party platform. Bowser, who heads up a New Columbia Statehood Commission created in 2014, called on the Democratic National Committee Thursday to back up the District, and return a statehood plank to the party’s platform. (Statehood had been on the party’s platform in 2000.)

Statehood advocates are working to persuade caucus states to join the fight, since those states may address issues beyond the presidential contest in their state party platforms. The Nevada Democratic Party has included a pro-D.C. statehood plank its platform, and there are encouraging signs that Iowa Democrats may do the same. Delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions plan to continue that fight in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Many prominent Republicans oppose a new blue state. That’s good thing, according to shadow Senator Paul Strauss, the District’s non-voting representative in the Senate. “There may still be one or two who guffaw about the Constitution,” says Strauss. “Others are just being more pragmatic and blatant and saying things like we’re against it because they’ll be too many Democrats.”

But those confessions paper over the issue of race, the little-discussed, but omnipresent factor in District’s statehood quest. “Most people see the question of statehood in the District through a partisan or constitutional lens, but not through the lens of raw political power and racial animus,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and statehood advocate.

Race has been at the center of tensions between the District and Congress over voting and political power since Maryland and Virginia ceded land to establish the nation’s capital on the Potomac River. After disputes over slavery in Washington in 1846, the city of Alexandria and Arlington County, Virginia, which were part of the District, returned to the state of Virginia. In her essay, “Seat of Democracy or Home of Hypocrisy? The Role of Race and Racism in the Struggle for Voting Rights in the District of Columbia,” Nell Schaffer notes that after the Civil War, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee cautioned that whites would be “degraded” if they permitted “poor weak-minded negroes … the highest political privilege given to man upon this earth.” They expressed fears about the possibility of a black mayor, warning that “negroes would soon flood the District and give them a majority.”

Race continues to color the District’s relations with Congress. Two years ago, after District voters approved a referendum supporting budget autonomy—the right of the District to spend local tax dollars without congressional approval—U.S. Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, told a local television station: “When my kids were young teenagers, they always wanted budget autonomy, too.”

The District is no longer predominately African American, but it is still a majority-minority  city, with a population that is now 50 percent African American, 38 percent white, 10 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian. 

Last year, the District joined in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. The members of this international body, based in The Hague, are, as its website states, “indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognised or occupied territories who have joined together to protect and promote their human and cultural rights.” The District is the only member in the Western Hemisphere.

“Through my life as a resident of Washington, I was always struck by the contradiction of our devotion to principles of democracy abroad while denying those principles at home,” says Henderson. “The fight for statehood, in my judgment, is a bit of a mischaracterization because the issue is not so much statehood as it is the right for full citizenship in American life.”

The Republican takeover of Congress in 2010 dashed any hopes that the District would secure statehood under the nation’s first African American president. President Barack Obama never offered the full-throated support the city leaders wanted, and the “Party of No” forced him to use the District as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.

Congress remains the major obstacle to statehood for the District. Statehood advocates hope that they can secure congressional approval for the state of New Columbia after a November ballot initiative in which District voters are expected to approve ratifying the Constitution. The statehood proposal would reduce the size of the federal district to the current National Capital Service Area, which includes the White House, federal department office buildings, the National Mall and its Smithsonian museums. The state of New Columbia would then occupy the remaining footprint of the city. Shrinking the size of the federal footprint and admitting a new state to the Union require an act of Congress and not a constitutional amendment, according to Strauss.

Nevertheless, some constitutional scholars believe that the statehood advocates have misinterpreted the Constitution. Statehood critic Roger Pilon, founding director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, argues that the Constitution does not make a distinction between Washington, the seat of government, and the District that houses the federal government; nor did the Framers specify a minimum size for that entity. There are additional constitutional quandaries, including statehood’s variance with the doctrine of enumerated powers (Congress can only exercise powers specifically outlined in the Constitution and granting statehood is not one of them) and repealing the 23rd Amendment (which granted voting rights to residents in the federal District, not a state). His advice? To gain full voting rights, District residents will “simply have to move to a real state.”

Their lack of self-determination frustrates D.C. residents even more than the absence of congressional representation. District officials often go mano a mano with a Congress eager to curb the District’s authority on issues ranging from funding of abortion for low-income women to legal marijuana sales, needle-exchange programs for drug users, and gun control. Yet the District performs most of the functions of a state without the standing to protect its interests on Capitol Hill. The city can’t fairly compete for federal funding programs, such as the community block grants that are critical funding sources for urban areas.

While statehood advocates are pursuing a savvy strategy in securing the backing of national political parties and state-level organizations, the political hurdles to statehood are formidable. Without a seismic shift in the composition of the next Congress, the decades-long debate is likely to continue to frustrate city residents. Nevertheless, statehood advocates recognize that phenomena like gentrification, controversial in its own right, may redound to the District’s advantage on statehood. The District’s growing population of millennials, in particular, who have enjoyed full representation elsewhere before migrating to the District, “are not going to be prepared to take a back seat to the unique, quaint politics of Washington,” says Henderson.

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