It would be easy to blame Trump, who won a whopping 4 percent of D.C.’s vote in 2016, for the District’s grimmer-than-usual prospects for statehood.
But in 2009 Democrats were exactly where Republicans are now and Congress didn’t stampede to make D.C. the 51st state, even when Obama slapped “Taxation Without Representation” tags on the presidential limo.
“Statehood is going to come when D.C. makes it come,” says D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s voteless representative on the Hill for almost three decades. “No member of the House or Senate is powerful enough. No president—ask Barack Obama—is powerful enough to make it happen.”
For those in need of a refresher, there are precisely three ways the District can become a state: by an amendment to the Constitution, by Congress passing a D.C. statehood bill, or by petitioning Congress for admission to the union.
So the District can hold all the statehood referendums it wants, but to actually become the 51st state it will likely happen or not in the slippery hallways of Capitol Hill. And a few outward-looking statehood strategies are beginning to emerge, all of them designed to press the issue in Congress by putting it on the national and international stage.
“There was a time in D.C. when their ability to perform, to operate their government, was nothing that they or we could be proud of,” says Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., sponsor of the Senate version of D.C.’s latest statehood legislation. “That has changed dramatically. The way their finances are run, the strength of the economy, the investments they are making in infrastructure are frankly better than some states right now. I think there’s a realization [in Congress] that they have their act together. That as much as anything is going to change attitudes.”
Norton is doing her part by gathering 141 co-sponsors for her statehood bill in the House to Carper’s 20 in the Senate—all of them Democrats—though the legislation probably won’t see a vote in either chamber anytime soon. And therein lies the impetus behind D.C.’s burgeoning statehood strategy—to take the fight beyond the District as way to bring it back home with more teeth. Because if reluctant members of Congress are who you must influence, the quickest way to get their attention is to threaten their re-election. And the only group that can truly wield that cudgel is their constituents. Who may or may not give a shit about statehood for D.C., if they have any opinion at all.
One key factor linking the reimagined statehood efforts underway is how they all attempt to elevate the issue outside the District.
“The majority of Americans don’t know about this issue and I think once they do, they move in our direction,” says Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2014 campaign manager. “There are no value-based arguments against statehood, only political ones.”
Given Trump’s ability to stoke energy on the left, the time would appear ripe to hitch the statehood wagon to the national progressive agenda. And that step appears underway, led by Shuff and DC Vote, who are modeling their revised approach in part on lessons learned from the marriage equality movement.
Shuff, who worked on the issue for five years, says gay marriage and LGBT proponents ultimately learned to stop pushing stats and start showing impacts, meaning: people. He believes the same approach will work for statehood.
“There are actual stories out there that the lack of statehood affects people’s lives,” explains Shuff, who mentioned D.C. veterans and parolees as two vulnerable groups who suffer without federal voting rights. “And that’s what we’re going to start talking more about,” added Shuff.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., one of the many co-sponsors of Norton’s statehood bill, cited another example at a recent House hearing for a bill that would allow people with concealed-carry gun permits from any state to use them in every state. D.C has been a frequent battleground over gun rights in Congress, with the District often serving as a kind of policy laboratory, or worse, a place to make political statements.
In introducing an amendment that would exempt D.C. from the law, Raskin said: “They [D.C.] have no voting representation in the House or in the Senate. So, unlike the rest of us, they do not even get to vote ‘No’ on this new national concealed carry regime…”
Organizations with a nationwide focus are framing the issue in similar, albeit broader terms.
“What we have in D.C. is the worst form of voter suppression—a total ban,” says Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, the grassroots organization founded by Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential bid.
“If there is one thing we can do for democracy in America it is to expand voting rights across the board,” he added.
In addition to national organizations, Shuff’s outreach includes various congressional groups, including the Progressive, Black, Hispanic, and LGBT Equality caucuses.
The idea, detailed in a statehood plan Shuff presented to the D.C. government in April, involves a number of strategies that begin with planting statehood so firmly on the agenda of the political left that it becomes a litmus test for Democrats, as the marriage equality movement did so successfully.
Then a targeted outreach operation, which has already begun, will systematically press the statehood issue in each of the 435 districts that make up the House of Representatives, ideally led by D.C. residents with personal connections to each of those districts.
The final two fronts would be economic and political, where you convince leaders in the economic realm that their interests will be better served by more power in the political realm, which would happen if the District had a voting delegation in Congress.
“They [DC Vote] bring the resources and the credibility that other groups don’t have,” says Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of DC for Democracy. “We are now really speaking with a united voice, not just rhetorically. I don’t think we’ve had this kind of consensus since the 1990s.”
Though Shuff says he talks regularly with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, DC Vote’s new approach on statehood is only somewhat shared by D.C.’s New Columbia Statehood Commission, the internecine body made up of the mayor, Mendelson, and the District’s three-person shadow delegation. Shadow representatives have no vote and, unlike delegates, are not seated in Congress.
“I think it’s time for us to push really hard on Capitol Hill,” says Michael D. Brown, D.C.’s more outspoken shadow senator. “This is an issue that can’t stand the light of day.”
“But the government in D.C. does absolutely nothing to support us,” he adds, referring to the portion of the District’s $925,000 annual budget for the official statehood commission, which includes all the funding for D.C.’s congressional shadow delegation, or about $223,000 annually. “They [the mayor and Council] are very parochial. They don’t want to share the power. God forbid something happens on the statehood front. They want to be the ones to bring it to the table.”
Before there can be squabbling over the spoils, however, the still-budding national strategy must flower. There is near-universal agreement now that victory equals statehood, not simply voting rights, but how to get there depends on who you ask. Virtually everyone says that pressuring members of Congress is essential, but all of them? Or just those from one party? One chamber?
Case in point is the approach by Mayor Bowser’s point person for statehood, senior advisor Beverly Perry, who described herself as “a kind of executive director” of the District’s statehood commission.
Perry recently announced a 10-state campaign aimed at luring mostly Republican senators to the cause.
“Since Jack Kemp died we have not had a Republican champion,” says Perry. “So we’re looking at places like Alaska. It was the last state to come in [to the union]. Most of their land is federally owned, so they know what federal domination looks like.”
Perry noted that Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, ran for his seat in part because of federal land management issues. “I think he could be sympathetic,” says Perry, who also believes Alaska’s other senator, Lisa Murkowski, who went to Georgetown as an undergrad and owns a house in the District, could be swayed.
Beyond Alaska, the nine other states in Perry’s plan include Washington, New Mexico, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona. When asked by Mendelson how each state was chosen at a recent statehood commission meeting, Perry was squishy on the details but said the choices were made after “a major assessment” of each state’s congressional delegation and influential stakeholders.
It should be noted that Perry also championed a math-challenged, vote-cancelling statehood partnership with Puerto Rico as recently as last summer. The idea was that D.C.’s reliably Democrat votes would be balanced by reliably Republican ones from Puerto Rico. But Puerto Rico has almost 3.5 million people to the District’s 670,000, so they would get four or five representatives to the District’s one, and their electorate is far more mixed than ours, so math. D.C.’s statehood delegation will nonetheless formally meet with Puerto Rico’s in early January.
“I’m kind of new to this dance,” Perry admits, before responding to the tensions that continue to exist on the commission related to funding. “They [the shadow delegation] don’t send memos to the mayor or give reports of their activities, so in a way I don’t know how they could get an appropriation without any accountability, alignment, or oversight.”
She added that the problem might be a “structural fault.”
Perry’s office got between $800,000 and $900,000 this year in what was described as a “one-time” boost for statehood efforts, according to Mendelson’s office. The money will include funding for two new staff positions that will occupy what Perry called a “war room” where those staffers will execute her new statehood plan with a focus on social media and other outreach efforts aimed at legislators and organizations within the 10 targeted states.
In addition to lobbying potentially sympathetic senators, in-District tactics include a permanent statehood kiosk at the downtown convention center and pro-statehood signage aimed at the more than 20 million visitors who come to the District each year.
The statehood plan from DC Vote included a suggested budget of about $12 million over six years for the entire effort, which they recommended should not be overseen by the D.C. government. The fear is that statehood funding could then be withheld by Congress, which has the power to do so.
“Money changes momentum,” explains Shuff, who admits that he’d like DC Vote to get some of the funding he called for in his own plan. “We need someone to start the avalanche. I think the District has the ability to do that.”
With or without sufficient funds, D.C.’s shadow delegation is pushing forward on its own, separate efforts. Like those from DC Vote and Perry, they are outward facing. Far outward.
Led by D.C.’s other shadow senator, Paul Strauss, the District was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in 2015, the only jurisdiction in the western hemisphere to gain membership.
“At some point we as a nation are going to need to address this inequality at the national level,” says Strauss.
Franklin Garcia, D.C.’s sole shadow representative to the House, has approached the Organization of American States in an attempt to raise the issue to the hemispheric level. “If we are able to show the world that we’re not perfect, maybe our leaders nationally will try to correct that,” says Garcia. “Certainly the idea that you deny representation in a national legislature to 700,000 people—it’s something that needs to be looked at.”
Garcia has also liaised informally with Puerto Rico’s congressional delegation, which thus far has not signed on to D.C.’s congressional statehood bill.
Finally, you have another effort by Strauss, a PSA campaign called “51 stars,” which features actors like Hayden Panettiere, Esai Morales, and Rosario Dawson talking about statehood. A new spot with Dave Chappelle is forthcoming.
“Whether they are celebrities or activists from other movements, they get that D.C. statehood will advance the agenda of causes that might be progressive, might be more urban, certainly reflect more diversity, and so we have a natural constituency,” says Strauss.
D.C.’s legislative ace in the hole is Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives since 1990, who is unlikely to fumble the opportunity to push her statehood bill should the pressure campaigns taking shape beyond D.C. help her to force a vote in Congress.
“Whatever beefs people have with her, she has incredible influence in Congress for who she represents,” says Aaron Houston, a veteran lobbyist for issues including marijuana legalization. “All things being equal, I don’t know who else could come in and command the respect. I don’t think anyone could do that as well as Eleanor does.”
Norton turned 80 this year, and there have been whispers that it may be time for her to step aside. But for those not familiar with the clubby rules by which Congress works, that means D.C.’s next delegate will have to start at the back of the line in terms of seniority, experience, and in Norton’s case, gravitas.
Not to mention reputation. It’s a badly kept secret on the Hill that the last thing a young congressional staffer wants to be is the object of Norton’s ire. “This is a political body,” says Norton, about the reality of getting things done on the Hill. “Be ready for it. Come equipped to deal in it.”
Norton has displayed her readiness repeatedly over the years, most recently when the District’s marijuana legalization law came up for congressional approval.
In a brilliant legislative sleight of hand, Norton exploited a tiny but crucial flaw in a rider, or amendment, attached to an appropriations bill by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. His rider was intended to thwart the District’s pot legalization initiative in 2014. The procedural jujitsu gets complicated, but essentially Norton spotted a loophole in the rider that allowed D.C.’s pot law to squeak through, though not without significant restrictions.
When asked if she can pull the same rabbit out of a hat for statehood, Norton responded: “I can’t count on them [Republicans] always being dumb and not doing their homework.”
Norton’s long tenure also means that she’s been in the thick of every near-miss on statehood or voting rights going back 30-odd years. That includes 2009, when D.C. had a chance to get a voting member in the House of Representatives by way of a bill conceived by then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican from Virginia, and co-sponsored by Norton.
Davis’ proposal would’ve added a reliably Democratic House member for the District and a reliably Republican one from Utah, which had recently lost a seat from redistricting. The bill passed the House in 2007 with the help of more than 20 Republican votes, including one from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., now speaker of the house, and then-Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., now vice president.
When the bill reached the Senate, it required a supermajority of 60 votes—and came up three short.
Two years later, the same bill came before the Senate and was passed, but with a rider attached that would have gutted the District’s gun control laws. When the bill got back to the House, Norton wasn’t able to get the gun language removed, so the bill never reached Obama’s desk.
“The city had a window to get it [voting rights in the House] done, but they turned it down because they didn’t want the gun language,” says Davis. “In retrospect, I think it was a bad decision, but that was the city’s decision.”
Davis also believes that Trump isn’t the impediment to statehood he might appear to be. “I think in some ways Trump is more malleable on this issue. He’s less partisan and ideological than some,” says Davis. “Bashing him doesn’t help. But then he’s a hard guy not to bash given some of the constituency groups you have in the city.”
There was a time when Republicans regularly broke ranks and supported voting rights, even full statehood, for the District.
“I always like to remind people that Richard Nixon signed the Home Rule Act,” says Johnny Barnes, a local attorney who has a long history in statehood issues and was the former executive director of the ACLU’s D.C. chapter.
So-called “home rule” was passed in 1973 and allowed the District to elect a mayor and a city council for the first time.
In 1978, an amendment to add D.C. as a state cleared the Senate with 67 votes, 19 of which came from Republicans, including then-Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. But it was only ratified by 16 states, well shy of the 38 necessary to add it to the Constitution.
Among Republicans currently in Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who sits on the committee with the most power over the District—oversight and government reform—has been openly sympathetic to D.C.’s lack of budget autonomy.
Norton refers to the current chair of the oversight committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., as a good friend. “He has been nothing but forthcoming and friendly and fair to me,” Norton says.
But the effort to formally woo Republicans on statehood is not without its detractors.
“I really think they [Perry and the statehood commission] are barking up the wrong tree,” says Ladduwahetty, of DC for Democracy. “To think they’re going to get Republican support when the Republican platform was the most anti-D.C. platform to come out in years.”
But the current state of play on the Hill—read: all crazy, all the time—doesn’t necessarily mean anything, according to Norton.
“Maneuvering in the House and Senate is time oriented, moment oriented,” she explains. “If you have a strategy that is other than dynamic, which is to say capable of changing by the week, then you’ll never get something done [on the Hill] that is hard.”
And if unpredictable is the new normal in Congress, why not statehood now?
“I always tell people that Trump is making America great again because he’s forcing us to stand for our rights, forcing us to be strong in asserting our principles,” says Barnes. “And when the dust clears, issues like statehood will benefit from his antics.”