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Up from the ashes of the D.C. statehood movement has risen a fresh idea: Puerto Rico, home to about 3.5 million vote-starved brethren whom we must both fear and embrace, could be key to D.C. statehood.
“We can’t allow Puerto Rico to get ahead of us [on statehood],” Beverly Perry, senior advisor to Mayor Muriel Bowser, said during the New Columbia Statehood Commission meeting last Thursday at the Wilson Building.
Apparently Puerto Rico, which effectively declared bankruptcy in May with more than $100 billion in debt and pension obligations, is in a better position to earn statehood than D.C.
According to Perry, the reason Puerto Rico’s statehood prospects have eclipsed D.C.’s is the unincorporated territory’s electorate, which is believed to lean Republican and could produce three House seats for the GOP and only two for Democrats.
But in lieu of fighting Puerto Rico, we could join it, Perry says. The idea is to present D.C. and Puerto Rico as a pair of vote-neutering twins, where Puerto Rico’s right-leaning representatives in Congress would cancel out the District’s left-leaning ones—even though Puerto Rico has five times more people than D.C. who are more or less split evenly along partisan lines. So, math.
In theory, this Puerto Rico-D.C. pact would somehow convince a Republican-led Congress to grant statehood to the mid-Atlantic version of Vermont, which would deliver the same number of reliably Democratic votes in perpetuity.
Attending Thursday was the full complement of the District’s official statehood commission, including Mayor Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.’s Congressional cohort of shadow Senators Michael Brown and Paul Strauss as well as shadow Representative Franklin Garcia. The latter three have exactly no power on Capitol Hill and, it turns out, get little respect in the District.
“We not only get ignored on the Hill, we get ignored in Washington, D.C.,” shadow Senator Brown said from the dais. “We don’t have a voice because no one stands up for us in this [the Wilson] building either.”
At the meeting, Rep. Garcia said he talked with members of Puerto Rico’s non-voting Congressional delegation about partnering with D.C. on a statehood application. “A lot of them are waiting for something from us,” he said. “And I’m not sure if we have anything [to give]?”
Mayor Bowser pushed back on Garcia’s assertion but offered no specifics, other than to say that there would be about $1 million in statehood funds becoming available when the city’s new budget year begins Oct. 1. But she noted that none of the money will be available for efforts by the District’s shadow delegation.
From there the discussion shifted to a familiar fantasy: What the District would call itself as a state, presumably after its Puerto Rico strategy succeeds. “New Columbia,” the name of D.C.’s statehood commission, is widely derided, but it can’t be changed without the D.C. Council passing legislation.
“We lack the statutory capacity to change our own name,” shadow Senator Strauss admitted.
The frontrunner, should the council consider it, is the spectacularly confusing “State of Washington, D.C,” which is in no danger of becoming the official moniker anytime soon.
“I would say there is no legislation pending [for a name change],” Councilmember Mendelson said.
Talk of boundaries closed out the gathering, with little discussion of D.C. being the seat of federal government as a fundamental obstacle to statehood, not to mention a crucially important difference from Puerto Rico.
Someone circulated a map outlining a suggested federal district around the National Mall. It appeared that the Wilson Building, where the D.C. government operates, was included in that district, which felt appropriately symbolic of the state of statehood in D.C.
Shadow Senator Brown summed up his view of the proceedings as they ended, declaring: “This is really more of a dog-and-pony show than anything else.”