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D.C. voters will no doubt approve a ballot measure declaring their wish for statehood this Election Day. But don’t start to wonder about its prospects for getting anywhere in Congress.
“I don’t even think that’s the real point, frankly,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House and enough of the Senate to mount filibusters. And even when Democrats last controlled Congress by a wide margin, legislation that would’ve given D.C. a vote in the House was sunk by a gun-lobby amendment.
Statehood is a distant dream. The ballot measure’s backers are the first to admit that it’s meant more as a signal to the country that D.C. residents want representation than anything else.
It’s also a gesture that D.C.’s elected officials, led by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who called for the vote in April, hope will jumpstart a limp movement. They figure if they shake the corpse around a bit, maybe it’ll start moving on its own.
Aside from a few staunch activists, Washingtonians have been content to lament their second-class citizenship so passively that it raises the question of how much residents really mind their exclusion from American democracy.
“It’s pitiful, or it’s been pitiful, how few residents have been actively involved,” Norton says.
Michael D. Brown, a member of the shadow delegation elected to promote D.C. voting rights to Congress, shares the frustration. “It’s terrible. We get a handful of people that come to the rallies, and very often I know half of them by their first names,” he says.
In August 1997, President Bill Clinton signed a law empowering the financial control board—which was created to oversee District finances, which were burdened by debt—to run much of the D.C. government over Mayor Marion Barry. For Anise Jenkins, that loss of local authority sparked 19 years and counting of statehood activism, starting with a protest of the control board at the White House. Activists founded the grassroots Stand Up! for Democracy in DC organization, where Jenkins later became executive director.
Josh Burch experienced a seminal moment too. In 2011, as a bargaining chip in federal budget negotiations, President Barack Obama traded away D.C.’s ability to spend its local tax dollars on abortions for low-income women.
“That’s when I just snapped,” says Burch, who co-founded the group Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “I was just like, ‘Fuck this.’ I’ve lived here my whole life. I can’t sit back on the sidelines.” Since then, in their spare time and with no funding, he and his group have met with hundreds of congressional offices to lobby for statehood.
Even the elected officials who gripe about passive residents also recognize that it’s normal to be apathetic after 200 years of second-class citizenship. It takes clashes with the federal government, perhaps more than anything else, to galvanize D.C. residents. “Unless you have situations like that where residents are directly impacted by it, they go about their business,” says Franklin Garcia, a member of the District’s shadow delegation to Congress.
But losses that residents can feel have been rare lately, as the federal government has stayed out of D.C.’s business—for the most part.
In 2014, after a ballot initiative legalized marijuana in D.C., Congress used its budget authority over the District to block it from spending local funds to enact legalization. That kept D.C. from setting up the tax-and-regulation scheme that residents left up to their legislators to devise.
To comply, the D.C. Council canceled a hearing it had scheduled to consider marijuana regulation legislation. Members and their staff could have faced prosecution for participating in defiance of Congress. Instead, the Council held a less formal roundtable discussion, which Burch believes was a missed opportunity.
“Let’s have the fight,” he says. “Let’s hold a fucking hearing, and let’s have them come arrest our councilmembers for doing their job. Can you imagine the press we would get from that, if they tried to send federal officials into the Wilson Building to arrest councilmembers for holding a hearing to enact a law that was overwhelmingly passed by District voters?”
At-large Councilmember David Grosso, who introduced the marijuana regulation bill, agrees the Council should have held the hearing. He vows to revive the bill in 2017, meddlers be damned.
“I will do it again in January, because I don’t believe that, A, they would do anything about it, and B, I think that the consequences are such that I’m willing to risk it,” Grosso says. “If they did put a councilmember in the District of Columbia in jail for introducing legislation that the councilmember believes is best for the people of the city, that would be an amazing story, wouldn’t it?”
When Grosso resurrects the bill, he says, “I hope that my colleagues will step up and, this time, not be so afraid of the implications of the Anti-Deficiency Act,” the law House Republicans held over their heads to quash the hearing.
Following the pot roundtable, Republican congressmen requested a list of Council employees who participated. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s response named the councilmembers but not their staffers.
Nobody faced any consequences.
“I submitted the information they requested,” Mendelson says. “I thought it was a bit obnoxious, but my letter providing the answers was very civil and respectful, and that was the last of it.”
Political movements have beaten long odds before. In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act with broad support from both Democrats and Republicans. Twenty years later, support for LGBT rights in American culture and politics has grown at an impressive pace.
But the lessons from the LGBT rights movement—or any movement—are a mixed bag for D.C. voting rights. Litigation was essential to achieve marriage equality, while the lack of representation for D.C. residents is perfectly constitutional. Evan Wolfson, who spent decades spearheading the push for marriage equality, including as founder and president of Freedom to Marry, says the movement had some built-in advantages.
“Marriage is a powerful and resonant vocabulary—a way of talking about personal lives, love, commitment, family,” he says. “You don’t need to be an expert to understand marriage.”
One lesson that is relevant: how to lose productively. In 2004, all 11 states with ballot initiatives enacted bans on same-sex marriage. Eight of the 11 also banned civil unions. But the movement won some supporters during those campaigns, and even though they were too few to win at the time, it was something to build on. “You can’t always win every battle, but what you can do is always engage the battle,” Wolfson says.
The statehood ballot measure is engaging a battle, albeit with a Nov. 8 expiration date.
The campaign drew a backlash when its “constitutional convention” didn’t actually give residents a meaningful say over what was included in the constitution. The ensuing consternation convinced the Council to amend its statehood proposal to require a constitutional convention with elected delegates within two years of statehood.
Jenkins, of Stand Up! for Democracy in DC, says the skirmish proved useful in the end. “We got a lot of people involved who were outside our circle,” Jenkins says. “I think it really helped to expand the movement.”
But other signs indicate that residents are not all that engaged.
Enthusiasm for naming the state New Columbia has been scant, but there is no popular alternative. At an Oct. 18 hearing, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans proposed an amendment to kill the New Columbia moniker.
“To me, today, that is an absurd name,” he said at the hearing. “I do not want my new state to be called New Columbia after Christopher Columbus. I mean, really. It makes no sense at all.” But, he added, “I don’t pretend that I have a better name.” So his amendment settled on an awkward one: the State of Washington, D.C.
Ward 6’s Charles Allen submitted a footnote: Instead of District of Columbia, or nothing at all, the new D.C. would stand for Douglass Commonwealth, a nod to the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Allen clarified that this wouldn’t lengthen the official name, just give some meaning to the acronym.
Evans offered shrugging support. “Sure, I’m good with that, I guess. Sure. If that’s what gets your vote,” he said. At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds chimed it to call Douglass Commonwealth “a brilliant stroke.”
Formalizing it as an oral amendment, Allen sounded like he was filling out an acrostic: “D.C. stands for the Douglass Commonwealth. D. C.” The Council adopted the convoluted name.
Chairman Mendelson isn’t thrilled about where the Council landed on the naming issue. “It was pretty amazing that the Council in something like 20 minutes managed to completely upend what had been so longstanding and well-entrenched,” he says.
Even modest goals have eluded the D.C. voting rights movement. Del. Norton has tried year after year to get President Obama to mention D.C.’s struggle in a State of the Union address.
“We’ve done everything,” Norton says. “We’ve talked as high up as you can go except the president himself. We’ve submitted language, some of it subtle. But we’ve never been able to get him to do it.”
Brown, the shadow senator, says he understands why the White House hasn’t done more for D.C. voting rights. “I’ve been a political operative for 35 years, and if I was on his staff I might say, ‘Look, the people of D.C. aren’t even standing up for this. Why invest the political capital?’”
A new president means fresh hope. Norton believes Hillary Clinton would be more inclined to use the bully pulpit than Obama has been. Ahead of the District’s Democratic primary earlier this year, Clinton wrote an op-ed in the Washington Informer promising that during her presidency, “I will be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood.”
Vocal though she may be, Republicans in Congress will be just as steadfast in denying new seats to an electorate that gave President Obama more than 90 percent of its vote in 2008 and 2012.
Every Democratic presidential nominee has won D.C. in a landslide, going back to the first time the District had a say, in 1964. Yet the constitutional amendment that gave D.C. votes in the Electoral College—adopted by Congress in June 1960 and ratified by the states in 1961—had the support of President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the 1960 presidential nominees, both supported it too.
This bipartisan support came at the tail end of the District’s last period of partisan diversity—not some bygone era where principle trumped politics.
D.C. had never voted in a national race, so there wasn’t much data with which to speculate. In 1956, 23,912 Democrats and 21,670 Republicans in the District voted for their party’s national committeemen. Democrats had reason to believe that D.C. would deliver them its three electoral votes. It was a risk for Republicans, but they rolled the dice, hoping to appeal to the soon-to-be partially enfranchised.
These days, the District is a generation or more away from partisan parity. The rapid population changes occurring now are irrelevant, as reliably Democratic white newcomers displace reliably Democratic black residents. “The demographics of the city are going to be solidly Democratic for quite a while,” says William Frey, an expert in demographics with the Brookings Institution.
Tom Davis, the former congressman from Virginia—one of the few Republicans in recent history to push for D.C. voting rights—isn’t coy about the reason so few members of his party agree with him. “Because it’s a one-party city,” he says. “If this city were a Republican city, it would be the opposite.”
While in office, Davis sponsored legislation that would have given the District one vote in the House, while adding an extra seat for Republican-heavy Utah. In the past, new states sometimes joined the union in pairs, to offset the political concerns of the day. “There’s always been a balance to this. This isn’t a new thing in American democracy,” Davis says.
D.C. statehood backers sometimes float the idea of pairing with Puerto Rico’s statehood movement, based on the attractive—but far-fetched—idea that Puerto Rico would defy the trend of Latinos voting Democratic in national elections.
In California, a right-wing movement to form a new state called Jefferson comprised of 21 northern counties has won official declarations from more than a dozen of the counties since 2013. Sally Rapoza, a leader of the State of Jefferson movement, says it too has heard suggestions that it join Puerto Rico—except in this case, it’s because the island territory would be dependably Democratic.
The question of aligning with D.C. statehood, meanwhile, was a new one for Rapoza.
“I have never heard the issue of D.C. argued before, but it is interesting,” she writes in an email. “Would D.C. be considered a ‘blue state’?”
On a Saturday in October, on the first brisk day of the season, the District’s early voting began at Judiciary Square. Outside, gusts of wind were so strong that the drummer in the band opening for a statehood rally used one hand to steady a cymbal, which kept nearly tipping over.
Taking their turns trying to pump up the crowd were Eleanor Holmes Norton, half the members of the D.C. Council, and the three members of D.C.’s shadow delegation. A few dozen people attended, including media.
Mayor Bowser, wearing a green cap with “Muriel” written in white letters across the front, cheered from the audience. At one point, she jumped up and down with her fists raised, either showing her enthusiasm or trying to stay warm.
When it was her turn at the microphone, Bowser recalled how long the struggle has dragged on.
“My family has been here for generations,” she said. “We have suffered the indignity of paying taxes without representation.”
Next to the rally, the line for early voting stretched up the block, hundreds waiting to vote in the races in which they’ve been given a say.