Get our free newsletter
CONCORD, N.H.—The first warning sign that the D.C. government’s field trip last Friday to pursue statehood wasn’t going to end well popped up right away.
As a hearing in the New Hampshire legislature’s House Committee on Federal Affairs began, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown waited to be introduced, so he could rise to explain why his counterparts in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die” should join the District’s battle for voting rights. His host pronounced his first name like it rhymed with “came.”
In more than three hours of testimony before the House Committee on State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs, the cultural and political barriers became more obvious. Brown and about a dozen other D.C. elected officials and citizens had hoped to secure their first win in a plan to build momentum for statehood, one state legislature at a time.
But on the New Hampshire trip (rescheduled after a first, more hyped visit was snowed out earlier in the month), all of the D.C. delegation’s efforts to forge common ground with their far-northern neighbors fell flat. They described life under the heel of an intrusive federal government. They invoked New Hampshire’s leading role in the abolition of slavery. Brown even displayed a putative interest in snowboarding.
To no avail. In the end, the committee rebuffed them with a resounding 8-3 vote against a non-binding resolution to support statehood. The only apparent winner was Southwest Airlines, which the official delegation used to fly up and back, on the same day. Then again, the only reason New Hampshire was the first stop in what officials promise (or threaten) will be a national tour was because there was a D.C.-friendly legislator ready to introduce the measure; the same goes for Florida, which Councilmember Michael A. Brown will hit next.
The trip, of course, was also aimed at winning some political goodwill back home. The Washington Post, the Washington Times, and Fox 5 sent reporters along for the ride. Brown, Mayor Vince Gray, and the rest of the delegation got to declare themselves, once again, champions of D.C. democracy—always a more popular cause than, say, the city’s budget deficit or the various federal investigations of District government figures.
But once the expedition from D.C. arrived in Concord, it seemed that maybe New Hampshire wasn’t the best starting point, after all. This is a legislature where members have proposed a return to the gold standard and passed a bill that requires colleges to allow guns on campus. The docket of the State-Federal Relations Committee itself is chock full of interesting proposals: One would urge Congress to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations. Another voices support for Arizona’s harsh immigration law.
Before Gray even had the chance to speak, the committee chairman, Al Baldasaro, a leather-faced retired Marine, pulled out his pocket copy of the Constitution and read the lines in Article One about Congress and its exclusive power over the seat of government.
Baldasaro had opposed a similar resolution four years ago on the grounds that it raised constitutional issues. “Where and how since then have they done anything for a constitutional amendment?” Baldasaro asked the resolution’s Democratic sponsor. He didn’t get a clear answer, though actually, Congress approved a D.C. voting rights amendment in 1978. It expired in 1985, with only 16 states ratifying it, far short of the required 38.
When Gray took his seat to testify, he laid down a somber litany of indignities suffered at the hands of Congress: no control over how local tax dollars are spent; the requirement to send “each and every piece of legislation our council passes to Congress for review.” He linked the District’s “no taxation without representation” slogan to New Hampshire’s motto and extended a warm welcome to the Granite State as “an official partner in the fight for full democracy for the nation’s capital.”
But he might have done more to foster that partnership if he hadn’t included in his list of grievances the congressional ban on District spending on abortions. Baldasaro, sitting a few feet in front of him, is an ardent abortion foe and in the GOP presidential primary, backed one of the several candidates who felt God told them to run, Texas Governor Rick Perry. The youngest member of the committee, 36-year-old Dan Tamburello, graduated from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Next to him was Jeanine Notter, sponsor of a bill to require any woman seeking an abortion to be told the physical characteristics of her fetus. This was not a group that would look sympathetically on the District’s pro-choice tendencies.
The mayor’s spokesman, Pedro Ribiero, says his boss knew the GOP stand on abortion going in, but he hoped to appeal to another set of Republican values—limited government and personal freedom.
Gray’s attempt to bond with this group came down to the high concept of self-determination and the historical point that in 1846, New Hampshire was one of the first states to pass a resolution condemning the interstate slave trade.
Most of the Republican committee members cared less about the 19th century and more about the 21st. If they didn’t know every detail about D.C., they did know about its gun laws. Baldasaro said he was “stuck on this.” He boasted that New Hampshire is the safest state to live in: “Because first of all, we’re not a No-Gun Zone. Every home pretty much has a gun to protect himself.”
“How come nobody in the District of Columbia has fought for their Second Amendment rights?” Baldasaro asked. An octogenarian lawmaker, Robert Kingsbury, wanted to know if the District planned to change its thinking on gun laws. Shadow Senator Michael D. Brown assured him that the D.C. Council was revising them to fit with what the Supreme Court required in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Several representatives had photocopied tables comparing the rates of violent crime in New Hampshire and in D.C. When asked why the crime rate in D.C. mattered, Kingsbury said it was proof that the Metropolitan Police Department is not functioning.
“Expanding that to the national level is wrong,” Kingsbury said. “I don’t want 25 percent more murders in New Hampshire or any other state.” (Exactly how that logic worked wasn’t clear.)
The focus on crime drew an angry response from Johnnie Scott Rice, chair of the National Congress of Black Women. Rice discarded her written remarks and chastised the members who found this aspect of the District so important.
Rice described her family of bricklayers, firemen, and soldiers. “When you think of who we are in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “We are not criminals, we are not people who don’t work. We are not people who do not care about our communities. We are a people who deserve the rights that you people enjoy every day.”
Baldasaro was only raising the issue because constituents had brought it to his attention, he said. “Does it affect our decision here?” he said. “No.” But crime did affect his feelings about where it would be safe for his kids to go in the District, he explained. “If it hurt your feelings, then I’m sorry,” Baldasaro said. “But the bottom line is, it’s the truth.”
The official delegation pulled the plug on their visit long before the testimony ended. The spokesman for the trip, D.C. Councilmember David Catania’s aide Brendan Williams-Kief, said they rebooked their tickets onto an earlier flight before the hearing even began. As he headed out, Gray said he thought that while the District and New Hampshire might be polar opposites on policy, “there should be no disagreement about the right of the people who live there to make those decisions.”
That wasn’t what the New Hampshire folks thought. The final death blow for the resolution came from a lawmaker from the state’s sparsely populated rural north, Frank McCarthy, who said statehood for D.C. was “too much of a monumental leap” and demanded too many changes in the Constitution. The absence of a clear plan for divvying up and controlling land in the District was particularly troubling for McCarthy.
“What if the Washington Monument fell down?” McCarthy asked. “And the federal government wanted to rebuild on a new location and this new state didn’t want them to build there. What then?”
If District residents don’t like their status, they’re free to leave, said another Republican representative, Steve Cunningham. “These people have chosen to live in Washington, D.C., knowing they will not have the representation they like,” he said. Cunningham said he owns commercial property in a town some distance from where he lives and he has no say on property tax rates or any local laws. “I choose to own that property,” Cunningham said. “I think the situations are very similar.” Never mind that Cunningham still gets a vote in the town where he actually lives, or that District residents aren’t all absentee commercial landlords.
There were more parochial interests at play, too. Notter, the legislator behind the fetus education bill, said that if the District were a state, its two senators and representative would dilute the votes of New Hampshire’s delegation. “It’s just a city,” Notter said.
And then there were the just plain weird elements of New Hampshire politics: Kingsbury said he felt that the federal government needed all the land in the District to protect itself in case rogue elements of the military ever attempted to overthrow it.
Before he left, Gray was asked whether the differences between New Hampshire and the District of Columbia created a language barrier that would thwart his efforts. He said “We’ve certainly tried hard to understand the people of New Hampshire, and we’d like them to do the same thing with us.” But maybe the cultures are just too far apart, after all.
One state down, 49 to go. Next stop, Florida.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally misidentified Councilmember Michael A. Brown and Shadow Senator Michael D. Brown.