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During last weekend’s historic House floor debate, D.C. statehood opponent Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) repeatedly dragged out a map of the state of New Columbia that he apparently thought would shock his colleagues. Over and over again, Bliley pointed out that the creation of the 51st state would shrink the nation’s capital to a 3,000-acre “federal enclave,” a maneuver designed to preserve a fragment of the seat of national government created by the Constitution, and thereby—statehood supporters hope—preclude the need for a constitutional amendment. The new state would “hijack” many federal agencies into its boundaries, Bliley warned.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor would become an agency divided; its northern section would lie within New Columbia while the southern half, along Constitution Avenue NW, would belong to the federal enclave. Thus, whenever an official of, say, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was obliged to report to the Secretary of Labor, the official would be forced to leave New Columbia and cross into the federal enclave. And, in what Bliley felt was the most shocking development of all, one of the three buildings housing U.S. senators would be located in the federal enclave while the other two—the Dirksen and Hart Senate Office Buildings—would be in New Columbia.
“What difference does it make?” Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), chair of the House D.C. Committee, wanted to know. After all, Stark noted, the Pentagon and CIA sit inBliley’s home state of Virginia, while the National Institutes of Health and Social Security Administration reside in Maryland. Bliley couldn’t seem to comprehend the Democrats’ lack of outrage that two-thirds of their Senate colleagues would have to report to work every day in New Columbia.
“I’ve never heard an argument with less force in all my years of being here,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) fired back, saying that Bliley “continues to obsess about the map as if he were on the zoning board.” Frank said that he would have no qualms about ceding Dirksen and Hart—and the people who work there—to New Columbia; he doesn’t particularly care what happens to the Senate, he says, after that body “filibustered to death the Brady bill” on Friday, Nov. 19. (A weakened version of the handgun control legislation passed the Senate over the weekend.)
The debate itself had all the suspense of a Redskins football game—in which the question is not whether the Skins will win but whether the team can even score. Sunday’s statehood vote was viewed by foes and friends alike as mostly symbolic. That may have inflated the show of support slightly, since there was little risk in voting for a bill that wasn’t going to pass. With the outcome certain, District-bashing was kept to a minimum. Instead, opponents focused on the constitutional issues involved, and whether New Columbia—about 20 times smaller than Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state in terms of geographic area—would have the land and economic base to survive as a state without massive federal aid. Supporters pushed the arguments that the District can claim more residents than three states (Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming); pays more in federal taxes per capita than 48 states; sent more soldiers to fight and die in the last two wars (Persian Gulf and Vietnam) than 46 states; but still lacks full voting rights in the House—and has no representation at all in the Senate.
The goal of statehood proponents was to avoid the embarrassment of a “rock-bottom” show of support. Although no one would define “rock-bottom” before the vote, estimates ranged from a low of 120 votes to an overly optimistic high-end of 180. When the vote-counter in the House chambers recorded the 150th vote in favor of statehood early Sunday evening, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton jumped up and down on the House floor in celebration. The visitors’ gallery, which was nearly empty during Saturday’s debate but was packed with D.C. government workers and followers of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly for the Sunday vote, burst into sustained applause. In the final tally, statehood got 153 votes—151 from Democrats, one from Maryland Republican Wayne Gilchrest, and one from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. Opponents collected 277 anti-statehood votes, including 105 from Democrats.
Immediately following the vote, an elated Norton pronounced herself “ready to declare victory.” Kelly also looked excited and relieved, since she would have been one of the scapegoats had the vote proved shamefully low. Herroner didn’t take as many lumps as expected during the debate. But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) couldn’t resist firing a few shots at Kelly and the District for seeking sovereignty while continually looking to Uncle Sam to bail them out of fiscal, social, and crime problems. Referring to Kelly’s ill-timed, ill-conceived, and ill-fated call for the National Guard to fight crime in the District, Rohrabacher declared, “You can’t ask to have the National Guard patrolling your streets and then one week later call for statehood and be taken seriously.”
The only statehood advocate who wasn’t overjoyed was Jesse Jackson—and for good reason. Now that Norton has done her part and gotten a House floor vote that exceeded expectations, Jackson will come under increasing pressure to produce a similar result in the Senate. Since his election three years ago as the District’s shadow senator/statehood lobbyist, Jackson has made no progress in the Senate on the issue. But Norton has demonstrated that headway can be made, despite overwhelming odds. And Jackson now must come up with some gains—such as Senate hearings and committee action on the D.C. statehood bill next year—to sustain the momentum gained in last weekend’s vote.
Thus, it was not surprising that he was in a bad mood after the vote, and already looking for people to blame. Jackson complained that the statehood bill would have passed if the Democratic leadership and President Clinton had worked harder—a claim that not even die-hard statehood supporters believe. And Jackson chastised the president for not making the kind of arm-twisting deals on behalf of statehood that he struck four days earlier on the NAFTA vote, where nothing less than the future of Clinton’s presidency was at stake. Speaking of working harder, when Norton called a news conference on Friday, Nov. 19, to announce the weekend strategy for the vote, Jackson was nowhere in sight. He was off at National Airport walking the picket line with striking American Airlines flight attendants, where there were more TV cameras than at Norton’s news conference. In an interview on WAMU-FM on Monday, Norton said Jackson should stop blaming Clinton and do a little more work himself.
Last weekend’s House debate, while more congenial than expected, highlighted the many issues that will have to be dealt with before statehood can pick up more votes in Congress. Among those is the question of where the state of New Columbia would house its prisoners. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), who represents Alexandria and vicinity, complained that the new state would include 2,000 acres in his congressional district, an area lying some 20 miles outside the borders of New Columbia. That area is, of course, the Lorton prison complex, where D.C. incarcerates most of its criminals. The statehood bill would have given New Columbia at least until the year 2010 to build a prison within its own borders or to come up with some other arrangement to house its prison population. Moran said he wants the amend the statehood bill so that the District would have to close Lorton no later than two years after becoming a state.
But Moran, a Democrat who took the floor twice during the weekend debate to argue vigorously against statehood, also opposes the creation of the new state out of fear that it will bring down a hefty commuter tax on his constituents. “The ability to impose a commuter tax is the driving force behind statehood,” Moran warned. Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, was the only suburban Washington congressman who cast a ballot in support of statehood. Wynn argued that “political realities” would prevent the new state from imposing a commuter tax because such a move would drive businesses to the suburbs. “That’s not going to happen,” Wynn insisted.
Don’t tell that to Kelly, who, as recently as last year, was counting on statehood and the power to levy a $1 billion commuter tax to salvage her first term and fuel her drive for re-election.
RELATIVITY OF D.C. SCHOOLS
Nepotism and cronyism in the school system have been hotly debated in Northeast D.C. since school board member Angie Corley‘s daughter landed a job in early August as an assistant principal at Backus Junior High School in Corley’s Ward 5. The hiring of the daughter, Gwendolyn Bowman, who previously taught science at Coolidge High School in Ward 4, continues to be muttered about at civic association gatherings and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meetings. The issue even came up at a D.C. school board meeting held in Ward 5 in early October, at which Corley was present. In response to the complaints, Corley said the hiring of relatives is common practice throughout the D.C. school system. “If you’re not going to hire family members, you may as well close down this school system,” the school board member said.
School board officials confirm Corley’s rather flippant self-defense. Many school administrators have brothers, sisters, cousins, wives, sons, and daughters employed in the system. For instance, Garnett Pinkney, head of special education for the schools, is a relative of Barbara Jackson, head of grants development for the school system. Connie Clark, head of educational programs and operations for D.C. schools, has a sister employed as a principal at one of the city’s elementary schools. The principal at Eastern High School is the husband of Thirza Neal, who oversees programs for gifted and talented students. Dorothy Jenkins is head of counseling programs for the schools and held that job when her husband, Andrew, was school superintendent.
One of the things that Franklin Smith wasn’t given when he took over the superintendent’s job from Andrew Jenkins last year was a set of family trees disclosing the kinship patterns of his employees. When parents of Backus students and angry community residents met with Smith in August to complain about the situation at the school, they claim, the superintendent was unaware of the family ties between Bowman and Corley. But he also told them that the practice was not uncommon in his school system.
“The community has such a great vision for this school,” said Kathryn Pearson-West, ANC commissioner for the Ward 5 neighborhood surrounding Backus at South Dakota Avenue and Hamlin Street NE. “We fought to keep that school open, and we don’t want to see it go down just because of nepotism.”
Longtime Ward 5 political activist Lillian Huff said the hiring of relatives raises questions of “undue influence” exerted by school board members in the hiring process. “If a board member has a relative seeking employment, it should be in another ward other than the one the board member represents,” said Huff. “I maintain the school system has too many problems to be creating more problems like that.”
Most D.C. residents would agree. But not Corley. Her daughter, she said, “was hired on qualifications, not on relationships toanybody.” Corley said it would have been “an abridgement” of her daughter’s rights to deny her the job because of family ties. After all, the school board member said, President Kennedy picked his own brother to be his attorney general, so the practice is steeped in tradition.