This session’s congressional battle over D.C. statehood is no longer a question of winning or losing. The only questions remaining about the statehood bill—now under a death watch in the House—are how badly it will be beaten if it comes up for a vote in the next few days, and whether the beating will create a backlash of sympathy and support. D.C. statehood is the lamb being led to slaughter, with House Republicans and some conservative Democrats unabashedly eager to wield the knife. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has all but taunted statehood supporters to bring the bill forward for butchering, causing D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to ponder the wisdom of such a move.
Will the slaughterers go about their job so brutally that the C-SPAN audience grows disgusted and sides with the underdog? Or will the defeat set the statehood movement back until well into the next century? When this session of Congress began, statehood supporters were wondering when or if they would get their long-awaited vote. Now some are wondering if they should risk a vote at all, while others are saying they can’t afford not to.
“If there isn’t a vote, somebody on the Hill is in trouble,” warns Bernard Demczuk, coordinator of statehood activities and head of the statehood political action committee. If D.C. politicians decide not to press for a vote, Demczuk adds, they should speak first with the 200-odd people who have been arrested in weekly statehood demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol. “These people put their bodies on the line. So there had better not be a back-room deal cut.”
So Norton was forced to choose whether she wants to get bloodied by her congressional colleagues or by her constituents. After struggling with her dilemma, the D.C. delegate has decided she’d rather get bludgeoned by her colleagues, because she cannot promise her constituents that the outlook for statehood will improve if they wait. So she is pushing for a vote on the bill before Congress adjourns for Thanksgiving.
“If we’re ever going to get a test vote, we might just as well have it now,” shrugs Norton. She says that even getting a vote will be a “revolutionary act” for Congress, which discourages members from bringing up doomed bills simply to determine who their friends are.
But Norton worries that the vote will be so “rock-bottom” low that the Senate won’t even bother to hold hearings on statehood next year, and that President Clinton will never dare utter the S-word again during his stay in the White House. Others in the statehood movement share her concern. “If the whip count is not as supportive as it needs to be, I think we should think about [pulling back],” says Mark Thompson, who has been organizing the Thursday demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol that have enraged House Republicans. “We don’t deserve to be thrown a bone just before Thanksgiving.”
Thompson, leader of the student demonstrations that shut down the University of the District of Columbia in 1991, also complained that the White House is not throwing its weight behind the statehood issue the way it muscled this week’s NAFTA vote. Fat chance of that on an issue where supporters have concentrated their efforts exclusively within the narrow borders of D.C., while opponents have built a well-funded, well-orchestrated nationwide lobbying campaign to defeat statehood. Anti-statehood forces have used Jesse Jackson‘s 1990 election as “shadow” U.S. senator/statehood lobbyist to paint the movement as a liberal conspiracy. They’ve flooded Congress with tens of thousands of postcards depicting statehood as a baldfaced attempt by Ted Kennedy to get his friend Jackson a job in the Senate. (Another anti-statehood mailing engineered by the conservative religious group Concerned Women of America falsely claims that D.C. currently spends federal tax dollars on child adoptions by homosexual couples.) At least Jackson can claim responsibility for igniting one grass-roots campaign around D.C. statehood. But he has failed to build a national movement in support of statehood, as was expected when he took on the cause.
The lobbying job in support of the D.C. statehood bill is being handled by the national Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest coalition of civil rights organizations. The Leadership Conference has focused its effort on contacting members in their Capitol Hill offices rather than building a lobbying network in members’ home districts. Leadership Conference lobbyists have been warning House members that, if they vote against statehood, this will show up as a blemish on the civil rights voting score-card the organization puts out every election year. That threat doesn’t seem to be working.
Demczuk, who has pumped new life into the D.C. statehood movement since taking control last spring, does not waver in his insistence on a vote before Thanksgiving. “If we really get clobbered, it could have a reverse effect on the psychology of the citizenry,” he predicts. “Statehood will not happen until the citizens of the District become outraged over the current arrangement.”Demczuk, the 46-year-old son of a Polish immigrant steelworker, wants the vote now, win or lose, because it caps the first phase of the statehood campaign he laid out in March. The campaign escalated when the U.S. Capitol arrests began July 1. Those demonstrations were intended to raise awareness in Congress and to keep the pressure on Norton to get the vote scheduled for this year.
Much of Demczuk’s plan was aimed at getting the message to D.C. officials that the statehood movement would no longer be co-opted by politicians, as it has been for most of the past two decades. Hence, the intersection at 17th and K Streets NW has been plastered with statehood signs and symbols so that Jackson can’t miss seeing them whenever he enters and exits his office at 1700 K St. NW.
“This is not a campaign to give Jesse Jackson or Sharon Kelly a new job,” saysDemczuk, who until last December worked as Jackson’s senior labor adviser. “This is a campaign to bring justice to 600,000 people.”
The next phase of the campaign will get under way in February, when those arrested for blocking the entrance to the House Longworth Office Building on Capitol Hill will go on trial in U.S. federal court. Statehood supporters hope to turn those court appearances into show trials on D.C. statehood. “They think we’re on trial,” says a defiant Demczuk. “They’re on trial for taxation without representation. We’re firmly convinced that the citizens of D.C. will not throw us in jail.”
He has good reason to believe that—witness the 1990 drug trial of former Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Footnote: Some D.C. statehood supporters bemoaned the defeat of the statehood referendum in Puerto Rico last weekend. A win there, it was argued, could have strengthened the District’s hand in Congress because, in the past, new states have been admitted in pairs to maintain political balance. But Norton disagrees with that analysis. “You can argue that Puerto Rico and D.C. would be a deadly combination,” she said.
FLACKING COOKE’S STADIUM
The D.C. government has hired a PR firm, T-P Telecommunications Inc., to focus a more favorable media spotlight on the much-maligned new football stadium the city wants to build to honor Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. But T-P owner Tom Pope is not helping matters much, according to Beth Solomon of Ecomedia, an ecology-minded news-feature service. Solomon recently set out to produce a TV documentary on the battle to build the new stadium, and her requests to city officials for interviews were forwarded to Pope. According to Solomon, Pope grilled her on whether her production would have “the right political bent.” If not, she said, Pope informed her that city officials would not cooperate on the documentary. The proposed stadium has come under attack from both the community and Congress, which have raised concerns about the environmental damage its construction would cause.
“I find it completely inappropriate that this fellow is hired by my tax dollars to intimidate a member of the press,” said an incensed Solomon. “It’s intimidating enough to go against the Cooke organization. I don’t want doors closed to me, and I’m worried about that.”
Pope, former news director at WHUR-FM, said Solomon is “way off base. It was my first time talking to her. When you give info out, you want to make sure it’s a legitimate member of the working press you’re dealing with. We’re going to follow up with her.”
Mayoral spokesman Vada Manager said that Pope was brought in to handle the complex stadium issues because “we needed someone to follow this stuff full-time.” T-P Telecommunications has been flacking for the D.C. Armory Board, Manager noted, so Pope seemed like a natural fit. The Armory Board is one of the lead agencies involved in the stadium project.
Bill O’Field has fled the glamour of handling constituent services for At-Large IndependBill Lightfoot, choosing instead the joys of listening to customers cry in their beer on Capitol Hill. O’Field and his partner, David Marshall, are the new owners of the Li’l Pub at 655 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. That’s the bar in which retired police officer James Elliott, its former owner, was murdered last year. His killer remains at large, reportedly outside the country.
O’Field and Marshall were regulars at the pub and had become friends with “J.J.,” as he was known to frequent customers. After his death, they helped his widow run the place. This spring, she approached the two and suggested they take the bar off her hands, since they seemed to enjoy running it so much. “I always wanted something like a card shop or a gift shop,” said O’Field. “I never thought it would be this kind of business. But as a customer, I fell in love with the place.” The pub could become the new watering hole for council staffers….
Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly continues to have problems with her appointees to city boards and commissions. William Marshall, themayor’s nominee for the Public Access Corporation Board, which oversees aspects of the city’s cable-TV franchise, has informed the D.C. Council that he owes several thousand in overdue D.C. and federal income taxes dating back to 1985. But Marshall didn’t invoke the defense made infamous by shadow Rep. Charles Moreland, who brags that he has not paid federal or D.C. taxes for the past decade. Statehood lobbyist Moreland says his tax evasion is a protest against the District’s stateless state, although LL has never been able to figure out how evading District taxes fits in. (The IRS and D.C. tax collectors ignore Moreland when he makes these boasts, which has to be the ultimate insult.) Marshall, an independent television producer, produces the mayor’s monthly TV show on Cable Channel 16, as well as the one on Channel 32. His nomination may be running into trouble before the council….
The statehood movement suffered another setback when WAMU-FM political analyst Mark Plotkin, the mouthpiece for the 51st state of New Columbia, was silenced on the subject following his regular Friday hour Nov. 5. Plotkin, an avid statehood supporter who waxes profuse on the issue during his weekly broadcasts, was even more long-winded than usual that day, and clashed with a caller who dared to question the validity and wisdom of the District’s becoming a state. Immediately following the program, WAMU News Director Steve Palmer marched into the studio and laid down the law: “No more statehood.”