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When the D.C. Council goes on summer break next week, members will have something to celebrate: unanimously passing an advisory referendum to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot asking residents whether they support statehood.
In plainer terms, that means the 13-member legislature has approved language to submit to the D.C. Board of Elections for certification. More technically speaking, the drafted referendum consists in one question with four parts:
“Shall the voters of the District of Columbia advise the Council to approve or reject this proposal?” it would then ask. “YES, to approve…NO, to reject.”
Given the recent groundswell and long history of support for D.C. statehood, the referendum is likely to see majority assent when it comes before voters on Election Day. But it’s only one part of a larger puzzle that involves a somewhat contested constitution for a future state, a statehood commission headed by two of the District’s top elected leaders, and national lobbying by D.C. officials and their allies to frame equal representation for the city as a fight for civil rights.
And yet—despite the fanfare surrounding the Council’s passage of the advisory referendum on Tuesday—community members have cautioned that the District may be moving too quickly and glossing over serious issues, including the size of an expanded legislature (21 delegates), a local bill of rights, and even the name of the state (New Columbia).
“It was my view that it would make things simpler and improved if we simply presented to the people of the District of Columbia the question of statehood,” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, an advisor to the statehood commission, said during the Council’s legislative session today. “It would allow us to have enhanced engagement later [on] over the constitution—and it would be a strategy to give maximum support to statehood if it was disentangled from the constitution.” Acknowledging her colleagues support of the four-question-in-one model for the advisory referendum, which touches on the would-be state’s boundaries and its governing document, Cheh supported Tuesday’s approval.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso registered similar concerns, saying “in the long run, the best thing to do” is for the Council to advance the referendum and commit to hearings on the constitution this fall “in a very public way.”
Outgoing At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange appeared more sanguine in commenting on the Council’s vote.
“Like any family, there’s going to be internal disagreements,” he said. “Together we stand, divided we fall. I’m elated.”
But even the fiercest advocates for statehood have questioned the degree to which the general public in D.C. has been engaged in the constitutional process so far. At a press conference this afternoon, Mayor Muriel Bowser shed some light on measures of that involvement: “More than 8,000 unique visitors” have accessed the statehood website, and “more than 500 comments” were registered for the provisional document. D.C. has more than 650,000 residents.
Addressing reporters, the mayor deflected criticisms regarding both the content and process behind the constitution.
“There’s things that I would have liked to go differently even in [the present] version, but I voted for it and I support it,” she said. “To be honest with you, in the conversations I’ve had with the Council, even in the conversations in the community, there were only three or four [issues] that there wasn’t consensus around. And I think we dealt with a number of [them]” during the three-day statehood convention held in June. “I imagine there will not be any new issues when the Council takes it up [later on]… I trust [councilmembers] will vote [on the constitution] in a way I can support.”
D.C. officials, though, recognize statehood proponents will have to make their case to Congress as well. The current movement’s goal is to submit the results of the referendum to the next U.S. president: one they hope will fight for the cause. The president would then lobby a more-favorable Congress to incorporate the District as the 51st state of the Union. The Democratic Party has included D.C. statehood as an issue on its draft platform for November’s elections.
“My demand is that we put it on the president’s desk and she will push hard for it as she said she would,” Bowser concluded, alluding to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has come out in support of statehood.