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The decades-old question of what the District should be named if it ever becomes a state reared its head on Friday afternoon, when D.C. officials unveiled a draft constitution for the “State of New Columbia.”
The New Columbia Statehood Commission released the draft at the Lincoln Cottage, a symbolic site that Mayor Muriel Bowser said serves to remind residents that they’re “not fully free.” District leaders have established an aggressive timeframe for putting the statehood question on the November ballot: Following several weeks during which residents can comment on the document online and at community forums, the District plans to hold a constitutional convention on June 17 and 18. The D.C. Council will also review the constitution over the course of the year and is expected to introduce legislation setting up a referendum.
“Our movement has been like the Tower of Babel,” D.C. Shadow Sen. Mike Brown said. “This is our opportunity to speak with one clear, loud voice that statehood is what makes the people of the District of Columbia whole.”
But if Friday’s reveal was any indication, residents aren’t all behind the New Columbia moniker. That was the name District citizens approved in the 1980s, when another constitutional convention took place, and the name currently on a piece of statehood legislation before Congress, the New Columbia Admission Act.
One resident who spoke during a public-comment period at Friday’s event pointed out that many states are named after rivers, offering “Anacostia” and “Potomac” as potential replacements for New Columbia. Another—who identified himself as a Ward 7 resident—said D.C. should name any would-be state after a historic person of color who had a significant connection to the District: “Sojourner,” after abolitionist Sojourner Truth, or the “Commonwealth of Douglass,” after black intellectual Frederick Douglass.
Officials said they wouldn’t contest changing the name, and residents would have the chance to debate it. The Ward 7 speaker contended that explorer Christopher Columbus has a tarnished, colonialist legacy.
“I am personally not opposed to a discussion about the name,” Bowser said, a sentiment echoed by Brown.
“It is a starting point that will engage the members of the public,” D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss said of the draft. Beverly Perry, a senior adviser to the mayor who’s on the legal team exploring the latest push for voting equality, explained that the draft constitution has eight articles. “It is very traditional,” she said.
Under the draft, D.C.’s baisc governing structure, with a 13-member legislature, would be maintained. The mayor would become a governor, the D.C. Council a House of Delegates, and the Council chair a Speaker of the House. The D.C. attorney general would continue to be elected but the state would pay for its courts.
At least one provision in the draft’s bill of rights drew criticism. Bo Shuff, Bowser’s 2014 campaign manager, highlighted that the second item provides the “right to bear and keep arms,” which a significant share of residents object to absolutely. Officials said the draft could be changed and would differ from an ultimate admissions act that, Perry said, “would spell out a whole host of powers” not in the constitution.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson noted that officials expect many residents to vote on the future referendum because 2016 is a presidential election year—resulting in higher turnout than at other times.
“We’re not writing this with an eye toward Congress,” Strauss said. “We want to stop being a colony.”
You can read the draft here.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery