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The New Columbia Statehood Commission—composed of five District leaders including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.’s congressional delegation—voted today to publicly release a draft of a new constitution for an eventual state next Friday, at the Lincoln Cottage.
The release is set to be held at 2 p.m.—with a simultaneous filing of the draft to the Council—Bowser said at a meeting the commission held this afternoon. The unveiling would precede additional community and working-group gatherings over the course of May and June, leading to a formal constitutional convention expected to take place on June 17 and 18. While the commission last week laid out its push for achieving statehood in broad strokes, its members today settled on more specific dates for the process that would culminate in an anticipated referendum on statehood in November.
Beverly Perry, a senior adviser to Bowser who’s part of a legal team charting the process, said the team had settled on “guiding principals” for the months ahead. Among them: preserving the District’s “basic current governing structure” with a constitution that would build upon statehood efforts dating to the 1980s (but “modernized”) and ensuring that residents have a voice in the effort.
“The only peril I see here is if we get the [statehood] referendum on the ballot and we don’t pass it by a large margin,” Shadow Sen. Mike Brown explained. “That would be devastating.” He went on to argue that a “yes” vote must exceed that for Initiative 71, the ballot measure that legalized recreational use of marijuana.
“If we go in there with 64 percent on this initiative, people on the Hill who hate us will say these people care more about smoking pot than they do about being a state,” Brown said. (As presidential candidate John Kasich recently pointed out, Republicans don’t love the idea of D.C. being a state.)
At the beginning of today’s meeting, members of the public expressed concern—and a little skepticism—about how the process would substantively differ from similar efforts in the past. David Schwartzman of the D.C. Statehood Green Party said he worried about “pushing through a constitutional convention, unelected, before the November primary.” And Keshini Ladduwahetty of D.C. for Democracy questioned whether this push would be redundant.
“What effect will the approach have on the New Columbia Admission Act [before Congress] and how would you differentiate between the prospects for this new approach on the Hill versus the current one?” she asked. “Would you say this new approach is expected to get more support?”
Brown said he didn’t see anything in the new effort that would preclude the existing legislation from getting more cosponsors, or reintroducing similar legislation to Congress. (The new effort is said to follow the “Tennessee model” for becoming a state, which would not require ratification by others.)
“If by some chance the bill in Congress passes, that would be a very good problem to have and an easy one to solve,” Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss said.
Mendelson said the Council would probably not consider the draft, and begin to hold public meetings on it, until after the legislature votes on the mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget in May. Bowser added that the public will be able to submit comments on the draft online and at meetings in wards.
“We have gotten very positive feedback from [C]ongresswoman [Eleanor Holmes Norton] on the process that has been set up, including modernizing the constitution [to be] a document that reflects our current structure,” she said. “I think that is going to be very helpful.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery