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If a Washington Post poll is to be believed, support for D.C. statehood is at a record high: 67 percent of District residents say they want it, up a significant 10 points from just five years ago.
Some of that rise may have to do with the issue getting some national attention in August, when comedian John Oliver aired a segment devoted to residents’ fight for equality on Last Week Tonight. Social media was abuzz with clips from that episode, as grassroots activists and local pols took pride in the fact that their work over the past several years in part made it possible. But what remains, in concrete terms, to be done?
“The bill [that would make D.C. a state, the New Columbia Admission Act] isn’t going anywhere with this Congress,” explains Josh Burch, a local activist who co-founded of Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “But the more support we get on the bill now, the less we have to worry about the ensuing Congress. We’ll be ready to act when the time is right, when we have leaders in Congress who are more friendly to statehood.”
Burch adds that getting friends and family who live in other jurisdictions—in effect, the constituents of U.S. senators and representatives who have a vote in Congress—to advocate on D.C.’s behalf will help champion statehood nationally. That means emphasizing facts that show the District already operates like a state in many respects: It contributes more than dozens of states in federal tax dollars and gets a smaller percent of its budget from congressional appropriations than others, for example. Above all, it’s essential to make the issue personal for people, Burch, a father, says; under the status quo, future generations won’t have a voice.
“The Post poll today got me excited,” he adds. “At some point in time, I think we’ll have to do a referendum on statehood, which hasn’t been done for some years. It would remind the whole country of what we want.”
The poll’s results came as little surprise to many advocates for statehood, including Kimberly Perry, DC Vote’s executive director, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Perry says supporters must clear up misconceptions certain people have about who lives in the District: “Real people who work in diverse sectors, raise our kids here, send them to school, go to church and live normal lives- not just employees of the federal government. In addition, to win statehood we need to build public support across the country, win over more states, and enlist activists who work on similar issues of disenfranchisement, democracy and equality to put pressure on Congress,” she says.
Norton issued a statement today saying that the results were “gratifying, but perhaps not unexpected,” adding that “most residents appear to understand that statehood is an uphill climb that we will need to keep fighting to achieve, rather than a priority that they should expect this Congress to deliver next year.”
Echoing Burch, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents Ward 6, says he believes in making the statehood cause “as personal as possible.” As for the 30 percent of respondents who didn’t reveal their support for full equality in the poll? “It should be 100 percent. We still need to do outreach and education.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh may have gone the furthest among her colleagues when she received a D.C. flag tattoo on her right foot last Friday in support of statehood (and as the result of a radio promise). While she recognizes the Post poll’s results as “absolutely fantastic,” Cheh says it’s “demoralizing” that the issue hasn’t gained more traction in Congress; those elected officials will have to change.
“Here’s the irony: It seems everyone is coming on board for statehood as an answer to this grave injustice for us, except the one body that can change this, which is Congress,” she explains. “We have to really create some pressure coming to particular members of Congress, and maybe revive our attempts to get audiences in front of different state legislatures. In the meantime, what’s happening is the incremental strategy; if we can’t get statehood, we keep working towards it—we don’t forsake it—but we try to move along bit by bit.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery