There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The House hearings, and then the Senate deliberations on D.C. statehood put me in a spot. I was always lukewarm about having Western Avenue NW, up the street a short distance from my house, become the boundary between two states of the Union. I didn’t think I yearned to have a governor, or have the D.C. Council decide where to locate the new “state capital” building.
In 2021, I finally had to cry uncle. After more than two decades watching the District get bullied and its voters get ignored, I’ve finally been flushed out of my neutral state. It’s time to shrink the federal district specified in the U.S. Constitution to the National Mall and surrounding buildings and add a 51st star to the flag.
When I was preparing to move to D.C. in the early 1990s, a friend in Chicago asked, “How do you think you’ll feel about having no vote in the Congress, even though you’ll be paying high taxes?” I just laughed. That was pretty low down on the list of things I factored into a decision on where to move. I had two young children, and worried about the reputation of D.C.’s public schools. Chicago was in a real estate slump as I was trying to sell my house. I was leaving a lower cost of living city for a high cost place, and taking a pay cut. In Chicago, I knew my Congressman. Like, personally. While I took that for granted, I didn’t think it changed my life very much. The prospect of not having congressional representation seemed pretty abstract. And besides, when did Congress ever do what I wanted it to do? I reassured my friend, “I don’t think it’s going to matter much.”
And then I got here.
The District’s finances were in dire straits. The population declined year after year. As my wife and I looked for our first house here, in the spring of 1994, Marion Barry was the favorite to win the Democratic mayoral primary and thus win re-election. Shortly after Barry returned to the mayor’s office, the DC Financial Control Board was installed to hold the city’s purse strings. The schools were in a tailspin after a decade of cratering enrollment, and would go under emergency management, under an army general installed by the control board. There was a Statehood Party, and a grassroots statehood movement, but the prospect of self-government, much less statehood, seemed very far away. The District of Columbia was a laughingstock to many, regularly dismissed with sarcasm and condescension by elected officials from elsewhere. The city was every Republican’s favorite punchline in stories about the fecklessness of local government and the need for continued congressional oversight, Constitution or no Constitution.
I bought a house. I joined my neighborhood church and taught Sunday school. I paid my taxes. My kids headed off to our local schools, and my wife and I headed off to PTA meetings. I walked to the Metro and headed to work downtown. If you asked me, I would have said, yes, I guess we should live in a state. But back then I wasn’t particularly picky about which one.
“Why not retrocession?” I asked. 150 years after Alexandria and Arlington returned to Virginia, it seemed a reasonable response to the perennial problems plaguing the federal district. Just make it a county of the state of Maryland and clear away the bizarre hybrid structure of Home Rule, which had functioned like self-governing training wheels since the 1970s. I was assured Maryland would never take the city back. Too many problems. Too many needs. Being right next door to D.C. had helped make Montgomery County one of the wealthiest in the country, and one of the most powerful in the state. On payday, Maryland residents who worked in the District could bring 100 cents on the dollar home to be spent, and taxed in Maryland without the District getting a penny. Why would any state government want to end a sweetheart deal like that?
The perversity of the system as it was, living in a city…
…with a structural deficit…
…that was a ward of the federal government…
…that had an elected legislature regularly overruled on the whim of politicians elected by residents of other states, all started to be a heavier burden. Things began to happen that highlighted the imprisonment of the District in a state of perpetual infancy, with the glaring absence of popular sovereignty.
Longtime residents lived through this sorry history that informs today’s statehood push and armchair historians may have read about it, but given D.C.’s population boom over the past decade, these facts bear repeating. For more than two centuries, Congress has deliberated over democracy, even voting from time to time to send soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen to distant lands to “introduce” it, while only offering a pale imitation of it to people living just yards from the U.S. Capitol.
In 1992, Congress was all too happy to play politics with District legislation, gutting a domestic partners law Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas said would send “a horrible message” to the rest of the nation, while forcing a referendum vote on banning capital punishment. All this, despite the Supreme Court nullifying capital punishment in D.C. in 1972 and the D.C. Council formally repealing capital punishment in 1981. The fear of rising crime, these U.S. Representatives thought, made pretending to listen to the voters a winning move.
When District voters headed to the polls in 1998 to vote on a medical marijuana referendum, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia added a rider to the annual appropriations bill blocking the use of public funds to count the votes. It was shockingly heavy-handed, and undemocratic in the extreme. I wasn’t even particularly in favor of medical marijuana, but the fact that Georgia voters could have more impact on my day-to-day life—in my own home—than my own neighbors, drove me around the bend and to the polls.
Around the same time, Congress blocked the District, already home to a runaway HIV epidemic and one of the highest infection rates in America, from instituting a needle exchange program. Making it easier for people to get clean needles held the promise of slowing the transmission of the virus through intravenous drug use. Again, the moralists in the Congress, elected by people who lived elsewhere in the country, were able to send representatives to Washington who had more say over the details of my daily life than I did.
It kept on happening. Representatives from elsewhere postured like mad to the people back home about how they didn’t live in Washington, slept in their offices, would not move their families here and went home every weekend. Though they couldn’t bear to spend one more moment in town, they couldn’t stop using the city as a laboratory for their own pet convictions about right and wrong, as a policy lab, or a plaything. They gassed on and on about “the voice of the people” back home while paying no mind to what the people of the District, American citizens, had already decided for themselves.
Home Rule, as it exists here, is hardly worthy of the name. If, as a voter and a citizen, I am offered Home Rule as a proxy for representation in the national legislature, then I must be given real sovereignty instead of this pale imitation of self government. If my neighbors and I can choose one policy over another, only to have it ignored or overturned by officials elected by others, then it is simply not Home Rule. What Americans seem to want is my tax money and not my input. They want my acquiescence in place of my consent. What’s remarkable is that it’s gone on this long.
Even as Washington inches toward statehood, members of Congress regularly curry favor back home by meddling in the affairs of the District, as Utah Sen. Mike Lee did recently with a move to block District legislation on minors and vaccination. I raised three kids here. I am not yet sure how I feel about children as young as 11 electing to get any medical treatment without their parents’ knowledge and consent. But here’s what I do know: The voters in Utah who send Lee here to work have the full privileges accorded American citizens in their municipal and state governments to express their wishes on this matter. And I don’t.
Decades since the lurid stories of fiscal mismanagement allowed Congress to tut-tut over the prospect of D.C. statehood, the District’s finances are sound. The population is growing steadily, up over 30 percent since I brought my family from Chicago. The grainy black and white police surveillance video of Marion Barry taking a hit off a crack pipe, which many in Congress believed could end D.C.’s statehood ambitions for good, is now more than 30 years old. The “Mayor for Life” has been dead for six years.
Today the District is richer, more desirable, and better run than it was in earlier decades. The old alibis about why it’s simply unthinkable to make an all-urban, majority-minority territory into a state won’t work the way they used to, which has forced Republican opponents into increasingly bizarre rhetorical flights of fancy. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton conceded on the floor of the Senate that while there were more people in the District than in Wyoming, the western state (home to 12,000 people when it entered the Union) has a “more well-rounded working class” because more people work in mining, logging, and manufacturing there than in D.C. Yes, it’s true, my neighbors to one side of my house, to the other side of my house, and across the street are all lawyers, making me feel a bit left out. I hadn’t considered the need for a miner or a logger on our block to back up a claim to representation in the national legislature. Then again, Cotton himself was able to get a legal education at Harvard Law School with no fear that his status as a lawyer would in any way degrade Arkansas’ claim to voting representation in Washington.
There are other capital cities around the world that are purpose-built seats of government, jurisdictionally set apart as places not part of surrounding territories. The citizens of Canberra, Brasilia, Mexico City, and Berlin would all find the proposition they would not be represented in the national legislature very strange.
The federal government has only been too happy to accept the many hundreds of thousands of dollars I’ve paid in taxes over the years, and I’ve got the receipts to prove it. Those payments were levied on me even though I’ve felled only one tree in my backyard, not enough to qualify me as a logger. I’ve found no seam of valuable ore when planting tomatoes. That taxation, my passport, and a lifetime as a citizen has not been enough to allow me two Senators, or give Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton a vote on legislation in the House of Representatives.
I may not be a Wyoming rancher or a Vermont dairy farmer, but I check all the other more conventional boxes for voting participation in the life of my community. Mike Lee, Tom DeLay, Bob Barr, Tom Cotton and Mitch McConnell, and their constituents, all have interesting and worthwhile opinions about my status as a citizen, but none that should count more than my own. The retrocession moment has passed, and the majority of Maryland’s congressional delegation now supports statehood. Mitch McConnell named D.C. statehood as one cause indicative of the Democrats’ descent into “full-bore socialism.” Oddly enough, the now-minority leader and his party have loudly proclaimed for years that extracting taxes from populations and giving those same citizens no representation is the very essence of socialism. Sounds like something out of Venezuela!
I should really call my United States Senator to complain!
Journalist and author Ray Suarez is a host of “World Affairs,” the weekly public radio program and podcast, and covers Washington for Euronews.