Even with both the Senate and White House currently under the control of the Republicans, a growing number of advocates for D.C. statehood believe their long-espoused goal now stands just beyond but within their grasp.
After more than 26 years, legislators recently allowed a Congressional hearing to proceed which could lead to the District becoming the nation’s 51st state.
During the past several months, the battleground for D.C. statehood has alternated between the halls of Congress and the Democratic presidential candidates campaign trail.
Meanwhile, representatives of nearly two dozen grassroots organizations have ramped up efforts to persuade those vying for the White House to support District residents’ demand for self-determination.
“Now is the time for statehood. We have the same responsibilities but not the same rights,” said Ty Hobson-Powell, a key organizer of the 51 for 51 campaign centered on temporarily lowering the number of Senate votes needed for passing H.R. 51, also known as the Washington, D.C. Admission Act.
For now, any bill going before the U.S. Senate requires at least 60 votes for confirmation. However, with the elimination of the proposed lowering of needed votes advocated by Hobson-Powell and others, only 51 votes would be required for D.C. to achieve statehood status.
In 2017, Senate Republicans employed a similar strategy to ease conservative judge Neil Gorsuch’s ascent to the U.S. Supreme Court.
So far, 14 Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and most recently Beto O’Rourke, have signed on to the 51 for 51 campaign. Former Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t addressed the issue – at least not on the record.
“We want a path to statehood that’s viable. That’s the 51 votes in the Senate,” Hobson-Powell said. “What makes us different is our push is not a broad stroke approach to statehood. We need a path beyond the lip service. Fifty-one votes can enfranchise 700,000 residents.”
The Path to D.C. Statehood – Changing Terrain
If H.R. 51 passes, D.C. would become the 51st state in the Union. The newly-admitted state would include all eight wards with government buildings, monuments and federally-owned land all becoming a separate entity. District citizens, like their counterparts in the 50 states, would have full congressional representation, including two senators and at least one person in the House of Representatives.
H.R. 51’s passage requires movement through the House of Representatives and the Senate before it reaches the president’s desk. Since January, when Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced the bill, 219 House Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors. Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), the most recent lawmaker to confirm her support, did so one day after a House Oversight hearing on the legislation in the Rayburn Building.
That hearing, the first of its kind in over two decades, brought D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D), D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt and a slew of other public witnesses before Norton and her committee colleagues.
During the hearing, witnesses expressed varying views on the issue of statehood. Pushback from conservative witnesses and those on the panel involved the constitutionality of making D.C. the 51st state. For Bowser and Mendelson, however, concerns about the Admissions Clause and 23rd Amendment didn’t negate what the mayor described as the legal and moral implications of the District’s current status.
“To continue to deny statehood to 702,000 residents is a failure by the members of this body to uphold their oath to office. The lack of statehood deprives the District of full representation and has practical and dire consequences,” Bowser said during her testimony on Sept. 19.
Bowser, Mendelson and DeWitt touted the District’s strong fiscal state, specifically its 60-day tax reserve, private sector growth and high potential of infrastructural stability during the workday when the City’s population doubles.
Bowser asked Republican lawmakers to focus, not on the drawbacks of having more Democratic congressional representation, but the lack thereof for District residents.
“Our men and women vote and are subjected to the draft but have no input on whether we go to war,” she said. “The Supreme Court and federal courts make judgments binding on us. We pay federal taxes but have no votes on how its appropriated. We are abused by Congress in ways that, if we were a state, would be unconstitutional.”
Staying Focused on a Strategy
Several public gatherings preceding and following last Thursday’s hearing aimed to galvanize support for statehood. On Tuesday, Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio unveiled a mural bearing the likeness of late radio personality Petey Greene, the late Mayor Marion Barry and Norton in Bundy’s Secret Garden, located behind We Act Radio and Check-It Enterprises on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast.
Last week, dozens of U.S. flags bearing 51 stars, instead of 50, lined the streets of downtown D.C. Just hours after the hearing, Long Live Go-Go and 51 for 51 co-hosted the Million Moe March as well as another installment of Moechella featuring Backyard Band as the headline act. On Friday, Bowser unveiled an art project comprised of eight separate pieces of wood cut-outs shaped like the District’s wards – painted and strategically placed along participating District Main Street locations.
For D.C. native and statehood advocate Jamal Holtz, these activities counted as part of a long journey in not only making D.C. the 51st state but also laying to rest misconceptions about what such a designation would mean for the nation’s capital. Last summer, he travelled the country on behalf of the 51 for 51 campaign, rallying support for the legislative strategy that Republicans successfully employed during the most recent Supreme Court nomination battle.
“I was happy to hear Congress members [speaking in support of] statehood [at the hearing] but also disappointed to hear the rhetoric about Maryland and Virginia residents having a say in this since they ceded the land,” said Holtz, student body president at the University of Rochester.
“It’s not fair. We have to get focused on the strategy of breaking the filibuster rule. Mitch McConnell did it for the Supreme Court justice. We can do the same to give residents access to [full] democracy,” Holtz added.