Legislation to make the District of Columbia a state is poised to pass the House on Friday, a major advance from the last time the measure came before Congress 27 years ago and 40 percent of Democrats joined with all but one Republican to defeat D.C. statehood.
After decades of benign neglect, the movement to make D.C. the 51st state has gained new life with Black Lives Matter and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s heightened profile. President Trump’s efforts to use federal force to dominate streets around the White House exposed the subservient status of a city that must answer to Congress for how it spends money while its 706,000 residents are without full voting representation in the House or Senate.
Republicans appear unmoved by pleas for equality. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton took to the Senate floor to denounce the Democrats’ move in a racially tinged speech depicting D.C. as an elitist conclave of the “deep state” and Mayor Bowser as someone who could not be trusted to keep the city and its statues safe. “Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population,” he tweeted, “but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state."
The bill to rename D.C. “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” is going nowhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. But if the Democrats win the White House and flip the Senate, statehood becomes imaginable, since statehood requires only a vote of Congress. “Trump says Republicans would have to be stupid to support D.C. statehood and that’s what the battle is about these days, maybe that’s what it’s always been about,” says Michael Brown, D.C.’s non-voting “shadow senator.”
Actually, Trump said Republicans would have to be “very, very stupid” to support statehood for D.C. because it would add two Democratic senators, which McConnell would never let happen. “But it’s about more than McConnell,” Brown told the Daily Beast. “We can’t get one Republican (in the Senate), and there are still six (Senate) Democrats who are not on the bill.”
In the modern Senate, 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster and proceed to a vote on legislation of any significance. The exception is judges, where Republicans exercised what is known as the “nuclear option” to confirm two Supreme Court judges and 200 lower court lifetime judges with a simple majority. Democratic leader Harry Reid opened this dangerous door by striking the filibuster for Executive Branch confirmations that McConnell was blocking.
Several Democrats who ran for president, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg, favor doing away with the filibuster if Democrats win the Senate. Otherwise, they argue, McConnell (or his successor, should he happen to lose his own race) will obstruct everything Democrats try to do.
The District of Columbia has a population of 706,000, more than Wyoming and Vermont, and D.C. residents pay more in total federal income tax than 22 states. It has long been a sore point that fighting in every war and contributing blood and treasure is not enough to gain more than a symbolic vote in Congress. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has served almost 30 years, has a vote in committee but not on the House floor, and if her committee vote breaks a tie, it doesn’t count.
Even that small measure of democratic largesse was taken away by Republicans when they gained control of the House in 1994 and again in 2010. Democrats restored Norton’s limited right to vote when they won the House in 2006 and 2018, and since then Norton has been on a roll when it comes to statehood. She has 226 co-sponsors for the bill, including the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer from Maryland, who opposed statehood until now.
Speaking before the Rules committee Wednesday, Norton explained how the legislation before her colleagues was personal to her own history. “My great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, who escaped as a slave from a Virginia plantation, made it as far as D.C., a walk to freedom but not to equal citizenship,” she said. “For three generations my family has been denied the rights other Americans take for granted.”
Opponents of statehood argue that the Founding Fathers didn’t want the District to be a state, but our vaunted forebears also didn’t want women to vote, or Black people to vote, so that argument seems lame. “Whether you’re a textualist or an originalist, I don’t believe the Founding Fathers had any more reason to deny representation to people who pay federal taxes, serve in war and do everything a citizen should—than they would have wanted my neighbor down the hall to have a closet full of AK-47s,” says Ellen Goldstein, who served until recently as a neighborhood advisory commissioner for the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood, home to the Obamas, the Kushners, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
“You can unearth the minds of the Founding Fathers to justify anything,” Goldstein told the Daily Beast. “As somebody who has lived here for 50 years, I believe the only reason we’re not a state is because of race.”
Race has a lot to do with it, says Brown, a former political consultant whose unpaid position’s main perk is identifying as a senator. The Constitution grants Congress jurisdiction over the District in “all cases whatsoever,” which allowed some committee chairmen of the House and Senate Committees on the District of Columbia to run the city like a plantation.
In his recent book Class of 1974, John Lawrence recounts how John McMillan, a South Carolina Democrat and a segregationist, sent a truckload of watermelons to the office of appointed Mayor Walter Washington to let him know how little he thought of the budget Washington submitted in 1967 for the committee’s review. The District couldn’t even elect its own mayor until after Home Rule passed Congress in 1973.
For a long time, D.C. pridefully called itself “Chocolate City,” acknowledging its majority Black population. No state has ever come into the union with a majority minority population, says Brown. In 1993, the last time Congress voted on statehood, the city was 56 percent Black, a factor in the outcome despite President Bill Clinton’s advocacy for statehood.
During his final weeks in office, Bill Clinton had the newly authorized D.C. license plate with the slogan “taxation without representation” affixed to the presidential limousine. His successor, President George W. Bush, had the plate removed. It wasn’t until after President Obama won re-election in 2012 that he ordered the controversial plate installed on all presidential vehicles.
In 2011, the District’s Black population fell below 50 percent for the first time in over 50 years. According to 2017 Census Bureau data, the African-American population is 47.1 percent. Unlike the Clinton-era vote, when Democrats were divided on the political merits of D.C. statehood, a newly awakened Democratic leadership is rallying around the cry for equal rights.
“It’s beyond statehood,” says Goldstein, citing congressional meddling in District policies on marijuana legalization, gun regulation, and funding for abortion. “If we decide to do it, they take it away. They take our money and tell us how to spend it.”
Goldstein doubts the House vote will change anything, but in her thinking, modern America cannot continue to deny D.C. is a state any more than Macy’s Department store in the movie classic Miracle on 34th Street could deny Kris Kringle was Santa when bags of letters addressed to him were delivered by the Post Office. Using the same reasoning, Goldstein notes that when she shops online on Amazon and scrolls down, D.C. is a state: “If the Post Office thinks you’re Santa, you’re Santa. And if Amazon thinks we’re a state, then by golly, we’re a state.”
Until a miracle happens on Capitol Hill, that will have to do.