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Statehood Advocates Decry Voting Act

Armed with deli sandwiches and stacks of pamphlets, about 100 District residents gathered in a classroom last week and discussed the possibility of turning their city into a 51st state with full representation in Congress.

Some have pushed for statehood for years, if not decades, and many believe the 111th Congress is their best shot yet at realizing that goal.

Almost all denounce the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act — a bill that is on its way to passage in the House and Senate.

The bill offers a deal many Members find hard to pass up: one voting seat in the House for Democratic-leaning Washington, D.C., and one extra seat for Republican-leaning Utah.

But statehood advocates see it differently.

“One vote for D.C. and one vote for Utah is plan C, D or F. Not plan A or B,” Samuel Jordan, former chairman of the DC Statehood Party, thundered to a diverse crowd of people sporting dreadlocks, gray suits, T-shirts and sweater vests. “Why are we losing this opportunity with a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president who supports statehood? We are making the least of that opportunity.”

The D.C. voting rights bill is the product of years of negotiation and vote-counting, and many District residents consider it their best hope for any representation at all.

The House has already held one hearing on the bill this year, and on Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a markup on the Senate counterpart.

But while the bill has gained political solvency, serious questions about its constitutionality still linger.

Some scholars argue that since D.C. is not a state, it violates the Constitution’s Composition Clause, which stipulates that Representatives must be chosen by “the People of the several States.”

And the at-large seat for Utah also poses a potential problem by effectively giving every Utah resident two Representatives.

In past Congresses, however, it seemed like the only choice. Support wasn’t strong enough to pass anything but the voting rights bill, especially with the threat of a veto from President George W. Bush.

That’s all changed. Congress is more Democrat-heavy than before, and there is a president who is sensitive to the District’s plight.

So advocates for a variety of solutions are coming out of the woodwork.

Supporters of statehood say it’s the only way to gain both full representation and control over the city’s budget and laws (which now are subject to Congressional review).

Others want full retrocession into Maryland, a plan that would turn nonfederal land in the city into a new Maryland Congressional district.

And then there’s DC Represent, a new group which supports a hybrid solution: retroceding the District into Maryland for its Congressional representation, in which case the city would gain Maryland’s two Senators and its own Representative. But the mayor and city council would retain control over the city’s affairs.

Vikram Surya Chiruvolu, the group’s founder, said it’s an option that is both politically possible and constitutional. The voting rights bill, he argued, lacks the latter.

“There isn’t a whole lot of public appetite for this issue when there’s all this other stuff going on,” he said, pointing to the sinking economy and stimulus battle. “We’re sort of taking a relatively small window of public interest on this issue and, to my eyes, are really spending it on something that’s not going to stand.”

But Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, argued that it’s too late to begin pushing statehood or retrocession.

As the biggest voting rights group in the District, DC Vote has been instrumental in pushing the D.C. voting rights bill, using its 20,000 supporters to pressure Congress for its passage.

“The reality is we don’t have the votes for statehood in this Congress,” he said. “We’ve come very far in pushing the D.C. Voting Rights Act, so this is the time to win. This is not the time to switch horses midstream.”

Zherka has most of the Washington political establishment behind him, plus House and Senate leadership.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said repeatedly that he hopes to schedule a vote in the House as soon as possible.

Although many House and Senate Republicans are lukewarm at best to the voting rights bill, many dislike the idea of statehood even more.

Retrocession into Maryland lacks the support of politicians from either the state or the city. Several Members have introduced bills for full or partial retrocession; none has moved very far.

Still, statehood advocates are loath to compromise what they consider a civil rights issue.

The 600,000 people who live in Washington, D.C., have no voting Representative in Congress, despite the fact that they all pay taxes and Congress can veto any of its laws.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is all they’ve got — and although she sits and votes in committees, she can never vote on the House floor.

The voting rights bill would change that, allowing her the floor vote. But last week, statehood advocates called the bill “a step sideways,” “an egregious error” and “a tactic by the local establishment.”

Some argued that even if the bill is signed into law, the Supreme Court could strike it down as unconstitutional, potentially embarrassing Congress and killing the voting rights movement.

Others worried that if it did pass constitutional muster and becomes law, the rest of the country would consider the problem solved, depriving the city of the momentum needed to get representation in the Senate.

Shadow Sen. Michael Brown wondered how the city’s catchy motto, “Taxation Without Representation,” would energize Americans if the District got a full-fledged Representative.

“Will it say ‘Taxation With Less Than Adequate Representation’?” said Brown, who acts as the city’s elected, though unpaid and unrecognized, ambassador to the Senate. “It just doesn’t roll off the tongue.”

City Councilmembers Harry Thomas (D) and Michael Brown (D), meanwhile, pledged to push statehood to a council that has publicly supported the D.C. voting rights bill and handed DC Vote a $500,000 grant.

“I believe the only message we should be fighting for is statehood,” Thomas said. “We’re like a ship in the ocean that is losing its way.”

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