Not Everyone Loves the New Columbia Statehood Commission
Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown fears legislation packaged as an effort to streamline the statehood movement will effectively turn the District of Columbia’s two shadow senators and shadow representative into “employees” of the D.C. government, instead of elected officials.
For the past eight years, Brown has effectively served as a pro bono statehood lobbyist with no voting power in Congress. In that time, he believes the debate has shifted from whether the District becomes the 51st state to when. Brown is proud of the progress a New Columbia statehood bill with a record number of sponsors has made in Congress, and warns “interfering with the movement is not going to help it.”
Leaders in the executive and legislative branches of the District government say they are trying to bring coherence and new resources to the unpaid statehood delegation. The trio currently works out of a small office in the basement of the John A. Wilson building, with no salary, and no formal coordination with Mayor Vincent Gray or the 13 members of the D.C. Council.
Under a bill unanimously approved by the D.C. Council on Oct. 28, that would change.
All three members of the shadow delegation would sit on the New Columbia State Commission, a five-person panel that also includes the mayor and chairman of the council. Together, the independent agency would advocate for the cause, solicit donations and develop an annual budget for those activities. The measure also establishes a New Columbia Statehood Fund to collect any public or private contributions to the cause, including annual income tax check-offs that used to be doled out to the city’s shadow delegation.
Brown fears his office will be “nickeled and dimed” when Gray signs the new bill into law, as the mayor says he likely will do.
Appropriations for the fund would be part of the city’s annual budget process, controlled by the mayor and the D.C. Council. For fiscal 2015, the city has earmarked $225,800 for statehood initiatives. Under the legislation, the District would hire an executive director for a newly created Office of State Delegation, then kick the rest back to the statehood fund.
“It’s offensive,” Brown said in an interview. He estimates the director would get $100,000 and the remaining funds would be split between the three offices. “That’s $40,000 for something they say is a priority,” he said. ”Education is a priority — they give it $800 million.”
Brown estimated he spends $50,000 a year from his own personal funds on statehood, in addition to the donations from the taxpayers. He used those resources to found the national nonprofit, Teach Democracy DC, which helps social studies teachers integrate lessons about the District’s disenfranchised status into civics classes. He also hosts the hour-long radio show “Shadow Politics.”
“These guys are suggesting that they put less into the movement then I put in from my own pocket,” Brown said.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson predicts the New Columbia Statehood Commission will bring more consistent funding than the unreliable income tax check-off. “If there’s an issue of resources, it’ll be easier to get the resources to pursue an initiative,” he said in an interview.
During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, pro-statehood billboards popped up in Charlotte, N.C., paid for by Brown and then-shadow Rep. Michael Panetta. Mendelson called it “a noble effort,” but said the statehood delegation had limited resources to garner attention from national party leaders, and it wasn’t connected to anything city officials were doing. He envisions the delegation could more closely coordinate for 2016 — if they decide that’s an effective approach.
“Or we may think there’s some other strategy, like actually going to each state or state capital,” Mendelson said. He did not offer specifics on what the office would do on Capitol Hill, but suggested a plan would emerge.
Brown stressed that future activities of the statehood delegation would be truncated under the new structure.
An amendment added to the bill before final passage makes the bill more palatable to the shadow senator. It mandates a report be issued within 60 days of enactment on whether the statehood delegation should be paid, and, if so, how much.
Both Brown and shadow Sen. Paul Strauss have pushed for a paycheck — but the District has not moved in that direction. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser wants to hire a congressional lobbying team to act on all D.C. issues. She voted with the D.C. Council to pass the legislation. During a post-election news conference on Wednesday, she stressed the importance of a ”consistent strategy.”
The current mayor said the commission “is a way of mobilizing people. . . . If you had to pay for statehood efforts out of that office, you could never generate enough resources to be able to do that.” Gray thinks one of the biggest challenges is dealing with “too many people who are apathetic [and] lethargic.” He predicted the commission would be principally focused on raising support and awareness at the national level.
“We’ve never had a strategic plan,” he said.
Brown likes to point out that he received 206,911 votes in his 2012 bid for a second term. With that level of support from D.C. residents, he is offended the shadow delegation would be “doled out pennies” and treated “like you’re children.” Brown, who was vying for an at-large D.C. Council seat Tuesday, fell short in that bid, coming in third behind Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman with 24, 234 votes, or 8 percent.