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D.C. Statehood Activists Looking Toward GOP Congress

Activists say local controversies, such as the case against Gray, can't thwart cause. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Activists say local controversies, such as the case against Gray, can't thwart cause. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If anyone understands what a “grungy game” politics can be, it’s Capitol Hill staffers.  

That’s what Johnny Barnes, an attorney who spent 25 years working for members of the House, theorized when the front page of The Washington Post reported that federal prosecutors might be moving closer to indicting Mayor Vincent Gray. Barnes huddled on Nov. 18 with about a dozen D.C. residents in the lobby of the Hart Senate Office Building, preparing to pitch staffers on why the District deserves to be the 51st state.  

“These folks,” Barnes said, “are less sensitive or less focused on that kind of thing, because they know what politics is about.” He chuckled during the interview, recalling his interactions with the late Ohio Democrat James Traficant, who was booted from the House for corruption. “It’s a grungy game, and they know that.” Fellow activist Peter Nielsen-Jones agreed local political controversy shouldn’t thwart statehood. “I don’t think that citizens of D.C. can be held back, or held down, because of Gray or Marion Barry, or anything that anybody has seen before that’s happened in any other city.”  

The group stuck statehood pins on their lapels and rehashed testimony from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Sept. 15 hearing on the long-shot bill from panel Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., to grant D.C. statehood.  

Josh Burch, who runs Neighbors United for Statehood, said the plan was “to update folks about what happened in the hearing, but also to tell those senators that we think should be natural allies that it’s time to get on board this bill and show that we have a wide geographic base of support for the statehood legislation. We don’t think this is a partisan issue, so we want to build a national coalition of folks.”  

Elinor Hart of Mount Pleasant, who has been involved in the D.C. Statehood Coalition since 2009, was set to visit the office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and planned to relate the statehood movement to the senator’s support for Native Americans in the Flickertail State.  

“I’m going to say I know a [state] legislator …  who feels the senator should be sympathetic to our cause because it’s so much like the Indians’ struggle for first-class citizenship in North Dakota,” said Hart.  

Burch said the activists would be meeting with staffers in 19 Senate offices, for 16 Democrats and three Republicans. Democratic senators are more likely to sponsor or support the bill, but Burch said the meetings were not just to shore up their natural base of support. “It’s also who answers our emails when we request meetings,” Burch said with a laugh.  

Unfortunately, that list does not include Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who is likely to take the gavel on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, when the GOP takes control of the chamber in the next Congress. Burch told CQ Roll Call that Johnson’s office has been unresponsive. He expressed optimism that Carper would re-introduce the statehood bill next year, though there’s no official commitment.  

“We weren’t going to be a state this Congress, we’re not going to be a state next Congress,” Burch said. “It’s about being methodical and continuing to work both sides of the aisle to say this is a cause everyone should get behind.”  

As Ann Hume Loikow rode an elevator to South Carolina Republican Tim Scott’s office, she explained why supporting D.C. statehood could be smart politics for the GOP. The District is a diverse electorate, attracting “thousands of young people every month — coming into the city from all over the country — a lot of whom aren’t registered yet or may still be voting somewhere else, and who knows what their political orientation is.”  

Although about 75 percent of the District’s registered voters identify as Democrats, including Loikow, she speculates the party’s influence might be distorted because so few people are involved in local politics. “People who care about national issues first, and aren’t as concerned about local issues … [and] register to vote where they own a second home, where their parents live, where they grew up.”  

Activists agreed the next challenge for the movement would be expanding the cause beyond the core group of volunteers. The Nov. 18 lobby day included D.C. Statehood Green Party supporters. Expansion might mean reaching beyond the Democrats like President Barack Obama, whose actions on statehood leave much to be desired  for many supporters.  

“I wish there were 16,000 people here today lobbying Congress, but we don’t have that,” Burch said. “We need to get to that point. We live within a walk, bike ride, bus ride or Metro ride of the U.S. Capitol, so we have a huge lobbying advantage. We should be more active and more present and have bigger crowds when we do these lobby days. But we’re not there yet so we need to build that.”  


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