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Push for D.C. Statehood Continues, Despite Odds

District leaders strategize on outreach to rest of country

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., seen in this May 2016 photo, are both planning to push again this fall for the D.C. statehood cause. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., seen in this May 2016 photo, are both planning to push again this fall for the D.C. statehood cause. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Since Election Day 2016, when 86 percent of D.C. voters said they wanted the District of Columbia to become a state, the city’s statehood movement advocates have been strategizing on a path forward.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, who affirmed her support for statehood since assuming office in 2015, has a plan this fall she hopes will bring the issue to the attention of Congress and Americans outside the nation’s capital city.

One plan is called the Surrogate Senator campaign, where Bowser will bring D.C. residents’ issues to U.S. senators in an effort to help those residents feel that their voices are being heard in the Capitol. Bowser’s aide, Nik Nartowicz, didn’t say which senators might be utilized, but he did say they’re hoping to plan a town hall event for residents to get in front of voting representatives. The event is not yet scheduled.

Bowser is also launching what she’s calling a Friends and Family campaign, which will ask part-time D.C. residents who vote in other districts to enlist their relatives and networks in other states to talk to their representatives about the D.C. statehood issue.

“I am excited to get these efforts underway in the coming weeks,” Bowser said in a statement to Roll Call.

Bowser’s office is also rolling out a 10-state campaign in hopes of convincing the rest of the country to support full citizenship rights for District residents.

Members of state legislatures in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois and Washington will be asked to rally around the issue.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has been a leader in the D.C. statehood effort for decades — she’s known for asking to be referred around the Capitol as representative, despite her non-voting status.

“When Congress resumes next week, I plan to build on our record-breaking success here in the House for our bill to make D.C. the 51st state, which now has 136 co-sponsors,” Norton wrote in a statement to Roll Call. She acknowledged the efforts long odds, but said that would certainly improve if Democrats win the House majority in 2018.

“The fight has been a 215-year struggle to be treated like other jurisdictions,” Norton said when discussing the matter on the floor in May. “Without statehood, members will continue to bring our matters to the House floor for unaccountable members to vote for them.”

The other side

Andrew Grossman, legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, argues that what Norton considers a struggle is actually a historical consensus about how the District is meant to be governed.

“The framers envisaged the District as a ‘federal town,’ not a state, and altering that original design requires a constitutional amendment,” Grossman wrote in a recent post on Heritage’s website.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, offers another solution to District residents’ desire for voting rights — joining a nearby state. He calls the current model a “glaring denial of basic rights to D.C. residents,” but suggests that full statehood would create problems for the federal city.

“Maintaining its unique features — the National Mall, the Capitol Building and the Higher Courts — while giving over control of residential components to Maryland is what I mean by modified retrocession. It takes care of the voting-rights challenge for residents and constitutionally keeps the federal city intact,” Turley said.

Turley agrees that an amendment to the Constitution is necessary if statehood is to move forward. 

Each Congress, Norton and other statehood advocates have added more and more House and Senate co-sponsors for the statehood bill than in prior years. However, Norton’s office struggles to identify Republican co-sponsors who agree with the current version of the bill by finding grounds for buy-in.

In March, when Norton introduced the new iteration of her pro-statehood bill, she discussed her efforts:

“Why are we pursuing statehood?” she asked her fellow House members. “It is not out of hubris. It is not that we want to be like Delaware and New York. It is because it is the only way to become full and equal citizens of the United States, and because we have tried everything else.”

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