Dozens of activists recently visited the U.S. Congress in support of legislation that promotes statehood for Washington, D.C.
Stand Up! for Democracy Executive Director Anise Jenkins; Karen A. Szulgit, chief of staff for D.C. Statehood; Sen. Michael Brown (D) and activist Evanna Powell were the statehood movement leaders who visited the Senate on June 12 on behalf of the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act (Senate Bill 1278). Jenkins told the AFRO that advocacy on Capitol Hill is crucial to the District becoming the 51st state.
“District residents pay the highest federal taxes per person and we serve in our country’s wars, but we have no vote on a declaration of war and D.C. has no voting representation in the U.S. Congress,” Jenkins told the AFRO. “D.C. residents must have their local budget reviewed by Congress and its local laws approved by Congress, also. If we were a state, we would not have to go through that.”
District residents overwhelmingly supported statehood in a public vote on Nov. 8, 2016.
The Senate bill has 18 sponsors and would need 51 votes to pass. The House bill has 123 co-sponsors and needs 215 votes to go through its chamber. The House bill is H.R. 1291.
The successful June 11 vote in Puerto Rico for its statehood buoyed the spirits of the lobbyists.
“If Puerto Rico can move forward on statehood, so can D.C.,” Szulgit told the AFRO.
Congress has authority over the District according to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution; thereby it has the power to grant statehood. In 1978, there was an effort to admit the District as a state by constitutional amendment. While 22 states ratified the measure, it fell short of the 38 needed for passage by 1985.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) authored a statehood bill that reached the House floor in November 1993 but the bill did not garner enough support to pass, failing by a vote of 277-153. Since then, D.C. statehood bills have been introduced but have gone nowhere.
In September 2014, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing on D.C. statehood but the momentum for the bill stopped when the Republicans took over that body in January 2015. That was one of the reasons why Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was the first stop of the Jenkins party.
The lobbyists met with staffers instead of senators, which is customary. “We want to make the case for statehood to Rubio, even though he did try to influence our gun laws without consulting city residents earlier this year,” Jenkins said.
The Rubio staffer listened as Jenkins explained why the senator should support statehood, emphasizing that local governments should have full autonomy and not have to worry about federal interference — a GOP pet peeve.
Jenkins also noted that the District and Puerto Rico can be admitted as states because in the past, states with differing political stances were brought into the union together, noting slave and free states during the pre-Civil War Era and Alaska and Hawaii, Republican and Democratic states respectively, in the 1950s.
“D.C. could come in as a Democratic state while Puerto Rico could be Republican,” Szulgit said in a statement.
According to the staffer, Rubio hasn’t taken a position on the statehood bill and “promised to bring it to the attention of the senator.”
The lobbyists then visited the office of Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.). According to the Murphy staffer, statehood hasn’t been brought to the attention of senator and he would be happy to do that. The Murphy staffer advised the lobbyists to try to mobilize Connecticut residents to support statehood and that would get his boss’s attention.
The activists also dropped off literature at the offices of Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Picking up on the advice of the Murphy staffer, Powell told Tillis staffers of her North Carolina connections. “I have family that lives in Halifax, Greensboro, and Elizabeth City,” she said. “I have encouraged my family members in North Carolina to contact your boss and Sen. Richard Burr to support D.C. statehood.”
The lobbyists visited the office of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only Black Republican, in his chamber. Scott’s staffer said the senator hasn’t taken a position on the statehood legislation but expressed caution that the District would bring in two Democrats to his body and that would be uncomfortable for him.
A meeting with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) took place late in the afternoon. Harris hasn’t publicly taken a position on the bill but the lobbyists are confident that they can win her support given that she is a Howard University graduate and is a progressive, according to Jenkins.