President Obama is a quiet supporter of District statehood. (AFRO File Photo)
In his recent State of the Union (SOTU) address delivered to both chambers of the United States Congress before an international audience, President Obama didn’t mention his support of District statehood and that disappointed statehood activists and District residents.
On Jan. 20, Obama talked in a 70-minute address about the importance of providing economic relief for the country’s struggling middle class and his administration’s fight against terrorism and for democracy around the globe. However, activists for D.C. statehood noted somberly that the president failed to mention their own fight for democracy-the lack of voting rights in the national legislature despite paying federal taxes.
“I am extremely disappointed in the president,” Eugene Puryear, a leader in the DC Ferguson movement, said. “He came into office in 2009 stressing that he would be an active D.C. resident. We had hoped that he would not be like most politicians and pay lip service to D.C. becoming the 51 state.”
Politically, District residents have been strongly supportive of the president. On Feb. 12, 2008, Obama, then a presidential candidate, won the District’s presidential preference primary, 75 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 23 percent.
Obama, then the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, won the District’s three electoral vote in the Nov. 4, 2008 general election with 92.46 percent of the vote.
In his bid for re-election in the general election on Nov. 6, 2012, Obama took 90.91 percent of the vote. This contrasts with President Bill Clinton’s re-election numbers in the city in 1996 with 85 percent supporting.
Obama has visited a number of District landmarks such as Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street and volunteered with community projects around the city. He treats D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) as a senator in matters such as selection of federal and District judges.
On July 21, 2014, before a District audience at the Walker Jones Education Campus, he stated his support for statehood.
“I’m for it,” he said at the meeting.
However, statehood activists note that it was not until recently that he put the “Taxation without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine and in 2011; he negotiated a budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), without consulting city leaders, which included a ban on publicly-funded abortions in the District. Norton, a strong Obama supporter, has expressed wariness on the president’s part to mention the District’s plight in his SOTU addresses.
“The president has neglected once again to find three or four words to say about the disempowerment of the District of Columbia,” Norton said after his 2014 address.
Anise Jenkins is a veteran activist for statehood and a leader in the Stand Up for Democracy! organization. Jenkins was among a number of statehood activists who watched Obama deliver his speech at the Busboys and Poets restaurant on 14th Street.
Jenkins said that the president needs to embrace statehood as one of his causes.
“He needs to step up to the plate,” she said. “He has the power to make this a national issue.”
Josh Burch, a leader in the Neighbors United for DC Statehood, launched a White House petition urging Obama to mention the District in his SOTU. However, the petition has gotten only 1,200 signatures and generally it takes about 100,000 for the White House to respond to one.
Burch wrote a letter to Obama on Jan. 4 requesting that he mention District statehood.
“Mr. President, from one person who believes in the promise of our country to another, from one dad to another, I ask you to speak out and speak up for D.C. statehood in your State of the Union,” Burch said. “Let the nation know that we in the District fulfill all obligations of citizenship yet are denied some of its most basic rights: the right to full and equal congressional representation and the right to be the final arbiters of our local affairs.”
However, some statehood supporters don’t entirely blame Obama.
“Forget Obama mentioning vote less D.C.,” tweeted longtime statehood activist Mark Plotkin Jan. 20. “ Bowser and Norton never made a request for a mention in the SOTU. And we wonder why we are ignored.”
Bowser joined Norton as her guest at the SOTU address.”
Puryear said that if Obama would have mentioned the District’s political plight, even briefly, that would have enormous benefits for the statehood movement.
“That would give the statehood a public relations push forward,” he said. “We could have contacted our friends and family around the country to alert them about D.C. statehood. We would seize the opportunity.”
Jenkins said the next step is to get more District residents involved in the fight for statehood.
“We need to educate and energize our residents,” she said. “D.C. residents are the ones who are directly affected. We need to get out in the streets and be loud about this.”