Leaders and activists of the District of Columbia statehood movement met recently to discuss strategy in the wake of the 2014 mid-term elections.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is a passionate advocate for District statehood.
The DC Statehood Coalition convened a summit to address how the movement will continue advancing the cause of full political rights for District residents with a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in January 2015. Jerry Clark, the chairman of the coalition, clarified the goal of the summit and the movement.
“This movement is about statehood and statehood only,” Clark said to the 30 people who attended the event. “Some people may want to do other things, but we are only interested in statehood.”
Clark was speaking about the various factions in the statehood movement. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who served as keynote speaker at the summit, said she wants statehood, but she also said she believes that incrementalism, achieving statehood in phases, is the right strategy. Clark said he wants the District to be recognized as a full member of the union .
Nelson Rimensnyder, a District Republican, thinks that the city should pursue being a territory before achieving statehood while a small number of residents think that the District should be retroceded or be taken back into the state of Maryland.
Since its formal organizing in 1801 by Congress, the District hasn’t had voting representation in that legislative body even though residents pay federal taxes and can be drafted to fight in the country’s wars. Presently, District residents can vote in presidential elections and can elect a non-voting delegate to the House, mayor, attorney general, members of the D.C. Council and the D.C. State Board of Education and advisory neighborhood commissioners.
However, Congress has to authorize the District’s budget even though it is largely comprised of city-generated money. Congress must also affirm any legislation that the council passes. The Senate, specifically, must approve D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Appeals Court judges.
The District is the only state-level jurisdiction that must be congressionally regulated on such local affairs.
Norton was joined by fellow politicians D.C. Council member-elects Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1); D.C. Statehood Rep. Nathan Bennett-Fleming (D); D.C. Statehood Rep-elect Franklin Garcia (D) and Statehood Sens. Paul Strauss (D) and Michael Brown (D). Norton said that the activists should not be deterred by the 2014 mid-term election results.
“I am not completely undaunted by the loss of the Senate,” Norton said. “A lot of those Democratic senators who lost were in red states and they may not have been with us anyway. Even though we had a hearing on statehood in the Senate in September, and that is unprecedented, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Norton said that the statehood movement needs to be more proactive by expanding its reach by using traditional and new means of communication. “We need to have leaflets, literature and events to tell people about statehood but we also need to utilize Facebook, Twitter and Instagram better,” she said.
The delegate also said that statehood must have meaning in the everyday lives of District residents. She said, “Statehood must be seen as a movement not an abstraction.”
Josh Burch, a leader in the Neighbors United for DC Statehood, said that when statehood activists lobby on Capitol Hill it must be clear to the legislators that the movement is non-partisan. “We should pursue our movement based on our rights and fairness and make it clear that this is not a political, partisan effort,” he said. “We must not focus our energies on one party.”
Statehood bills introduced by Norton and U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) have gained hundreds of co-sponsors but all of them are Democratic representatives or senators. Johnny Barnes, a former Capitol Hill staffer and a civil rights attorney, said that there should be strategies that deal with Republicans.
“We need to look at targeting a weak House Republican and going into their district and telling their residents about D.C. residents and statehood,” Barnes said. “Plus, we can look at a Republican senator, such as Orrin Hatch of Utah, to modify Carper’s statehood bill that would mandate that the District’s two U.S. Senators cannot be from the same party. We have to be strategic in thinking about that.”
Clark said that statehood activists must be ready for a long, protracted fight. He said that the coalition will hold another summit within three months to plan the next step. “This is not going to get done fast,” he said. “This type of movement builds over time.”