New Hampshire gives D.C. the cold shoulder on statehood push

January 27, 2012

— It was supposed to be a field trip to kick-start the District’s latest push for statehood, the first stop of a nationwide tour to seek out legislators sympathetic to the cause.

But Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and much of the city’s elected leadership didn’t last long in Concord.

Before dawn on Friday, Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, four other council members and voting-rights advocates boarded a commercial flight from BWI airport to the Granite State to testify before a state legislative committee considering a nonbinding resolution in support of D.C. statehood.

In a state where the right to start a revolution is constitutionally protected, District officials had high hopes that independent-minded New Hampshire officials would sympathize with their pleas of “no taxation without representation.” But as the meeting got underway, it became clear that the Committee on State, Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs was not going to be a friend of the District’s on statehood.

Seconds after the meeting was called to order, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Alfred Baldasaro (R) pulled a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and recited Article 1, Section 8, which establishes the District as the “seat of the government.”

“This is a constitutional issue,” said Baldasaro, one of the most conservative members of the state’s legislature. “New Hampshire is very big on the Constitution.”

Joined by DC Vote advocates and several District residents, including the three Occupy D.C. protesters who went on a recent hunger strike, Gray and council members pressed on and delivered a series of passionate speeches about the plight of the District.

“D.C. is home to thousands of Americans who want the same rights as people living a few miles away in Maryland and Virginia,” Gray said. “We have come to the conclusion we want to enjoy the same rights as people in New Hampshire and 49 other states.”

But District officials were a long way from home — literally and politically. After big wins in the 2010 elections, Republicans now hold a 290 to 93 seat majority in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

One by one, Republican committee members challenged Gray and the council members to justify why the District should be a state, including quizzing them about the city’s gun laws, school vouchers and whether the city would abide by “live free or die” if it became the 51st state.

The most intense exchange occurred when Baldasaro, a former Marine, repeatedly said he never took his children to the District because it was “too dangerous.”

“There is no crime here?” Johnnie Scott Rice, a District resident who chairs the National Congress of Black Women, asked Baldasaro when she testified. “There is no crime in Maryland or no crime up on that ‘Hill’ we take care of? We have a right to be treated fairly.”

Tired of putting all their hopes in Congress, District officials have decided to reach out to counterparts across the country to foster support. The first stop was New Hampshire because Rep. Cindy Rosenwald (D) introduced the resolution expressing “support for admitting the District of Columbia as the fifty-first state of the United States.” The trip cost the District about $4,000.

Friday’s hearing showed how much work District officials will have to do as they try to press their case around the country.

Gray and the council members had to correct some New Hampshire legislators’ misconceptions about the District: that it doesn’t raise its own revenue; that it is still only 10 square miles; and that D.C. residents have voting representation in the U.S. Senate.

“The notion the District is subsidized by the federal government is an urban myth,” Council member David A. Catania (I-At large) told the committee. Catania, who helped organize the trip, then explained that city taxpayers “subsidize the federal government” by helping out with security in the nation’s capital and helping to underwrite the Metro system, which transports many federal workers.

“How would you like it if Montpelier [Vermont] was in charge of you?” Catania asked. “We pull our weight, and we play by the rules.”

After two hours of testimony, Gray, Brown, Catania and council members Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) all appeared as if they had had enough, organizing a last-minute shuttle ride back to the airport ahead of schedule. They left in a rush — didn’t even get a chance to personally deliver the glass paper weights and ceremonial resolutions they had brought as gifts for some legislators.

A few hours later, the New Hampshire committee rejected the resolution advocating D.C. statehood, citing concerns about whether it was unconstitutional.

Still, District officials vow they will press on, including a planned trip by council member Michael Brown to Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, in the coming weeks.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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