D.C. Statehood: Delegates Set

By Paul W. Valentine
The Washington Post
Saturday, December 4, 1982

From The Washington Post archives, December 4, 1982

D.C. statehood delegates, with only a week left for preparation, met yesterday in another of a series of preliminary sessions designed to smooth the way toward the city's historic constitutional convention.

After slogging through the snow to the University of the District of Columbia campus at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW, about 35 of the 45 delegates elected last Nov. 3 debated procedures for the convention and listened to constitutional experts discuss taxation, education, constitutional amendment procedures and the District's unique territorial status.

These and other thorny issues will face the delegates when they convene Saturday to begin drafting the city's first constitution--an initial step in an arduous journey toward statehood, whose outcome is uncertain.

Much of Washington's political establishment has been lukewarm toward the statehood movement. Delegates expect an uphill battle to persuade a conservative Congress to grant statehood to what amounts to a small urban enclave that is heavily black and Democratic. Furthermore, political and legal observers note that nine of the 15 attempts to write or rewrite state or territorial constitutions in the United States since 1970 have been rejected by the voters. Maryland rejected a new constitution in 1968.

For the District to attain statehood, the constitution the delegates will draft must first be approved by District voters and then by Congress. The document will probably go on the ballot in this fall's general election. If it is approved, the city can present it to Congress any time after that.

The statehood convention, lasting 90 days plus a preliminary organizing period of up to two weeks, will unfold in two different but equally dramatic ways.

First will be the creation of the constitution itself, the fundamental document of governance, which after being forged by argument and compromise, may run a few simple pages or spell out details for hundreds. It may be experimental and "progressive." It may be a model of tradition and simplicity.

Second will be the transformation of the 45 delegates from a heterogeneous, unstructured and essentially leaderless swarm into an ordered assembly with officers, committees and strict rules and procedures for resolving differences and reaching consensus.

Political scientists and lawyers who have observed constitutional conventions elsewhere warn that the opening stages are almost always chaotic.

"It has to be," says Arnold Leibowitz, a constitutional convention specialist and counsel for the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. "People are jockeying, trying to get their place in the sun." Also, he said, rules are not fully in place, delegates don't know each other well and committee chairmen haven't gained confidence or trust.

The diversity of the delegates--blacks, whites, middle-class bureaucrats, tenant organizers, poverty workers and a scattering of gays and political radicals--may also create some stumbling blocks at the beginning, several delegates acknowledged, but that is to be expected in such a gathering.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 1982 The Washington Post Company