Delegates to Begin Writing Constitution for District

By Paul W. Valentine
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 1982

From The Washington Post archives, February 28, 1982

The D.C. constitutional convention completed its organizing phase yesterday in a final round of bickering over committee memberships and will begin the formal task of writing a constitution Monday in the city's bid for statehood.

The carefully juggled set of committee assignments and chairmanships for the 45 delegates was nearly dislodged when three delegates switched committees after the heads of two of the committees had already been selected.

Some angry delegates demanded new committee-by-committee elections, threatening to prolong the already delayed convention. But the move was beaten back in a series of procedural votes, and the original committee chairmanships were kept intact.

The result: A scant majority of the 10 committees charged with writing various portions of the constitution are headed by delegates in a faction loyal to convention president Charles I. Cassell, an architect who is a longtime D.C. Statehood Party figure. A smaller number are independent or supporters of City Council member Hilda H. Mason, also a Statehood Party figure, who as the nominal leader of the convention's second major faction had competed unsuccessfully with Cassell for the presidency.

The committee chairmen include several present and past city officeholders, including school board member Barbara Lett Simmons, head of the committee that will write the executive functions in the new constitution; City Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr., head of the preamble and rights committee, and former school board and council member James Coates, head of the finance and taxation committee.

The delegates, elected by city voters last November, have now chosen their officers, organized committees and adopted rules to govern the 90-day convention. They have allocated a $150,000 budget, selected permanent headquarters and brought in staff and office equipment. They will soon start forming witness lists and scheduling committee hearings.

Under present law, the writing of the constitution must be completed by the end of May. It must then be approved by city voters, Congress and the president before statehood can be implemented.

Beneath the usually friendly buzz of activity at convention headquarters on the ninth floor of the old Pepco building at 10th and E streets NW, factionalism continues to shape the assembly, with some delegates concerned that the same Cassell-Mason division that split the convention during its organizing phase will continue in the drafting of the constitution.

The Cassell faction is almost exclusively black. It pushed for a strong, centrally organized convention with maximum authority vested in the president and executive committee. It grew in part out of an informal "black caucus," which, according to observers including some black delegates, feared an attempt by the white minority to take over the convention. Twenty-eight of the 45 delegates are black. Seventeen are white.

The Mason faction is primarily white (both Cassell and Mason are black) and pushed for a greater sharing of power and responsibility between the officers and the committees of the convention. Its members, including a counterpart "white caucus," range from conservative Republicans to socialists, while the Cassell faction tends to be more politically centrist.

During debate over convention rules, for example, the Cassell faction pushed through a provision that the convention president can be overturned on a procedural ruling only by a two-thirds majority of the delegates, rather than a simple majority, as urged by the Mason group.

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