A Constitution is Approved for 'New Columbia'

By Paul W. Valentine
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 30, 1982

From The Washington Post archives, May 30, 1982

The D.C. statehood convention, after three months of often stormy debate, gave final and overwhelming approval yesterday to an 18,000-word constitution as the foundation for the District of Columbia's uphill bid to become the state of "New Columbia."

Setting aside the feuds and disagreements that had racked much of the convention, the delegates broke into cheers and hugged one another when convention secretary William Cooper announced the vote around 3 p.m.: 37 for, two against and four abstentions.

The mammoth document, longer than the constitutions of many existing states, would establish most of what is now the District of Columbia as the 51st state. The state would have a governor and a lieutenant governor, a 40-member unicameral legislature called the House of Delegates, a two-tiered court system, full budget and taxing authority, new election procedures and the power to create semi-autonomous neighborhoods within the city-state.

The document also contains a sweeping bill of rights and tax and labor provisions that alarmed some delegates who opposed passage of a document with unorthodox components that might lead to rejection on Capitol Hill.

The constitution, for example, gives government workers, including police and firefighters, the right to strike and guarantees the right to a state-supported job or income for all residents. It prohibits retail taxes on groceries, drugs and other medicines, expands the rights of criminal suspects, and abolishes congressionallybestowed property tax exemptions for organizations such as the National Geographic Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

With the convention now over, the battle begins to gain approval of the constitution, first among city voters and then in Congress. It is likely to renew debate over fundamental concepts of self-determination for the city--concepts that have largely lain dormant since the District of Columbia obtained limited home rule in 1975 and, more recently, since the drive for full voting rights in Congress lost momentum.

Under a bill currently before the D.C. City Council, the constitution adopted yesterday would go on the ballot in the Nov. 2 general election. If approved there, it would then be sent to Congress for consideration. Upon approval by a simple majority of both the House and Senate, statehood could be implemented.

Several key members of Congress, however, have said there is little sentiment on Capitol Hill for statehood, and the constitution--especially with its unorthodox bill of rights and other provisions--may face a hostile reception.

Most convention delegates ignored urgings by some colleagues to keep the document simple and "unpolitical." Speaker after speaker yesterday at convention headquarters in the old Pepco building at 10th and E streets NW praised the new constitution as the embodiment of their aspirations and of those of the voters who elected the 45 delegates last year to write the document.

Ward 4 delegate Victoria Street called it a "bold document."

"It takes courage to dare to be different," said at-large delegate Barbara Lett Simmons.

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