D.C. sets sights on statehood with voting bill floundering

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

With a seven-year effort to win a House of Representatives vote for the District now foundering, officials and activists are starting to wonder how to proceed with the city's decades-long fight for congressional representation.

The answer that's emerging, in candidate forums this campaign season and in the city budget, is an old one: statehood.

"There's an enormous amount of frustration," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said. "People wanted voting rights. That obviously didn't happen. . . . I think there's a view on the part of myself and a lot of other people: Why don't we just wage the fight for statehood?"

The frustration is rooted in the plan, engineered in 2003 by then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), to pair a House vote for the District with an additional seat for Utah, whose leaders felt slighted by the 2000 Census apportionment. But in the past 18 months, what seemed like a sure path to success was obstructed by amendments that would severely restrict the city's gun laws.

In April, congressional leaders scuttled a scheduled House vote after local leaders had reacted angrily to the possibility that city gun laws might be weakened, and some Senate Democrats threatened to oppose any bill with a gun provision. In the aftermath, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated that, without the gun language, chances are slim the measure will move before fall's midterm elections. That is widely regarded as a deadline for the Utah deal, because the elections are projected to reduce the Democratic majorities and a new census is likely to ease Utah's representation concerns.

Gray and others explain their frustration as rooted in political reality: The Democratic Party has majority control of Congress, plus a Democratic president in Obama. But still the voting-rights compromise has failed.

"If we can't get it now, then when?" asked Gray, who is running for mayor. "Why don't we just go for the whole enchilada?"

"There's a greater understanding that it's not any more difficult to get statehood than it is to get a single House vote," said Michael D. Brown (D), one of two shadow senators elected by District voters to advocate for statehood.

And that new understanding has been accompanied by second-guessing. "Statehood is the big fish, and I think we should have put more effort in that originally," said member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who heads up the council's voting-rights advocacy efforts. "We would have made much more headway if we have just focused on that."

The failure of the one-vote compromise has also emboldened longtime statehood activists who have been overshadowed by the voting-rights establishment.

"It's an I-told-you-so moment," activist Anise Jenkins said. "A lot of people put a lot of energy and money into this effort, and it was a total misdirected waste of time."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she doesn't blame officials for feeling frustrated. "They want what we're entitled to," she said. "But anyone who has followed what it has taken just to get a House vote understands" what a remarkably difficult thing statehood would be to accomplish.

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