Democracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Politics

D.C. Statehood: Should activists go bipartisan, or try a Democratic power grab?

August 6, 2018 at 4:59 PM

Progressive Democrats outside the District of Columbia have become the newest foot soldiers in the city’s fight for statehood, excited by the notion that if the District became the 51st state, it would mean additional Democratic votes in Congress.

Dan Pfeiffer, ex-aide to former president Barack Obama, is promoting statehood on his “Pod Save America” podcast as a top priority if Democrats take back Congress and defeat President Trump in 2020.

Others agree statehood could help cement power if Democrats regain control of the federal government.

“There are countless examples now of Republicans trying to erode norms to benefit and maximize chances of them trying to maintain power,” said Matt McDermott, a New York-based Democratic pollster who has promoted D.C. statehood to his 71,000 Twitter followers. “Republicans are being obvious in their partisanship. It’s about time Democrats be obvious in theirs.”

But local elected officials and activists are loath to frame statehood as a partisan issue.

“There is nothing that I think disturbs me more than people presuming what our would-be senators would do,” said Beverly Perry, a top adviser to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) who oversees the administration’s bipartisan strategy for statehood, in an interview last week. “That’s unfair to our residents to assume that our would-be senators would be on any side of the aisle or would take any particular position.”

Bowser jump-started statehood efforts after taking office in 2015, spearheading a plan to form what local officials call “the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” with the approval of Congress and the president. Those hopes were dashed in 2016 when statehood supporter Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election and Republicans maintained control of the House and Senate.

Related: [In D.C., disappointment over Obama’s silence on statehood]

Now Bowser has launched a new, nearly $1 million campaign to build statehood support in 10 states that have bipartisan congressional delegations and represent different regions of the country. The targets include Washington state, Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana and Illinois.

The city awarded a $136,000 contract to the digital marketing firm Hales Government Solutions to develop a branding strategy and purchased 1 million email addresses to which it has been sending pro-statehood messages in the target states. The first of several pro-statehood kiosks will open this fall in the Union Station food court, encouraging tourists and visitors to learn about the issue and urge their members of Congress to support statehood.

The Bowser administration has also hired Rachel Williams, a digital marketer who previously worked at Google, for a $90,000-a-year job managing the statehood campaign.

The new “statehood war room” for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s campaign, which is focused on building support for statehood among residents in 10 states, is seen on Aug. 1. Local officials are rejecting calls from national progressive activists to embrace statehood as a partisan issue to cement Democratic power. (Fenit Nirappil/The Washington Post)

“We are looking to do some digital marketing, social media ads, email campaigns and to really leverage digital and mobile platforms,” said Williams in a phone interview from Los Angeles last week, where she was pitching statehood at the National Conference of State Legislatures convention. “We can engage new audiences and younger audiences,” she said.

Related: [D.C. ditches ‘New Columbia’ statehood name for Douglass Commonwealth]

Williams works out of a small, windowless room in the District government building, called the “statehood war room,” where pro-51st signs hang on the walls and whiteboards are filled with “target actions,” such as visits to upcoming conferences and developing a mobile app.

Cementing Democratic power is nowhere on the agenda.

“We really don’t see anything we are trying to do as unfair or biased in any way,” Williams said.

Republican opponents of statehood have long been wary because it could increase the number of Democrats in Congress. The District nearly received a full vote in the House as part of a 2009 deal that would have also added a House seat in ruby-red Utah to maintain the balance between Democrats and Republicans. But that effort failed over a gun rights dispute.

“We are focused on gaining bipartisan support, and that’s something we haven’t been focused on in the past,” Williams said.

She groaned when asked about activists outside the District urging statehood as an issue of Democratic power.

“The Washington, D.C., area is very well known. It’s mostly a blue constituency,” she said. “We are open and want to work with all groups whether they are Democrats or Republicans. We see this as an issue of equality and . . . the mayor doesn’t think it’s a partisan issue.”

Support for statehood among Democrats is not uniform. Statehood bills in Congress have the backing of 28 senators in the Democratic caucus and 85 percent of House Democrats — record highs but short of unity.

Bo Shuff, executive director of the statehood advocacy group D.C. Vote, said activists should focus on strengthening support among Democrats.

“We thought it was important to build support among the base and solidify that support before expanding across the aisle,” Shuff said in a phone interview last week from the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans, where he made sure attendees received “51st State” buttons in their welcome bags.

Shuff, who managed Bowser’s 2014 campaign, didn’t fault the mayor for taking a different tack. “If you are washing a car, eventually the entire car is going to be clean,” Shuff said. “But some people start on the roof, and some people start on the hood.”

Other statehood activists say partisan rhetoric can undermine the cause.

“I get the political opportunism by Democrats,” said Josh Burch, founder of the grass-roots Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood. “But at the same time, this is something fundamentally deeper than which party we belong to: whether we deserve the same rights, no matter what initial is by our names, when we go to vote.”


Fenit Nirappil covers D.C. government and politics. Before he joined The Washington Post in 2015, he covered the California statehouse for the Associated Press and suburban government outside Portland, Ore., for the Oregonian.

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