The D.C. Statehood Party, a homegrown political entity and the party of the late Julius Hobson, has become a forgotten victim of the Democratic dominance of post-home rule politics and a victim, as well, of the popular push for full District voting representation in Congress.
From its barely noticed beginnings in 1969, the party developed into a small but significant political force in the pre-home rule politics of the D.C. school board. Five Statehood Party members -- Hobson, his son Julius Jr., Hilda Mason, Charles I. Cassell and Bardyl Tirana -- held seats on the school board at one time or another within the party's first five years of existence.
The elder Hobson, campaigning on a bare-bones budget and his reputation as a longtime, outspoken and folksy community activist, was convincingly elected as an at-large member of the City Council in 1974. After his death in 1977, Mason succeeded Hobson and twoce won election in her own right.
Now, however, Mason is the only Statehooder in office. The party can claim less than 1 percent of the city's registered voters. Aside from Mason, none of its legitimate candidates -- as opposed to those who have used the Statehood Party label as a way to get on the ballot with only a handful of signatures -- has been a significant force in any recent election.
Statehood Party Chairman Josephine Butler acknowledges that part of the problem is that the party has exhausted its "cream-of-the-crop" candidates -- those highly visible citizen-activists with bona fide vote-getting reputations.
Moreover, she said, "We had concentrated on the educational system in the District of Columbia." Since the advent of home rule, the mayor's office and the City Council have become the real political ballgames in town.
But, points out Statehood Party Central Committee member Anton Wood, some of the most heated contests in District politics -- such as the race for mayor -- and even the choice of major nominees for president of the United States are decided in Democratic primaries. Registered Statehood Party members cannot vote in those primaries.
Since the beginning of the party, its goal, making the District the 51st state, has been in conflict with the concept of limited home rule that the District was grante in 1973. With most politicians in the city now solidly behind two extensions of that home rule -- full congressional voting rights and city budget autonomy by 1982 -- some Statehood Party members with ties to mainstream city politics are in a quandry.
Mason, for one, said she has a hard time as an activist staying out of the full voting rights fight. On the one hand, Mason said, she favors greater self-determination for the city and does not want to sandbag the full voting rights effort. On the other hand, she said, full voting representation is nt statehood. And Hilda Mason is for statehood.
So she is consoling herself for the time being with the thought that whatever happens to the full voting rights amendment, city residents will eventually see the greater merits of statehood and maybe even flock to a Statehood Party waiting with open arms.
Butler said that, even within the party, full voting has confused the statehood issue. Party member Wood said that confusion has been heightened by the push for budget autonomy as well, because one of the original reasons for advocating statehood was to gain more control over the city's budgetary process.
"If we were given budget autonomy and congressional representation," Wood said, "I guess you could almost say you'd have statehood by default."
Finding new issues with which people will identify the party is key to its survival, several members said. Last week in a convention at All Souls Unitarian Church, the party took some tentative steps in that direction and adopted a party-building program.
Butler is optimistic and ambitious about the party's future. She thinks it can grow to rival the Republican Party in size (about 22,000 registered voters as compared to Statehood's 1,500).
Wood said he thinks the party will survive more on ideas and political realities than numbers alone. "It will probably be what it is -- an alternative to one-party rule in the District," he said. "Just like the Democrats, it's not really a party, but a collection of people who can get someone elected to a certain spot."
"But," he said, "there are not going to be very many definable differences between the Democrats and us."