The campaign to elect delegates to a constitutional convention aimed at making the District of Columbia a state is raising fears among some statehood proponents that the delegates could end up writing a document that city voters or Congress would reject as too liberal.
"It would be too bad to mess up the issue of statehood with a lot of other issues that the Neanderthals in Congress can jump on," said Sam Smith, publisher of the D.C. Gazette newspaper and unofficial historian of the decade-old statehood movement. "We want to give them a true-blue constitution."
"One of the dangers is that we may get very ideological on the structure of government," said Smith, a longtime liberal activist. "The issue is statehood. The issue is not abortion, not gay rights or coming up with the perfect society."
"It's a tremendously liberal group of candidates ," said D.C. council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), who is running in the Nov. 3 election for an at-large seat to the convention. "We are going to have to develop a constitution . . . capable of being approved by the Congress."
Smith and Clarke said the convention would not shy away from a strong bill of rights, but said delegates would have to face "political reality" from the voters and a conservative Congress.
Lillian J. Huff, former D.C. Democratic national committeewoman and an at-large delegate candidate, said she is less concerned about a too-liberal constitution being written.
"I personally think we have an opportunity to draw up a constitution in terms of what the people really need," she said, instead of "worrying about what the Congress is thinking or anyone else is thinking. We're going to have differences, but people are sensible enough to know this is a historic occasion . . . and we don't want to blow it."
A total of 103 candidates are vying for 45 delegate seats in the election, the latest step in a lengthy, complicated and far from complete legal process that officially began last year when D.C. voters approved a citizens' initiative directing the city government to formally seek congressional approval to make the city a state.
But the current delegate election campaign has drawn little interest from the city's top elected leaders, political establishment and business community, largely leaving the contests to a potpourri of liberal community activists, a few elected or appointed officials and a sprinkling of political unknowns.
"There's no real formal slate making. Nobody is that well organized, or paying attention to it," said Wesley H. Long, a member of the city's Public Service Commission and a delegate candidate from Ward 2.
Long said the campaign to elect delegates to the convention has been overshadowed in the minds of the voters and in the media by the school board races and the education tax credit initiative, which are also on the ballot.
Aside from small community groups, few political organizations have endorsed any of the candidates. Such groups as the D.C. chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action, the D.C. Women's Political Caucus and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's major gay rights political group, have endorsed candidates, as has Smith's Gazette.
The delegates, five to be elected at-large and five from each of the city's eight wards, will convene early next year for a 90-day session to draft the proposed constitution under which the new state, which statehood proponents say may be called Columbia, would operate.
Mayor Marion Barry must call the convention together within 60 days of the Nov. 3 election. The city has allocated $150,000 to run the convention.
The constitution drafted by the delegates will be submitted next year to city voters in a referendum. At the same time, voters will elect "two senators and one representative" who will be paid by the city to lobby for statehood on Capitol Hill, but could not serve in Congress until the city becomes a state.
If voters ratify the document, the city would formally submit it to Congress. Both the House and Senate must approve the proposed constitution by at least simple majorities. If the Congress rejects the proposal, it would be sent back to the delegates for a second convention whose work again would face the voters and the Congress.
"I don't know that this constitution needs to be an embodiment of every liberal principal," Clarke said.
Clarke specifically mentioned the recurrent controversial proposal to impose a commuter tax, a taxing power now prohibited by Congress but one that some candidates have suggested writing into the proposed constitution.
"We're going to have to assess how much resistance" there would be in Congress, Clarke said.
In addition to the tax issues, other difficult areas include what type of legislature the new state may establish, which officials would be elected or appointed, police powers and proposals for decentralized, neighborhood control of zoning and other matters.
Called everything from folly to a great experiment in democracy, the statehood drive is unique, coming not from a new territory or distant land, but from a modern, majority-black urban community whose roots were founded in the U.S. Constitution 200 years ago when the District was established as the new nation's seat of government.
The statehood drive is separate from the city's efforts at gaining more home rule and legislative autonomy from the Congress and support for the voting rights constitutional amendment that would give the District a vote in the House and two U.S. Senators.
Statehood proponents say the voting rights amendment is foundering and home rule, granted by the Congress, is under siege and could be taken away.
The voting rights amendment, which needs to be ratified by 38 states before August 1985 to become law, has been approved by only nine states. Home rule proponents have recently seen a conservative Congress rebuff the city government on a number of issues, including a comprehensive reform of the city's sexual assault laws and the mayor's plans to hire firefighters and police officers.
Opponents of the statehood effort, including Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), contend the drive detracts from the campaign for the voting rights amendment. Fauntroy also has said the proposed state, without significant industry and major businesses to raise taxes, would be financially strapped once the federal government stopped its annual federal payment, now $300 million, to the District and kept most federal buildings outside the taxing power of the new state.
"If the convention goes well and is treated seriously by the people in it, the citizens at large and the media, it could have some short-term benefits," said Betty King, a special assistant to the mayor.