D.C. statehood delegates, with only a week left for preparation, met yesterday in another of a series of preliminary sessions designed to smooth the way toward the city's historic constitutional convention.
After slogging through the snow to the University of the District of Columbia campus at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW, about 35 of the 45 delegates elected last Nov. 3 debated procedures for the convention and listened to constitutional experts discuss taxation, education, constitutional amendment procedures and the District's unique territorial status.
These and other thorny issues will face the delegates when they convene Saturday to begin drafting the city's first constitution--an initial step in an arduous journey toward statehood, whose outcome is uncertain.
Much of Washington's political establishment has been lukewarm toward the statehood movement. Delegates expect an uphill battle to persuade a conservative Congress to grant statehood to what amounts to a small urban enclave that is heavily black and Democratic. Furthermore, political and legal observers note that nine of the 15 attempts to write or rewrite state or territorial constitutions in the United States since 1970 have been rejected by the voters. Maryland rejected a new constitution in 1968.
For the District to attain statehood, the constitution the delegates will draft must first be approved by District voters and then by Congress. The document will probably go on the ballot in this fall's general election. If it is approved, the city can present it to Congress any time after that.
The statehood convention, lasting 90 days plus a preliminary organizing period of up to two weeks, will unfold in two different but equally dramatic ways.
First will be the creation of the constitution itself, the fundamental document of governance, which after being forged by argument and compromise, may run a few simple pages or spell out details for hundreds. It may be experimental and "progressive." It may be a model of tradition and simplicity.
Second will be the transformation of the 45 delegates from a heterogeneous, unstructured and essentially leaderless swarm into an ordered assembly with officers, committees and strict rules and procedures for resolving differences and reaching consensus.
Political scientists and lawyers who have observed constitutional conventions elsewhere warn that the opening stages are almost always chaotic.
"It has to be," says Arnold Leibowitz, a constitutional convention specialist and counsel for the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. "People are jockeying, trying to get their place in the sun." Also, he said, rules are not fully in place, delegates don't know each other well and committee chairmen haven't gained confidence or trust.
The diversity of the delegates--blacks, whites, middle-class bureaucrats, tenant organizers, poverty workers and a scattering of gays and political radicals--may also create some stumbling blocks at the beginning, several delegates acknowledged, but that is to be expected in such a gathering.
"You'll find they're a good representation of the city," says Ward 4 delegate Janette Hoston Harris, a history professor and member of the Democratic State Committee. "Some are skilled in the legislative process . . . . Others will bring a 'common touch' that we need for a good mix."
But, warns Ward 1 delegate Marie Nahikian, a tenant-relations specialist for the city housing department, "We will have to work very hard to rise above our diversity."
Several delegates said in interviews they have discerned no specific factions and special-interest groups forming among the delegates. It's too early for that, they said.
"All in all," said one delegate, "there is a sense among us that we must be politically realistic" in writing a constitution acceptable to D.C. voters and Congress. "There is no split between progressives and realists."
Most delegates interviewed voiced optimism--much of it cautious--that the convention will produce an acceptable document. But many hesitated to discuss strategy or speculate on the ultimate results of their work. City Council member Hilda Mason, the council's lone standard bearer of the Statehood Party and one of three council members serving as convention delegates, would not comment on the convention.
The 45 delegates--five from each of the city's eight wards and five representing the city at large--will be formally convened by Mayor Marion Barry on Saturday at 1:15 p.m. at Dunbar High School at First and N streets NW.
Thereafter, plans call for the delegates to elect officers and create up to a dozen committees to draft language for specific sections of the constitution spelling out executive, legislative, judicial and other functions of the state government. The first portion of the 90-day convention period will be taken up largely with committee work, organizers anticipate, with delegates convening later in full session to debate and adopt sections of the document. The convention, operating on a $150,000 budget, will pay delegates $30 a day.
Suggested procedures are already being readied by an informal preconvention rules committee that will present its recommendations to the convention next week in hopes of hastening rules adoption and minimizing confusion.
Under the convention's enabling legislation, the city is required to provide space, equipment and staff. So far, according to the mayor's office, eight staff members and typewriters, a copying machine, furniture, paper and other items are being made available. Delegates, however, say they need more staff, especially skilled researchers, stenographers and legal counsel. Volunteers may be sought, if the mayor fails to provide more help.