"We're going to have to have some respect in here," interjected temporary chairman Lillian Huff, breaking up a heated discussion last week among delegates at the fledgling D.C. statehood constitutional convention. " . . . It is thoroughly unnecessary to scream and holler."
"This is a parliamentary quagmire," said delegate William Blount, a school teacher from Ward 7, throwing up his hands in the cavernous Howard University Law School moot court room where the convention has been meeting temporarily. Later, Ward 5 delegate Harry Thomas interrupted debate on a proposed amendment on the powers of convention officers to announce the birthday of fellow ward delegate Samuel Robinson. The assembled crowd broke into a rousing round of "Happy Birthday," then resumed debate.
Such has been the atmosphere, a mixture of confusion and serious business, after a week of the city's first effort to write a constitution in its long-awaited bid for statehood.
Most constitutional conventions get off to a rocky start and then smooth out, historians are fond of saying. So far, the beginning of the D. C. statehood convention has run true to form.
There are plenty of reasons.
The 45 delegates have a $150,000 budget for the 90-day convention--a pittance by national standards. Logistical and staff support is sparse. Delegates meet in whatever borrowed space they can find. Sound and recording systems at meetings are sometimes inadequate. Some of the delegates are grass roots community activists who have little acquaintance with parliamentary procedure. Other delegates are more skilled.
More significant, the convention is starting from scratch. It has no model document drafted specifically for the District by a constitutional convention commission--standard procedure in other jurisdictions.
In Maryland, a 25-member commission of lawyers and researchers spent 2 1/2 years drafting a document for the state's last constitutional convention in 1967. All told, Maryland spent $4 million writing the constitution (later rejected by the voters), including a $2,000 salary and $25 per diem for each of 142 delegates over 118 days.
By contrast, D.C. statehood delegates get a $30 per diem and no salary. Many of them are community activists and low-level government workers who feel they cannot leave their regular weekday jobs. Hence, many of their initial sessions have been held at night and on weekends, with delegates meeting in local university classrooms and other borrowed space.
Despite these and other problems, a high level of energy is propelling the delegates through the first phases of the convention. They are in a preliminary 10-to-14-day planning period now, debating rules, committee structure and election of officers before the actual process of writing the constitution begins.
They are a spirited, shirt-sleeve crowd--much more populist than the standard state constitutional convention professional politicians and scholarly reformists mixed with gray-suited businessmen, attorneys and real estate, banking and insurance lobbyists.
Scattered among the government workers, teachers and computer programmers at the D.C. convention are a cabdriver, a waitress and a college student. There are a handful of socialists and even a communist--Maurice Jackson, head of the D.C.-Virginia chapter of the Communist Party USA. One of Jackson's early contributions was to distribute copies of an AFL-CIO handbook on how to conduct meetings.
The atmosphere of the preliminary sessions is outwardly hectic, but with each new session, a rough parliamentary rhythm takes a stronger hold. Delegates scurry about and huddle in small groups before votes on crucial rules. There is friendly laughter when fellow delegates stumble on parliamentary snags.
But there are also bursts of anger and frustration at the slowness of deliberations. Last Thursday night, for example, the delegates spent the first hour of the session arguing over limits on debate for the remainder of the five-hour evening. The argument ended with no limits set.
All told, the delegates have held four formal business meetings, spanning almost 17 hours of debate. The first three sessions, held last week, were absorbed almost entirely with how the permanent officers of the convention will be elected and what their powers will be. Last night, the delegates began ironing out a complex committee structure for the convention. Remaining to be adopted is a host of procedural rules. Only after that will the actual writing of the constitution begin.
Other developments typical of political gatherings are beginning to show. An incipient split--some call it racial, others call it cultural--has arisen among the delegates. A "black caucus" was formed, reportedly because of fears that white delegates--some 38 percent of the total--had taken an early lead in preconvention planning and might dominate the convention. A counterpart "white caucus" in turn met last week to discuss what they perceived as growing racial friction and efforts by blacks to grant the convention president extraordinary powers.
Maneuvering is also under way, particularly among blacks, to elect Charles I. Cassell, an architect and longtime Statehood Party stalwart, as permanent president of the convention. Other contenders include City Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) and Democratic Party activist Janette Hoston Harris.
Some delegates, both black and white, say they sense an overriding psychological drag on the convention because the city's mainstream political and business leadership is, at best, cool to the prospect of statehood.
They have received little or no support from the centers of power--the Board of Trade, the media, the City Council, the Democratic Party apparatus. Congress is in a conservative, unaccommodating mood. Few members of the public have attended the early sessions of the convention.
Even some of the 45 delegates themselves--as many as a dozen by some estimates--believe statehood is not achievable in the immediate or even foreseeable future. These delegates, some speaking publicly and others privately, say Congress simply will not grant statehood to this tiny, heavily Democratic, 70-percent-black urban enclave.
Their strategy instead is to go ahead and help write a constitution, and then offer elements of it to Congress as amendments to the city's present home rule charter--admittedly short of statehood, they say, but a more realistic approach to increased autonomy.
"I doubt I'll see statehood in my lifetime, and I'm a young woman," says Ward 3 delegate Gloria Corn, a Republican and sometime political consultant, whose largely white ward west of Rock Creek Park voted against the statehood initiative in 1980. She estimates 10 to 12 other delegates feel the the way she does.
Wesley Long, a Ward 2 delegate and member of the D.C. Public Service Commission, puts the number of statehood doubters at 6 to 10 "and probably more." But, says Long, "even if [the constitution] is ignored by Congress, it's a reference document that can be used little by little to improve home rule" by amending the home rule charter.
Another delegate, who asked not to be named, said that the District cannot be economically viable as a state without a commuter tax, and Congress is not likely to permit the tax. "As long as the commuter tax is an issue, statehood is in jeopardy," he said. In addition, says Corn, "A lot of congressmen own property or businesses in the District, and they want to keep some control over it."
Brian P. Moore, a Ward 2 delegate, says, "I want to work on statehood, but because we're not likely to get it, I think we must explore other alternatives." His choice: retrocession of the District to Maryland.
But Cassell, one of five Statehood Party members at the convention, says he is not discouraged. "I cannot believe that the members of the House and Senate, who are themselves creatures of statehood, would deny that heritage to us. I know those guys are going to pass it."