Organized opposition is developing to several provisions of the proposed "New Columbia" statehood constitution that will appear on the Washington's Nov. 2 general election ballot for approval or disapproval by voters. Some proponents of the document expect a hard battle to gain voter approval.
Among the elements of the proposed constitution that have drawn objections are a sweeping bill of rights that, among other things, gives government workers -- including police and firefighters -- the right to strike; guarantees each citizen "the right to employment, or if unable to work, an income sufficient to meet basic human needs;" and guarantees to the people the "inalienable right to alter, reform, or abolish" the government, a provision that opponents say is an illegal right to revolution.
Leaders of the constitutional movement have different opinions about the strength of the opposition they face.
"I think [opposition] is going to be organized. I think it's going to be a problem," said Edward Guinan, co-chairman of a 24-member commission appointed to educate the public about the proposed constitution and promote its approval.
But Charles I. Cassell, president of the D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention that drafted the constitution and formally approved it last May 29, said he doesn't think that the opposition is significant. "I think D.C. voters will pass it," he said. "We don't run into any opposition from large numbers of people. We run into questions from reactionaries."
Now that the September primaries are over, Guinan and other commission members will launch "a spirited, enthusiastic and active campaign for passage" of the constitution, Cassell said.
Cassell personally appointed the commission, which includes Mayor Barry and other dignitaries as well as people such as Guinan, a community organizer who co-chairs the staff work, after the convention approved the proposed constitution 37-to-2 with four abstentions and two absent.
If the constitution as written is approved by a majority of voters Nov. 2, it must then be approved by both houses of Congress before going into effect. If it is rejected by the voters on Nov. 2, the convention delegates may meet again and redraft it -- but only once. The new draft then would be placed before the voters on another election ballot. If it then failed to be approved, either by D.C. voters or by either house of Congress, it would be dead.
Courts Oulahan, one of the two convention delegates who voted against the proposed constitution during the convention, said he will actively oppose its approval by the voters. He said it should be rejected so that it can be rewritten as "a middle-of-the-road, non-revolutionary document" with some chance of passing Congress.
"It is clear Congress would not go for it as it is," he said. "The right to employment and the right to revolution would alone be enough to kill it."
Oulahan estimated that the right-to-employment clause would immediately add a new $375 million burden to the already strained city budget.
Guinan, the proponent and co-chair of the commission, said, "I think if it's a straight up-and-down vote it's going to be a real horse race."
For that reason, Guinan said, he will seek to have the constitution appear on the ballot provision-by-provision, so voters can indicate exactly what they want. This also would divide and "isolate the opposition," Guinan said.
But Joel H. Garner, a constitutional convention delegate who opposes many provisions of the constitution and plans to actively oppose its approval, said that under the law the issue must be presented to voters for a simple up-and-down vote.
William H. Lewis, general counsel of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said that the City Council by a complex procedure could have permitted voters to vote on individual provisions of the constitution, but added: "Since that hasn't happened, in my opinion the voters have to vote either for or against the whole document."
The language now scheduled to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot, according to elections board officials, is: "Adoption of the Constitution of the State of New Columbia. For--. Against--."
Cassell said that the commission, in its campaign to educate voters and promote passage of the proposed constitution, will use much of a special $150,000 fund appropriated by the City Council to educate voters about statehood.
Opponents of the document as it is written argue that this would be illegal, saying the commission cannot use the money solely to promote passage of the controversial constitution. They contend that the money must be used to air both sides of the issues.
Garner said he believes strongly in statehood for the District of Columbia, but thinks the constitution as written will hurt efforts to achieve it. "Our bottom line is that we can do better," he said.
Guinan said that commission members and delegates distributed roughly half of l50,000 copies of the proposed constitution at voting places on primary day last week. He said there will be a further "massive" distribution of copies of the 18,000-word document, with commentary on each section. He said media advertising also is planned to explain and promote the document.