The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s statehood movement gets an inch, takes a proverbial mile on Capitol Hill

Senator Tom Coburn, (R-Okla., left 40 minutes into the hearing after calling the New Columbia statehood act a “distraction.”)

Along the walk underground from the Capitol to the Dirksen Senate Building, you traverse a long, soulless hallway with a mini train track. As the path curves around, a flag of each state hangs with a corresponding circular crest. Each state’s flag hangs in the order of its admission to the United States.

Ten feet separate the flags from one another along the corridor where staffers and lawmakers shuffle between buildings. Imagine a proletariat’s version of the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States. It was in the Dirksen building that Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) held a hearing to discuss a bill granting D.C. statehood.

A small step, yes, but an important one in the grind against disenfranchisement. It wasn’t much, but those who spoke for the city did so with aplomb. The case against statehood has never looked so ridiculous. The basic underpinnings of the cause to keep D.C. from statehood are rooted in nothing but privilege and tradition, not logic. And ranking member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proved exactly that with his cavalier attitude toward the proceedings, snarky dismissal of the city’s chances of making it through the system, and early departure from the hearing. His approach screamed: “I don’t care because I don’t have to.”

Falling back on the credit of the Constitution as the backbone for denying voting rights just doesn’t hold any logical water unless you seem to think that the original document was fair to begin with. It wasn’t.

“At the time, the concept of voting rights was very narrow. Most people … wouldn’t have been able to vote anyway. Because they were a female, because they were slaves,  because they were an African-American or other people of color, or because they didn’t own property,” Alice M. Rivlin, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute said explained at the hearing “But over the period of the last couple of hundred years, our concept of what democracy is has broadened. Voting rights have been achieved, for all adult citizens.”

Except the 650,000-plus here, obviously. Something that Shadow Senator Michael D. Brown explained more succinctly. “They were not particularly inclusive guys,” he said. “All these people have been brought back into the system and made whole.”

But in an otherwise completely boring procedural hearing, the statehood advocates made a necessary impression. Carper, who was about as boisterous as a librarian watching a silent film, didn’t exude any real passion, but he did listen. U.S. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss saw that as a breakthrough.

“A great thing for Senator Carper to do, to help build a record and to craft it really in moral terms. Which is something that you don’t always hear, especially in this institution,” Strauss, 50, said referring to Congress. “To say that it’s the right thing to do, and we should treat people the way they should be treated, actually struck me as something missing from the debate. We talk about the politics, we don’t always talk about the ethics of it, and I’m glad he introduced that.”

The next step this movement needs is a real agitative force outside of the halls of Congress. Sure people in red t-shirts can line hallways and protest that way, but the cause is still so static, so tame, in effect, so Washington, that it’s hard to see them gaining much sympathy. But Monday’s showing was a solid next step. This effort needs a figurehead, an agitator, a personality that when people see them think: that’s the person who won’t ever shut up about voting rights. D.C. statehood effort needs a Matthew Lesko.

The current leader of the voting rights pack the honorable Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was more than pleased with Monday’s result. Talking in the hallway in between panels, Norton was for more optimistic than say, Coburn who was long gone.

“This is the kind of opportunity we’ve been waiting for while we’ve been trying to go after the components of statehood, to also get the whole enchilada and this chairman has given us the first statehood hearing, we think in history, and put it right back on the national agenda. That’s what we wanted to have here. This is a threshold hearing, and this is what you need before you’re able to do anything further,” she said. “I thought there’d be some people who come, the usual activists. But this is the greatest turnout we’ve had for any hearing since I’ve been in the Congress.”

Down in that underground hallway between buildings, the last flag is Hawaii’s. And along that wall, there’s another 50 or so feet of blank space. Meaning, there’s plenty room to add D.C.