The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After GOP attacks, D.C. residents launch statehood campaign to show they’re ‘real people’

Some Republican senators disagree that the District should become a state and recently have suggested “real people” don’t live in D.C. (Video: The Washington Post)
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At the end of every tour of his D.C.-based brewery, Thor Cheston has a question for his guests.

“How many of you live outside the District?” Cheston, the co-founder of Right Proper Brewing Co., asks the out-of-towners.

He asks because he needs a favor from them, because they have something Cheston doesn’t — a voice in Congress.

“I say, ‘I would please implore you to call your local representative and let them know you support lower federal excise taxes for small, independently owned breweries,’ ” Cheston said in an interview this week, “ ‘because we can’t do that ourselves.’ ”

Cheston is sharing that story this week as part of a pro-statehood campaign called #WeAreDC, launched by the advocacy group 51 for 51 in response to the suggestion by GOP senators this summer that “real people” don’t live in the District.

The campaign, also headed by Neighbors United for DC Statehood and DC Vote, follows the historic House passage of a D.C. statehood bill in June. Although the bill is stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, advocates say the District is closer than ever to having a chance to become the 51st state, with Democrats nearly united on the issue, plus the prospect of Joe Biden winning the presidency and Democrats flipping the Senate.

Now, in short video stories from residents and small-business owners such as Cheston, the #WeAreDC social media campaign is an effort toward what has been a longtime goal for pro-statehood activists — erasing stereotypical perceptions of D.C. as the exclusive turf of political elitists, a perception some say has kept Americans in the dark about the disenfranchisement of D.C. residents.

A 2019 Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose D.C. statehood. Some strategists say it is essential that advocates galvanize nationwide support for the cause if they want it to gain better traction in the Senate. #WeAreDC is a step in that direction, activists said.

Their stories “are really important, because often people think of Washington, D.C., they think of the Capitol, they think of the White House, they think of monuments,” said Stasha Rhodes, the campaign manager for 51 for 51, a coalition of national and local groups. “They don’t often think about the 700,000 residents that live here, that are firefighters, that are nurses, that are teachers.”

D.C. statehood approved by U.S. House for first time in history

Adam Jentleson, who was a top aide to then-Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said one of the best paths to achieve statehood would be to include it with civil and voting rights legislation advanced by a Democratic Senate majority — and only if the filibuster is eliminated, given the strong Republican opposition to creating a 51st state.

Republican senators have turned a cold shoulder to statehood on political as well as legal grounds. Many argue that making the District a state would go against the intent of the nation’s founders, that it can be done only by a constitutional amendment, or that Maryland should instead annex the city if its residents want to live in a state. Republicans also acknowledge that statehood would grant D.C. two senators and one representative, all of whom would almost certainly be Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced D.C. statehood as making “the swamp itself” the 51st state during his prime time Republican National Convention speech on Thursday, saying Democrats would consolidate power with “two more liberal senators.”

In July, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) encouraged his colleagues to get out of the District to talk to “real people” about what they think of statehood. Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on the Senate floor that the District did not deserve to become a state, because, unlike sparsely populated Wyoming, the District would not be a “well-rounded working-class state.” The rhetoric was condemned by critics as racist, given that 46 percent of the District is Black.

“What vital industries would the new state of Washington represent? Lobbying? Bureaucracy? Give me a break,” Cotton said.

Senate GOP critics of D.C. statehood call for floor vote to put Democrats on record

Citing the city’s revitalization efforts, Beverly Perry, a senior adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) who has led statehood advocacy, pushed back on what she called an outdated caricature of the city.

Millions of visitors, she said, “are coming here because we built a destination, we built an industry. So if Republicans want to try to downplay all of our efforts and say we haven’t built an industry, that’s just narrow-minded on their part.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s longtime nonvoting representative in Congress, found a silver lining, however. The senators, she said, “have done us a service they did not intend” — creating an impetus for a new education campaign.

The #WeAreDC hashtag, she posited, “not only refutes everything they said — it goes further, which is to help us get the message across that D.C. does not have the rights as everyone else has, even though we’re number one in federal taxes paid to support the federal government.”

Walter Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said he believes outsiders have opposed statehood not because of a stereotypical perception of the District but because they have no perception at all, leaving them blind to the fact that D.C. residents have no vote on Capitol Hill.

He said he learned as much as far back as 2000, when he went on a cross-country bike ride to personally ask Americans from Minneapolis to New Orleans what they thought of D.C. statehood. Many he met did not realize that D.C. residents lacked voting rights, he said, leading him to conclude that a large, coordinated education campaign was needed.

“One guy biking across the country isn’t going to do it,” said Smith, who is leading a lawsuit in D.C. federal court arguing the lack of voting representation is unconstitutional. An earlier lawsuit he and other statehood advocates led failed in 2000, when the Supreme Court, without a hearing, affirmed a lower-court ruling finding that D.C. did not have a constitutional right to a voting representative in Congress.

Smith said the challenge for galvanizing support for D.C. voting rights is that, unlike with the civil rights, gay rights or women’s rights movements, “there aren’t people all over the country who don’t have voting representation.”

“In fact, to the contrary, all of them have it already,” Smith said, “and they all take it for granted. And so getting them energized enough to speak out and demonstrate and call their member of Congress because they’re upset people in the capital don’t have the vote, that’s hard to do.”

Having a better picture of the people who make up the vibrant city, he said, is at least a good place to start.

So far, the #WeAreDC campaign has featured a firefighter, a small-business owner, a foster parent and a Vietnam veteran sharing their frustrations over their lack of voting rights.

“After serving my country during the Vietnam War, I was denied my vote in the Congress of the United States,” Hector Rodriguez says. “To me that is a slap in the face.”

Glenda Williams-Blackmon, the foster parent, says: “Give us the authority to make our own decisions. … There is no one I can go to and say, ‘Well, why am I paying this and who am I paying this to?’”

George Derek Musgrove, a professor and the co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” shares his expertise on the history of the city’s enfranchisement as part of the video series.

In an interview, he accused Republicans of “veiled racism” and said the rhetoric trashing the District as a city of influence-peddlers is not new.

“You tend to talk about D.C. and inside the Beltway as a place where government happens,” he said. “It’s really easy to fill that void with this absurd rhetoric, and it reinforces everything you see in popular culture, ‘The West Wing’ and everything else. And it plays on the built-in hostility people have against government.”

Cheston said he is cautiously optimistic about how the upcoming election could influence the statehood cause. Meanwhile, he said, he will continue doing his part evangelizing the out-of-town brewery tourists.

“I feel like we’re adding something to the community,” Cheston said. “It would just be nice to know that there is someone that could fight for us, you know?”