The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. statehood advocates seek path forward after ‘gut punch’ of Biden tweet

D.C. placed 51-star flags along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and around the White House in advance of a statehood hearing in March 2021. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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Only three years ago, D.C. statehood advocates celebrated when the House voted to grant the city congressional representation, a historic show of support that was repeated the following year when lawmakers approved the measure.

But whatever momentum the movement accrued from those victories fizzled Thursday with a single tweet from someone whom proponents had counted on as an ally: President Biden.

With his announcement that he would sign a Republican-led resolution to block D.C.'s revision of its century-old criminal code if the Senate approves it, Biden delivered a major setback to the city’s decades-long quest to control its own destiny.

That the president is a Democrat only made the moment more wrenching in a deep-blue city where he won more than 90 percent of the vote in the 2020 election. Biden’s insistence that he remains a statehood supporter, despite his opposition to the crime bill, served to aggravate the pain.

Biden says he would sign GOP-led resolution blocking D.C. crime bill

“It feels like a betrayal,” said Josh Burch, a co-founder of Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood. “He didn’t have to do this but he chose to do this. He chose to use the people of the District of Columbia as a pawn in a political game. When your friend turns your back on you, it’s a gut punch.”

Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) said the rebuke from Biden and the dozens of House Democrats who backed the criminal code disapproval was “part of a long history of Congress believing D.C.’s Black population is incapable of self-governance.”

“It’s a colonial mind-set that no American should be subject to, yet has carried on for decades,” she said. “I’m so disappointed in our president and Democrats alike not realizing the racial implications here and helping Republicans carry on that legacy.”

On the day after Biden’s decision, D.C. leaders and statehood advocates struggled to find a path forward from what everyone agreed was a searing defeat, saying they hope that the moment galvanizes national attention around the need to grant the city statehood.

But there was also a measure of finger-pointing from those who blamed the D.C. Council for advancing a criminal code revision with elements that congressional Republicans could portray as soft on crime, potentially forcing the hands of Biden and other Democrats who sided with the GOP. In recent weeks, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also has been criticized for her veto of the legislation, which some saw as giving congressional Democrats an excuse to support the disapproval resolution.

“They’re like petulant children,” Michael D. Brown, D.C.’s nonvoting member of the Senate, said of the council. “They say, ‘We know Congress is there and can do whatever they want to the District of Columbia but we’re going to do this anyway.’ It’s like, hey, guys, wake up and smell the involuntary servitude. We’ve been this way for 200 years.”

Bowser lobbies Senate amid worries about losing Democrats on D.C. home rule votes

Charles Wilson, chair of the D.C. Democratic Party, said Republicans had declared the city a target long enough ago for council members to “make a judgment call as to whether this is the best time to advance a certain piece of legislation.”

“My estimation, if we could press the rewind button, is that all our elected officials would have taken a different approach,” he said.

Yet Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who shepherded the criminal-code legislation, brushed off the suggestion that any version of the bill would have sated Republicans seeking fodder to portray Democrats as weak on crime in “30-second campaign ads.”

“Does anyone believe that if we had made tweaks here and there Republicans would have supported it?” he asked. “It doesn’t matter what the substance is. What Biden did and what the Senate is going to do is devastating, but it reinforces what it feels like to live in a colony. We are an easy mark and a bargaining chip.”

Bowser, appearing on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio show Friday, said that “limited home rule” is an “indignity” that won’t change without statehood. “As infuriating as that is, it’s incumbent on all of us that we’re smart and strategic about passing and getting our laws enacted,” she said.

“The Congress has been interfering with abortion rights for years in the District, they’ve been interfering with our ability to tax and regulate marijuana, they stopped for years our ability for fair needle exchange,” the mayor said. “This is not a new issue, and the District having to navigate muddy water with Congress and the White House is not new either.”

Bowser says Congress shouldn’t interfere as it weighs nixing two D.C. bills

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting representative in Congress and a longtime advocate for statehood, said Biden’s support for the GOP resolution might embolden Republican lawmakers to seek to block future legislation from the city.

But Norton also said that the dynamics surrounding the crime bill were unique, in part because Bowser’s opposition to the legislation “fueled the response certainly of Republicans and even Democrats who voted against the bill.”

“Nobody wanted to look like they were not tough on crime … I’m counting on the Senate to make sure this doesn’t bleed into other issues,” Norton said. “It’s very important that this disapproval resolution be seen for what it is: a response to a specific issue. I expect Democrats in the House and Senate to do what they usually do for our other bills, which is respect D.C.’s autonomy.”

Biden’s rejection of D.C.’s legislation was the latest twist in the city’s long-standing fight for self-determination. The path has been especially fraught over the past 15 years, beginning with President Barack Obama’s tenure in office, a period defined by moments of soaring hopes and unrealized expectations.

In 2009, what appeared to be a major advance when House Democrats passed a bill to give D.C. a voting seat turned into defeat when the deal collapsed in the Senate after Republicans attached provisions to gut gun-control laws.

Two years later, Obama reportedly gave in to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) during budget negotiations, leading to Congress’s enacting a spending bill that included a GOP-backed provision to bar D.C. from using its own tax money to pay for abortions for low-income residents.

D.C. leaders herald Senate statehood bill despite steep odds

But there also have been signs of progress, including in 2016 when statehood became part of the official platform of the Democratic National Convention. Four years later, the House passed the legislation granting D.C. statehood, a measure that stalled in the Senate. A year later, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) introduced a statehood bill in the senate that attracted 45 co-sponsors, a development that buoyed proponents.

“We have substantively moved the needle,” Burch said. “Our charge is to keep pushing.”

Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, a statehood advocacy organization, said Biden’s alliance with Republicans presented the movement with an important opportunity.

“The thing we were missing was a way to communicate to the American people why statehood is vital,” he said. “This brings it into clear relief.”