At Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where the parade concluded, the mayor pumped her fist as Bernie Siler, 67, a retired Army reservist, climbed a ladder and placed on a lamppost one of the 51-star flags purchased with taxpayer funds.
“The time for statehood for Washington, D.C., is now,” Bowser told a boisterous crowd, many holding miniature District flags and among whom were 51 D.C. residents who are military veterans. “The 51st state will happen and our state will be represented on our flag.”
Yet the significance of the flag with the extra star appeared to elude pedestrians along the parade route. “I can’t see the 51st star at all,” Alex Ortiz, a salesman who lives in Arlington, said as he sat on a bench near 11th Street.
Robert Ellis, a priest visiting from London, said Bowser’s twist on the Stars and Stripes looked like a regular “flag of the United States of America.” “Is it different?” he asked. “I would think it’s illegal to change it, especially near the White House.”
The installation of the flags prompted a flurry of discussion on Twitter, including questions about the propriety of the added star and criticism of the cost. “I’m all about #DCStatehood but feel like making a new flag before it’s official is a waste of taxpayer money,” one tweeter wrote.
A few hours after the rally, the mayor’s official Twitter account released a 26-second video of the event that included Bowser telling the crowd, “I was born without representation, but I will not die without representation.”
LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the cost of the event, including the flags, was $31,206. The funds came out of the $1 million the D.C. Council set aside for the statehood campaign.
“I’m sure we can cover it,” Foster said, adding that the 51-star flag is legitimate as a representation of “what we have been fighting for.”
Bowser’s statehood campaign is the latest variation on a quest that has eluded her predecessors even when Democrats — more sympathetic toward the District’s left-leaning electorate — controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress during the Obama administration.
At the moment, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, has more than 200 co-sponsors for a House bill to grant the city statehood. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) have voiced support for the legislation.
But the bill’s chances of becoming law appear less than slim as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans are in control of that chamber. McConnell has vowed to hold up a companion bill proposed by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), which has more than 30 sponsors.
Asked about Republican opposition, Norton told the rally, “Don’t even worry about McConnell. He won’t be there much longer.”
Norton and Bowser rode on the top deck of a double-decker bus, the side of which featured the mayor’s name in large white lettering and a message conveying the rally’s thrust: that the District is home to 702,000 residents, including 30,000 military veterans, all of whom have “zero votes” in Congress.
Before boarding the bus, a gaggle of public officials, including Council members Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), formed a gantlet on the steps of city hall through which the mayor passed as if she were on her way to compete in a sporting event.
“All right! All right!” Bowser said as she exchanged high-fives and walked to the bus, which was preceded by another double-decker packed with TV news cameras recording the trip. At Seventh Street NW, a man waved. Another pumped his fist. Police officers blocked traffic from the side streets as the buses went by.
“Statehood now!” the mayor and her entourage chanted, largely to silence.
A crowd heavy with D.C. government workers waited at Third Street NW. Among the department heads was Tommy Wells, the District’s director of the Department of Energy and the Environment.
Siler introduced the mayor as “potentially the next governor” of the District if the city were to become a state, and the crowd cheered.
On Sunday, Steve Walker, director of Bowser’s Office of Talent and Appointments, which oversees hiring for high-level city jobs, sent a mass email requesting that administration officials attend the rally, arriving early to “meet your block captains for further instructions.”
“We hope you are able to attend this historic event,” Walker wrote. “Please share with colleagues and bring family and friends.”
Foster said the email is typical of messages that Bowser aides send out “for all public events we do.”
“This is part of our work,” she said. “This is District government work.”