She was the premier witness at the three-hour House hearing on Thursday. There, in her first-ever congressional testimony, she advanced detailed arguments for statehood and parried Republican arguments against it.
This energetic, forceful style from her is not one that D.C. residents are used to seeing. Though she was sufficiently popular to win reelection easily over the token opposition last year, Bowser has often come across as hesitant and politically cautious. On statehood, by contrast, she seeks to inspire.
The question that naturally arises is whether statehood is worth such political capital, given that the chances of achieving it are effectively nil. Even supporters at the hearing conceded that, while the Democratic-controlled House seems set to approve a statehood bill by next year, it’s clear that it will not get through the GOP-led Senate.
Given the track record of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), there’s an excellent chance that the upper chamber won’t even consider the measure.
As a result, Bowser’s high-profile push will end in disappointment, as did nearly all previous efforts for statehood or D.C. voting rights. The one exception was adoption of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, which gave the District three electoral votes. It won ratification by three-fourths of the states, a feat impossible to repeat in today’s polarized partisan politics.
So what’s the point? The answer can be summed up in three P’s: principle, politics and prestige. It’s a matter of principle that D.C. voters get full congressional representation, a point driven home repeatedly at the hearing. Statehood advocacy is a political winner for Bowser, who may seek a third term, and for the city in the long run. It also helps the city’s reputation to call attention to the progress it has made, such as improved finances and neighborhood revitalization, considering statehood got its last hearing way back in 1993.
For Bowser, only gun control and affordable housing seem to be issues that draw her focus as much as statehood. It’s partly personal. As a fifth-generation Washingtonian, she is heir to well over a century of second-class citizenship. Winning statehood would complete some unfinished business from the heroic civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s that ended before she was born in 1972.
The politics are attractive because it’s a rare cause that unites almost all D.C. residents. Voters endorsed statehood by a 6-to-1 margin in a symbolic 2016 referendum.
It’s also about a campaign pledge from Bowser’s first run for mayor in 2014. Then, she said it was crucial that the District be prepared to escalate the fight for statehood whenever the political climate became more receptive.
That plan sprang in part from what some critics saw as a lack of preparation in the District for its last opportunity, in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. That chance was squandered when a voting rights bill, which would have awarded one congressional vote to the District but no Senate seats, passed the Senate, but only with a “poison pill” anti-gun control provision opposed by District leaders. It died in the House.
A desire to do better led Bowser to back a 2016 referendum. She wanted it partly to be ready if statehood supporter Hillary Clinton was elected president in the same year.
“I promised the people of the District of Columbia that we were always going to be in a position to be ready when the political winds aligned,” she said Thursday after the hearing. “Certainly, we pushed for a [referendum] in advance of the last [presidential] election and we expected a different result.”
Thursday’s hearing illustrated some of the fruits of the preparation since then. Testimony from Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and others showed the District had researched how other states were admitted, how orderly transitions have occurred, and what the constitutional and financial implications would be.
Bowser repeatedly countered or deflected hostile questions from the Republican minority.
When Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) pressed her about the ethical scandal involving D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Bowser said, “We are here to talk about the 700,000 District residents who don’t have representation.”
She said afterward that few of the questions surprised her. One that did came from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who questioned where Hill staffers would park if the District became a state and parking spots were outside the federal enclave.
“We expected a lot of the questions about constitutionality, which we responded to,” Bowser said. “I didn’t expect for our rights to be subjugated to those of Hill staffers and their parking needs.”
One extra benefit of the statehood push has been the opportunity to educate the public, including a number of congressmen, about the revival enjoyed by the District in the past two decades. Based on some of the questions, it appeared that critics believed the city was still struggling with budget deficits and crime levels of bygone eras.
Bowser and other witnesses, such as Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, pointed out that public safety has improved over the years, and that the city has a better bond rating and financial condition than many states.
The District’s recovery partly explains why prospects are better now than when the House rejected statehood a quarter-century ago. At that time, 40 percent of Democrats voted “no,” along with all but one Republican.
Notably, almost the entire local congressional delegation from Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland opposed statehood. They feared the new state would impose a commuter tax. Today, the local delegation supports statehood, partly because commuting patterns have shifted and a lot of D.C. residents travel out of the District to work.
So while it took 26 years, the trend is in the right direction for Bowser. She may not get there while in office, but she can claim as part of her legacy that she gave the effort a worthy push.
She said: “This for us is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s an American issue. Getting a vote in the House gets us halfway there.”