At the first public hearing just weeks before voters will be asked to approve a referendum calling for D.C. statehood, activists argued that residents should have more say in drafting a constitution for the would-be 51st state.
Voters will be asked to “approve” the founding document on Election Day, but the D.C. Council could continue to amend it after November and have the final say over how the new state is structured.
That irritated several activists who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing before the D.C. Council.
“Council members were not elected to write a constitution, and you face significant conflicts of interest,” testified Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of D.C. for Democracy.
Lawmakers have said they were racing to put the question before voters in November, when the presidential election is likely to draw a strong turnout, and did not want to wait until a final version was ready for public review.
The proposed constitution was drafted this year by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and the three nonvoting members of the District’s congressional delegation.
Under their plan, the city’s mayor would become a governor, the 13-member city council would be expanded into a 21-member House of Delegates, and an independent court system would be created.
But points of contention remain: Are 21 members too few or too many? Should the governor have extensive power such as a line-item veto over proposed spending? And should a local bill of rights include the right to keep and bear arms?
There’s even controversy over what to call the state. Bowser, Mendelson and others have proposed “New Columbia.”
But the moniker is far from a crowd-pleaser. Residents suggested at least 10 alternatives including Potomac, Anacostia and Douglass Commonwealth — an homage to abolitionist Frederick Douglass that would maintain the District’s “D.C.” abbreviation.
Council members seemed receptive to a follow-up convention, but no final decision was made; another public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 6.
“We have to make sure people know we are listening,” said council member David Grosso (I-At Large).
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the District can follow the lead of the architects of the U.S. Constitution — which was originally approved by states with the understanding that the Bill of Rights would follow. “We have a model in front of us to show that imperfections can be dealt with,” she said.
The November referendum is one step in the longtime push to win D.C. statehood, which ultimately would need Congress’s approval.
Bowser’s goal is to ready a petition to Congress for statehood by January, in case the Democratic presidential nominee wins the White House and Democrats who support the idea win control of Congress.
Congress and the president could approve statehood for the District with an up-or-down vote and the signature of the president, much the way they did for Tennessee more than two centuries ago.
The District’s shadow senator, Paul Strauss, said the state constitution should steer clear of controversial policy pronouncements such as requiring public financing of elections or restricting gun rights “to create as little as disruption as possible and promote as much stability as possible.”
On Saturday, Bowser made a pitch for statehood on live national television at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“While we are proud to host this museum that shows how far we have come as Americans, we know that it also will show how far Washingtonians have to go,” Bowser said .
She said that “670,000 people live here in Washington in the shadows of the Capitol; however, we cannot fully manifest our own destiny until we become the 51st state of our union.”
But Bowser will be conspicuously absent Wednesday when consumer advocate Ralph Nader convenes former D.C. mayors, current elected officials including Mendelson and others to discuss statehood at a gathering of progressive activists.
Bowser’s spokesman said the mayor had a scheduling conflict and would be represented by her general counsel.
That irked Nader, who has been pushing for D.C. statehood from as far back as 2000 when he ran for president. He said he was trying to galvanize progressives around the country behind the District’s cause.
“Too busy?” Nader said. “It’s 20 minutes right down the avenue, and it’s a prime issue for her.”
A Bowser spokesman responded that “the statehood movement is not about Mayor Bowser; nor does it hinge on her.”