A divided D.C. Council voted Tuesday to accept a constitution largely drafted by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office as the foundation for its bid to become the 51st state. But lawmakers also required the possible future state to hold a constitutional convention to allow residents to tweak the document as they see fit.
It was a win for longtime statehood activists who criticized Bowser for drafting a state constitution with limited community input. And it basically turns her constitution into a placeholder document.
Bowser and the council plan to petition Congress and the president for statehood if D.C. voters approve a referendum Nov. 8.
The changes to the proposed constitution, made Tuesday and approved 8 to 5, would require a constitutional convention with elected delegates held two years after statehood becomes official. Any changes would go directly to voters for approval, bypassing lawmakers.
The D.C. Council also separately agreed to scrap New Columbia as the name for the 51st state, preferring instead to call it “State of Washington, D.C.” D.C. would stand for Douglass Commonwealth, in honor of the abolitionist and D.C. resident Frederick Douglass.
Beverly Perry, a senior adviser to Bowser, said the mayor welcomed both the new name and a full constitutional convention.
“The mayor did not want to have one now, because there was no time if we wanted to send this to the president and to the Congress in January,” Perry said. “But a lot of people wanted this. The mayor could see that. She’s happy about it.”
Ongoing debates about the constitution cover a range of issues, including the number of lawmakers that would constitute a state legislature, how budgetary powers would be distributed and whether state offices that run elections and manage finances should be independent from the mayor’s office.
Before the council voted Tuesday to guarantee a future constitutional convention, D.C. voters would have been asked Nov. 8 to essentially forfeit the right to decide anything about the future state — its organization, governing structure and even what it is named. Critics complained that District officials were not elected to design a new government and were possibly conflicted because they were making choices that could affect their own authority.
“It’s important to me, in the name of democracy, to allow the people to move forward with [constitutional changes] without us meddling,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large).
Still, some are opposed to turning the responsibility of writing a constitution over to residents. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said lawmakers, immersed in day-to-day governing, are better suited to handle the nuanced details of a constitution. For instance, some residents may be inclined to strip civil liberties in times of fear, she said.
“I know it’s easy to use the rhetoric of ‘trust the people,’ ” Cheh said. “Sometimes, the people act out of instincts that may not be superior.”
The odds for achieving statehood are still long. Bowser is banking on Hillary Clinton winning the presidential race and Democrats taking control of Congress, necessary political conditions for the effort to move forward.