D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Friday called for a citywide vote in November on making the nation’s capital the 51st state, resurrecting a decades-old plan to thrust the issue before Congress and raise awareness across the country about District residents’ lack of full citizenship.
“I propose we take another bold step toward democracy in the District of Columbia,” Bowser (D) said at a breakfast attracting hundreds of city residents, Democratic members of Congress and civil rights leaders marking the 154th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in the nation’s capital.
“It’s going to require that we send a bold message to the Congress and the rest of the country that we demand not only a vote in the House of Representatives,” she said. “We demand two senators — the full rights of citizenship in this great nation.”
The mayor’s announcement appeared poised to ratchet up tension between the District’s Democratic majority and its federal overseers in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The District is already challenging Congress over its authority to approve local city spending. This year, for the first time, Bowser and the D.C. Council plan to enact a local spending plan — totaling $13 billion — without congressional appropriation of those funds. Instead, the city will begin spending its money unless federal lawmakers act to stop it.
While some conservatives have expressed support for giving the District more control of its local tax dollars, Republicans have universally said statehood remains a non-starter. Statehood would give the District — which has never elected anyone other than a Democrat to citywide office in an open election — two Senate seats that could tip the balance of power in the chamber for years to come.
“I’m a big one for local control” of tax dollars, said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the subcommittee that handles D.C. affairs. But “when it becomes a slippery slope in an effort to give de facto statehood, that is not something that is going to be met with the same kind of genteel receptivity.”
Bowser left little doubt Friday that she sees the city’s fight for fiscal independence as a steppingstone to statehood. She announced her plan for a vote in November saying it will be critical to seize on whatever national attention and exposure might come from the city’s fiscal battle with Congress to make the larger case for statehood. And doing so in a presidential election year will put the issue front and center for the next president and Congress, she said.
The mayor’s administration is still in discussions with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) about how that would work.
But largely, Bowser plans a push for statehood that would follow a process known as the “Tennessee model.” When Tennessee applied to become the 16th state, it was the first federal territory to do so, and Congress allowed for an abbreviated path to statehood.
Residents of the would-be state voted to ratify a constitution and pledged to begin a republic form of government. Congress then admitted Tennessee into the union in 1796 without requiring ratification by the existing states.
In the early 1980s, the District attempted the same path. Then-Mayor Marion Barry petitioned Congress for statehood, but the request was largely ignored.
Bowser’s administration has begun the work of updating the constitution city voters ratified in 1982 for that effort, as well as a subsequent version the D.C. Council drafted in 1987.
But updating the constitution could be tricky. The 58-page document approved by voters is filled with numerous provisions that lost some support from even Barry during the last effort.
For example, the constitution includes a provision that requires the new state to provide jobs or adequate incomes to all city residents. It also would allow firefighters and police the right to strike. The document envisions a governor, lieutenant governor, 40-member unicameral legislature and locally controlled two-tier court system.
To petition for statehood, constitutional scholars have also advised the Bowser administration that voters should also be asked whether to repeal the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave D.C. residents the right to vote for president but not members of Congress.
In an interview, Bowser said she was confident that the city could place the statehood question on November’s ballot but was unsure whether a new state constitution would be ready by then.
The important part is “we’re changing the starting point for the statehood conversation,” Bowser said.
“Instead of waiting for congressional action, we want the people of the District of Columbia to speak,” she said. “We want to demonstrate, by a vote of the people, support for statehood in the District of Columbia.”
As Bowser spoke, nearly 200 statehood advocates got a head start, holding a demonstration and march on the Capitol, where they chanted “What do we want? Statehood! When do we want it? Now!”
Michael Stanisich brought his two sons, Estin, 9 and Aiden, 7.
“I have spent the bulk of my career in international development, working with marginalized and disenfranchised communities around the world and, well, there’s no place like home. It’s kind of ironic,” Stanisich said. “At home, we can’t get it done. . . . I do think, maybe, if it was 95 percent Republicans, maybe the tables would be turned.”
Speaking at the breakfast, Bowser said there is special injustice in holding back rights for the District because of politics.
“Some in Congress say . . . the reason why D.C. residents can’t have full access to the franchise is because of too many Democrats,” Bowser said. “Can you believe that? Do you think access to democracy is a Democratic or Republican issue? No, it’s an American issue.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.