D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser conceded Wednesday that the referendum she pushed to make the nation’s capital the 51st state would probably go nowhere soon in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president.
The mayor’s acknowledgment — before District officials had even finished counting ballots — laid bare the stark political consequences for the nation’s capital stemming from the Republican’s upset win.
“Obviously, part of our strategy was to be ready for when we had like-minded people elected in the White House and in the Congress,” Bowser said. “We are, you know, ready for that day — when it comes.”
Later Wednesday, Bowser said support for statehood would still be her first request when she encounters Trump.
“That’s number one on our agenda for the next president; there’s no way we’re going to forget we just had this vote,” she said.
During eight years under President Obama, District leaders had loosened marijuana laws and fought to maintain strict gun-control policies. They also had begun to dream of full-fledged statehood for the federal territory, which has a population larger than Vermont’s or Wyoming’s.
Bowser and statehood advocates crafted a referendum to push the issue with Congress, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had heightened expectations, saying that if elected, she would champion the cause. On Tuesday, 79 percent of voters approved a draft constitution for a 51st state, not including the nearly 8 percent who cast ballots but did not take part in the referendum.
But faced the next day with the reality that the District will soon begin preparations for a Trump inauguration, Bowser said D.C. faces a long road in persuading Republicans to support statehood and that her hope for “full equality” and a vote in Congress for the 51st state would have to wait, again, for a better political environment.
Michael Brown, one of the District’s nonvoting “shadow” senators, put it simply.
“We need to move on to Plan B,” Brown said. He advocated a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign to keep the issue alive.
But the mayor and many D.C. Council members said they would consider that idea later. First, they were girding for attacks on such city policies as gun control, protections for transgender people and the legalized recreational use of marijuana.
oncern is, what does an unchecked hostile Congress look like?” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1). “We’ve been dealing with a hostile Congress for years now, but we had a protective backstop in President Obama. We will not have a protective backstop in President Trump.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has tried repeatedly to restrict the open carry of firearms in the nation’s capital, said he didn’t want to draw attention to gun-control measures that Republicans might target.
“The challenge is on us to work with the new federal government,” Mendelson said. “Instead of assuming we have friends, we are going to have to work to win friends and minimize the possibility we draw enemies.”
A first challenge could come early in the year when Congress has to pass a federal spending measure to keep the government running. The District has taken steps this year to assert more financial autonomy, spending money more like a state than a federal agency. But the authority could be stripped away with a single sentence inserted in a new federal spending bill.
Bowser said her first concern surrounds costs that the District might incur if Congress repeals Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “There’s no answer for how we’d fund that,” she said.
Although not optimistic, the mayor promised to keep pressing the case for statehood. Bowser, in fact, said she was bound by the outcome of the referendum to still petition the next Congress in January.
The mayor said officials need to study whether it could afford a public relations campaign.
“It is clear that we need to spend a lot more time educating other states and we need to figure out what we’re willing to pay to do that,” she said.
Under the referendum, the District would split into a new state for its residential areas and a smaller, federal district containing government buildings and monuments.
Bowser and statehood advocates crafted the referendum in hopes of emulating the way residents in Tennessee petitioned Congress to join the Union in 1796.
Congress said it would grant statehood to Tennessee, a federal territory at the time, if residents there approved a constitution and committed to a republican form of government.
But partisan politics have long made D.C. statehood a nonstarter with Republicans in Congress. The city has a population of more than 672,000, and its residents pay more in federal taxes than those of 22 states. But Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.
That means if allowed to become a state, the District would likely elect two Democratic senators and a Democratic member of the House, a prospect that disturbs most Republicans in Congress.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, said in an interview this year that D.C. statehood would “never happen” on his watch. He and other Republicans also say they believe that statehood violates the Constitution, which they argue gives Congress supreme authority over what happens in the capital city.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said District leaders need to focus on protecting progressive policies in the era of Trump. “Statehood is off the table. We have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, and a Republican president,” she said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t unpacked what really happened last night.”