District voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to make the nation’s capital its 51st state on Tuesday, with pollgoers saying they hope the vote puts pressure on the next Congress and president to address D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress.
Voters in the District’s Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River, also resurrected the political career of former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). They sent him back to the D.C. Council less than a year after prosecutors abandoned a campaign finance investigation that factored heavily in Gray’s failed 2014 reelection bid.
“I can’t wait to get back — I love public service,” said an ebullient Gray, 74, just after sunrise Tuesday, as he arrived to vote at a senior center in the Hillcrest neighborhood. Chauffeured in a black SUV by a longtime aide and sporting a black leather bomber jacket that read “Mayor Gray,” the candidate said he would entertain a future comeback campaign for mayor. “We’ll see. I won’t rule anything out,” he said, breaking into a smile.
In addition to Gray, the District’s Democratic majority delivered expected victories for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and for party candidates Trayon White in Ward 8 and Robert White in the at-large council race. Together with Gray, the newly elected council members will replace close allies to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D); the turnover could signal rough relations ahead for the mayor and council in the second half of Bowser’s term.
Incumbents David Grosso (I-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) also handily won reelection.
Speaking to reporters just before polls closed, Bowser said she had already congratulated Gray and the other winners after their primary victories in June. She dismissed questions about how well she might be able to work with the new council.
“We share a lot of the same agenda around affordable housing and public safety and advancing our schools, and I intend to work with them very well on those items,” she said.
But Bowser focused most of her day on the statehood measure. She vowed to carry out the referendum quickly, delivering a petition for D.C. statehood to the next president and congressional leaders by Inauguration Day.
“This is what I’ve heard from D.C. residents all over the city. . . . They want to be treated like every American. They want two senators,” she said. “We need equality, and the only way to get there is with statehood.”
But an unexpectedly tight race for the presidency and control of the Senate left the future of the District’s proposal in doubt late Tuesday.
Bowser and statehood advocates crafted the referendum in hopes of emulating how 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 non-starter with Republicans in Congress.
The District has a population of more than 672,000 — larger than that of Vermont or Wyoming — and its residents pay more in federal taxes than do those in 22 states. But Democrats outnumber Republicans in the District by a margin of more than 2 to 1. That means that if it were allowed to become a state, the District would probably elect two Democratic senators and a Democratic member of the House, improving odds for Democratic control of both chambers for decades to come.
Kathy Jasper, a third-generation Washingtonian, was among those who cast a vote in favor of the referendum.
“We pay federal taxes like we’re a state. We need to see some of the benefits of being a state,” she said. The retired recruiter said that she did not hold out hope that statehood would come soon but that it was an important message to the nation.
“We’ve been trying for a long time, and we’ll keep on trying,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in an interview this year that D.C. statehood would never happen on his watch.
Under the referendum, the District would create a new state for its residential areas, leaving a smaller federal district that contained government buildings and monuments.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did not take a firm position on D.C. statehood during the campaign. But in an interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board in the spring, he said statehood is a “tough thing.”
Bowser and statehood proponents had largely pinned their hopes for a national dialogue on the issue on the expected victory of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Over the summer, Clinton for the first time cast statehood as a presidential-election issue.
Pressing federal leaders on statehood could be one area of cooperation for Bowser and the incoming Gray.
Bowser and Gray have been arrested together in a statehood protest, and as recently as Tuesday, Gray said he supports the mayor’s referendum to further the cause.
But Gray also warned he would not back down on issues where the two disagree: “I don’t have any hesitation in speaking up on the policy direction I think we should take,” he said.
Dealing with Bowser won’t be the only political intricacy Gray will have to navigate.
His other challenges include a council that has grown increasingly liberal since he ascended to the mayor’s office six years ago.
The council raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour, higher than what Gray said he would support during his tenure as mayor. It also implemented a voter-approved ballot measure to legalize marijuana, a measure Gray’s administration tried to stop. And the council backed Bowser in approving record spending on homeless shelters, which Gray tried to curtail as mayor.
As he hugged and shook hands with a stream of supporters Tuesday, Gray said that he was confident he’d fit in and that he views himself as a progressive.
But in interviews with dozens of voters Tuesday, it was clear that Gray may first have to validate his return to the council with constituents.
Danielle Duncan, a 33-year-old registered Republican in Ward 7, pulled the lever for Clinton but said she still couldn’t bring herself to vote for Gray.
“Ever since that scandal he was involved in, I don’t trust him,” she said.
Robert Contee, 61, voted for Gray and said he welcomed his return — in a benevolent, parenting sort of way.
“I say everybody deserves a second chance,” Contee said. “It’s just like you would do from a parent to a child. . . . As a parent, you have to forgive.”
Peter Jamison and Perry Stein contributed to this report.