D.C. Statehood

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser went to the spot where President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and released a draft constitution for a 51st U.S. state on Friday.

The event was part of Bowser’s push for full statehood for the nation’s capital, which is more populous than Vermont or Wyoming and contributes more in federal taxes than 22 states but lacks voting representation in Congress.

Members of Congress have final say over local D.C. laws and over the spending of local tax revenue, and they routinely intervene in District issues, such as barring public funding of abortions for low-income residents and blocking the full legalization of marijuana.

Sensing growing unrest among her constituents over the District’s second-class status, and convinced that the lack of a vote in Congress makes it harder to resolve the city’s major issues, such as fixing Metro, Bowser (D) is making a concerted effort for statehood.

She has called for a constitutional convention in June and a vote by city residents in November to petition the next president and Congress to declare the District the 51st U.S. state, even as Republican leaders in the current Congress have said the issue is a nonstarter.

Supporters of D.C. statehood demonstrate outside the Capitol on April 15. District residents do not have voting representation in Congress, despite paying federal taxes. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

At the Lincoln Cottage, where Lincoln spent summers during the Civil War, Bowser laid out the steps to transform Washington from a federal district to a state.

“We chose this site because of the significance of Lincoln being here and writing the document that freed people across the United States,” Bowser said. “It’s a fitting reminder that we are not fully free. We don’t have full democracy in the District of Columbia.”

Under the proposed constitution, Bowser would become governor and the city’s 13 council members would become representatives in a new House of Delegates.

The District’s 670,000 residents — who are overwhelmingly registered Democrats — would elect one voting member to the U.S. House of Representatives and two to the Senate, which could tilt the balance of power toward Democrats in the closely divided chamber.

Sweeping change would also come to the District’s criminal-justice system, which is currently a convoluted mix of local police, federal judges, parole officers and prisons in more than a dozen states that mete out punishments and supervise the city’s convicts and suspected criminals.

The District’s mayor-turned-governor, not the president, would appoint judges to the bench, and the new state would assume the cost of hundreds of prosecutors and judges under a new D.C. corrections system.

The new state might also get a new name: New Columbia, the moniker selected by D.C. officials the last time they tried to win statehood, in the 1980s.

But Bowser said she was not wedded to that name, and during a question-and-answer session, many residents and activists said they would prefer different names, among the suggestions were Anacostia, Potomac and Douglass Commonwealth, after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Others said residents should vote on the name.

Bowser said she is partial to the name Washington, D.C., which some on her staff also think might improve odds in Congress by making it easier for businesses, the U.S. Postal Service, shipping companies and the federal government, which would occupy a new, smaller federal district surrounded by the 51st state. That district would encompass only the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the White House, monuments and a handful of public spaces and military installations near downtown.

Under the draft constitution, just about anyone could become governor in the state’s first election. Unlike most of the 50 states, which impose lengthy residency and U.S. citizenship requirements, the draft constitution requires only that a candidate for D.C. governor be a qualified voter and a resident for a year. That means even a foreigner with legal permanent residence in the District could run for governor. A bill under consideration by city lawmakers would allow anyone with a green card to vote in the city.

Beverly L. Perry, a senior adviser to the mayor and a member of the legal team that drafted the constitution, said the city will work out those details and might add restrictions used in other states.

Generally, the constitution was drafted to keep as many city functions as possible unaffected by the transition to a new government, should it be allowed to go forward, Perry and others said.

Unlike in the early 1980s, for example, when D.C. residents spent two years drafting a constitution, the District would not create many new positions, such as a lieutenant governor or a 40-member legislature. Rather, it would keep the current city council size of 13 members, elect them in the same fashion but call the body a state legislature.

That means a majority of just seven could create a new state law, nine could overrule the governor and 11 could vote to impeach a fellow member. The constitution spells out no process for how to impeach the governor.

Paul Strauss (D), the District’s “shadow senator” who lobbies for statehood and serves on the commission hosting the constitutional convention June 17 and 18, said the process is an opportunity to create a government in the digital age.

“We believe this is the first constitutional convention in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s not just the time of quill pens, but even typewriters the last time this was done in the 1980s.”

The commission published the constitution on a new website and will allow any resident to annotate it. The commission will also accept testimony by Skype, email and other digital formats.

“Every comment will be weighted equally, no matter what digital form it comes in,” Strauss said.

Friday offered a preview of the many of the battles to come, with some activists saying the legislature must be bigger, to give residents more direct say, and one resident said the District should more stringently define residents’ right to bear arms than does the U.S. Constitution.

The commission has set a deadline of July 8 for finalizing and voting on the new constitution, to give the District’s Board of Elections time to certify the measure for the November ballot.

That will allow D.C. to put its bid for statehood on a fast track 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 join the union, ratified a constitution and pledged to begin a republican form of government. Congress then admitted Tennessee into the union in 1796 without requiring ratification by the existing states.

The District hopes for the same latitude. But the mayor’s announcement is likely to increase tension between the District’s Democratic majority and a ­Republican-controlled Congress.

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.

That has caught the attention of House Republicans; the committee with oversight of the District has called a hearing for next week.