In an air-conditioned city building in Anacostia under the glare of cameras, the delegates gathered to hammer out the nitty-gritty details of self-government at a constitutional convention.
The live-streamed event was a far cry from the powdered wigs and candlelight of 1787 Philadelphia, but D.C. political leaders and activists meeting this week share a similar goal: crafting a framework for democracy.
They are writing a state constitution for the District, a pivotal step in the city’s renewed push to become the 51st state. At meetings that began Monday and continue Friday and Saturday, D.C. leaders are collecting ideas about the best way to organize a new state.
And they’re doing it 2016 style.
The New Columbia Statehood Commission, the body running the convention, has catalogued tweets, emails, online comments and even Skype video testimony in its official record.
“We’re far from the quill pen — and even from the typewriter,” said Paul Strauss, a commission member and the District’s voteless “shadow” senator who lobbies for D.C. voting rights. “We’re going to make the nation’s first modern — and model — constitution,” he said.
The last time a territory held a constitutional convention that led to statehood was 66 years ago, when Hawaii wrote its state constitution before it was admitted to the union.
D.C. officials want the constitution to be ratified by D.C. voters in November, in the hope that the next president and Congress will take up the question of whether to grant the District statehood.
In the nation’s capital — where nearly every resident has an opinion about government — lawyers, lobbyists, gay rights advocates, environmentalists and others are weighing in on how they would create a state government from scratch.
Although only D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the commission’s four other members will approve the final version of a constitution, the mayor has encouraged every resident to participate as a “delegate” and have a say in the future of the new state.
In the heavily Democratic city, that’s produced hundreds of suggestions with a decidedly progressive slant.
With global warming a concern for some, they said Monday that the District should write protections for air and water quality into its constitution. Others want to exempt civil rights laws from ballot referendums – preventing local versions of such measures as North Carolina’s vote on transgender bathroom privileges. And in the wake of the mass shooting this week in Orlando, many want to delete any mention of the right to bear arms, saying the District should not tacitly endorse gun ownership by inserting the Bill of Rights into the state constitution, as most states have done.
“Let that blood be on someone else’s hands,” a delegate to the city’s first convention meeting this week stood up and yelled.
Bowser, who chairs the commission, wants a rather generic document. She said she doesn’t want the constitution to include social policy statements that could incite conservative Republicans in Congress to quash their effort.
That’s what happened in the early 1980s, the only other time the District attempted to draft a constitution, under then-Mayor Marion Barry. Some Republicans called the final document a liberal manifesto, with provisions that the state provide jobs to all city residents, and a guaranteed right to strike for any worker, including firefighters. Congress never acted on the bill.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, has promised to be a “vocal champion” for D.C. statehood if elected to the White House. But Republican Donald Trump has said statehood is a “tough thing” to envision.
Indeed, two centuries of American politics show that the District is facing a herculean task in getting Congress to take up the issue — or, for that matter, a president to invest in more than rhetoric.
D.C. residents have chafed at their lack of voting rights in Congress since the land comprising the District was deeded to the federal government in 1790.
Congress has allowed limited self-government since 1973, permitting residents to elect a mayor and a city council. But the federal government maintains control over its courts and its budget, and conservatives in Congress sometimes prevent the city from spending local tax dollars on programs they oppose, such as abortion funding for low-income women or full legalization of marijuana.
In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment to award D.C. voting representation in Congress, but it failed when the required three-fourths of states did not ratify it. An effort to give the District just one voting member of Congress collapsed in 2009, when Republicans attached a provision that would have required the city to jettison its tough gun laws.
Bowser is now pushing for the District to follow a different strategy, one modeled after Tennessee’s. That requires D.C. residents to write a state constitution, win approval from city voters and then apply to Congress to approve its admission as the 51st state without ratification by the states.
The draft constitution Bowser’s office largely drafted with input from legal experts would keep the District functioning mostly as it does now, although the nomenclature would change. The mayor would be known as the governor, and the D.C. Council would become the legislature.
The District would limit the legislature to just 13 members – the size of the current council but smaller than the 180 elected representatives in Vermont or 90-member legislature in Wyoming, two states with fewer residents than the District.
It would also retain the post of chief financial officer, one Congress required after the city nearly fell into bankruptcy in the 1980s. Under the document, the District would reclaim control of its courts and criminal justice system.
More than a dozen residents who spoke at Monday’s convention meeting denounced the idea of a small legislature, saying it would concentrate power in the hands of too few.
Residents also said the District must allow for a process to amend its constitution in the future, as most states do.
Laura Fuchs, a teacher at H.D. Woodson High School, was among those dissatisfied by the process, saying a true constitutional convention should include elected delegates and not leave decisions to politicians who could be trying to protect their own interests.
“This is sending the wrong message to our children about how to run a democracy,” said Fuchs, who wants the commission to hold a traditional convention within five years of the District being granted statehood.
The commission plans to vote on a final draft by the end of June and send it to the D.C. Council, which would have to approve it by early July in order for it to be placed on the November ballot.
“No process is going to be perfect,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting House member, who spoke Monday night, “But this is urgent, and we have to go on the offensive with Congress to demand our rights.”