With fewer than a dozen words Monday, President Barack Obama made his most definitive statement to date in favor of District statehood, delighting both loyal supporters and longtime advocates who have questioned his commitment to D.C. voting rights.
During a town hall-style event at a public school in Northwest Washington, Obama was asked about his opinion on statehood — something that has been the ultimate but elusive goal of voting-rights activists for four decades.
“I’m in D.C., so I’m for it,” Obama said to laughter and applause, according to a White House transcript.
“Folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else,” he continued. “They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented like everybody else. And it’s not as if Washington, D.C., is not big enough compared to other states. There has been a long movement to get D.C. statehood and I’ve been for it for quite some time. The politics of it end up being difficult to get it through Congress, but I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Obama has previously made gestures in support of the rights of District residents, who do not have a voting representative or senators in Congress. His administration has supported legislative efforts to give the city more budgetary freedom from Congress, and last year his limo sported the city’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plates as he cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue after his second inauguration.
But he has also received criticism that he has done little to go beyond mere gestures and occasionally has worked against the city’s interests — such as in 2011, when he settled a high-stakes budget showdown with congressional Republicans in part by agreeing to reinstate a budget rider preventing the District government from funding abortions.
Previous Obama administration pronouncements on the District have tended to eschew the S word. A 2012 White House statement to The Hill, for instance, said Obama “continues to be an unequivocal supporter of voting rights, home rule and budget autonomy for the District of Columbia.”
Meanwhile, other prominent Democrats have had no qualms about declaring support for statehood. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), to name one: “The District deserves statehood,” he said last year. “And Congress should act to grant it.”
Statehood advocates had no grumbles to share after Obama’s remarks Monday, which were made at the Walker Jones Education Campus, a public school located about a dozen blocks north of the Capitol.
“God bless him,” said Michael D. Brown, one of two “shadow” senators elected by District voters to promote statehood efforts. “I think this is huge, for the president to stand up behind it. . . . I’d call him a hero at this point.”
Obama’s remarks come as statehood bills sit introduced in both houses of Congress and after pledges from key Senate Democrats to hold a hearing on the matter — something that could harness major public attention to the statehood movement for the first time in years. They also come amid attempts by congressional Republicans to impose restrictions on the city’s marijuana and gun laws, interference that would be much more difficult, if not impossible, were the District a state.
Brown, who has commissioned 51-star flags to distribute to members of Congress later this year, said he and fellow “shadow” senator Paul Strauss continue to push for the statehood hearing. D.C. Vote, the city’s most prominent voting-rights advocacy group, also said Monday that Obama’s comments should prompt a hearing.
Anise Jenkins, a longtime statehood activist, said Monday that stalwart Republican opposition to statehood — a measure that could guarantee one additional Democratic representative and two additional Democratic senators for the foreseeable future — remains a daunting obstacle.
But Jenkins said she was still overjoyed by Obama’s remarks and said they have the potential to “energize the movement.”
“We have been critical of him,” Jenkins said of Obama. “We have to be honest about that. But it’s always the right time to do the right thing.”