Days after runoff elections in Georgia delivered Democrats an unexpected Senate majority, the team behind 51 for 51, an advocacy group fighting for D.C. statehood, gathered on Zoom to discuss its next steps. “There is nothing in the way of us finally granting statehood to over 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C.,” said Stasha Rhodes, the campaign director, her frameless glasses glinting in the glare of her computer screen. “We now see the light at the end of a very dark, undemocratic tunnel.”
Rhodes asked the campaign’s lead organizers, three native Washingtonians in their early to mid-20s, how they hoped to focus their efforts in the first days of the Biden administration. Ty Hobson-Powell, seated on his couch in a sweatshirt with the word “American” scrawled across the front, suggested putting pressure on senators who had already pledged support for D.C. statehood. Jamal Holtz raised the importance of talking to voters in states whose senators had expressed ambivalence. Demi Stratmon proposed an expanded media campaign. “I want statehood to happen in the first 100 days,” she said. “I don’t want it to be pushed to the back burner anymore.”
Hobson-Powell, Holtz and Stratmon are the newest faces of a D.C. statehood movement that has never been more visible — or closer to achieving its goal. For the first time in American history, D.C. statehood is now both a political priority in the halls of Congress and a popular demand far beyond the District’s borders. And that’s in part due to the work of activist groups such as 51 for 51, whose members spent the better part of a year before the pandemic traveling to places like South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa, speaking with voters who had no idea that roughly 700,000 Americans — more than the populations of Wyoming or Vermont — pay federal taxes without possessing a vote in Congress.
Though the pandemic at first stalled 51 for 51’s strategy, the summer’s uprisings for racial justice opened unexpected avenues for a campaign to empower a majority-minority city. In June, when President Donald Trump sent the National Guard into the city to suppress the protests despite opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser, he drew attention to the unequal status that left D.C. unable to refuse what many residents considered a hostile invasion. “This blatant degradation of our home right before my own eyes offered another reminder — a particularly powerful one — of why we need statehood for the District,” the mayor wrote in The Washington Post that month. At the protests, calls for statehood joined other chants for racial justice. On June 26, a statehood bill passed the House of Representatives for the first time in history, with the support of all but one of the chamber’s Democrats.
“We’ve never seen the groundswell of public support for statehood that we’re seeing now,” says historian Chris Myers Asch, co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” a celebrated book about D.C.’s long struggle for self-determination. “There were never thousands of people in the streets, demanding statehood.”
By July, when former president Barack Obama endorsed statehood for both D.C. and Puerto Rico in his eulogy for the late congressman John Lewis, it was clear that the issue had achieved a place on the Democratic agenda. Obama also called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” that should be eliminated “to secure the God-given rights of every American” — an acknowledgment that enacting statehood, like nearly every other progressive priority, will require Senate Democrats to do away with the rule that allows a minority of legislators to block bills backed by the majority. Long before Obama made that connection, 51 for 51 did so in its platform, which argues that a simple Senate majority of 51 votes should be sufficient to make D.C. the 51st state.
Months later, Democrats have won not only the White House but majorities in both chambers of Congress. With Vice President Harris as the tiebreaker in the Senate, the party could potentially muster a bare majority of votes to create what has alternately been referred to as “New Columbia” or “the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” — in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Statehood for D.C. would be a tangible way to fulfill the promise that Joe Biden made to Black Americans on the night he declared victory in the 2020 presidential election: “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” American democracy systematically overrepresents White voters at the expense of Black voters and other voters of color. The practice of according two senators to each state increases the power of the least populous places, which tend to be more White than the United States as a whole. David Leonhardt of the New York Times has calculated that the average Black voter has only 75 percent of the voting power in the Senate allotted to the average White one, and the average Hispanic voter has even less influence. The addition of two senators from D.C. — which would be the only state in the union where Black residents formed the largest racial or ethnic group — would go a small but significant way toward correcting this imbalance.
But if Democrats aren’t moved to enfranchise the District in the name of fairness, they may be impelled to do so out of self-interest. The rural skew renders the Senate between 6 and 7 percentage points more conservative than the general electorate, according to the polling website FiveThirtyEight. By 2040, political scientists project, the 70 Senators who hail from small states will collectively represent only 30 percent of Americans. The longer the Democratic majority waits to create a more representative Congress, the harder it will be to overcome the Republican minority’s ingrained advantage.
Statehood, in other words, poses a solution to many of the problems facing the new administration — but D.C.’s path forward is still far from certain. The Senate’s new swing vote, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposes scrapping the filibuster and has said he needs “to see the pros and cons” before deciding whether D.C. should be a state. Other conservative Democrats may also lack the stomach for an effort that Republicans portray as a power grab. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the difficulty, demonstrated countless times over the centuries since the District was founded, of convincing people across the country that the rights of a city on the East Coast should rank among their most pressing concerns. It’s easy to imagine how the sense of possibility that currently surrounds statehood could dissipate as it has so many times before — unless, that is, activists can sustain the public excitement that eluded their predecessors, elevating the District’s disenfranchisement, at long last, to the status of urgent national cause.
Today’s statehood activists are far from the first to connect the city’s lack of representation to the wider oppression of Black Americans. Long a capital of African American culture, the District drew free Blacks before the Civil War and became a magnet for Southerners during the Great Migration; by the 1950s, Black residents made up the city’s majority. In the early ’70s, the newly founded D.C. Statehood Party, led by civil rights activists such as Julius Hobson, compared Washingtonians to “a colonized people,” and the U.S. Congress to “the colonial authorities.” (To this day, Congress reviews all laws passed by D.C.’s city council, as well as the municipal budget — a power federal lawmakers have used to preempt progressive policies, such as stringent gun control measures.)
Republicans have long opposed D.C. statehood, but the tepid enthusiasm of Democrats has been just as significant an impediment. In 1990, Jesse Jackson ran for the role of the District’s nonvoting “shadow senator,” which he vowed to use as a platform to win the city increased representation. Like Hobson before him, he spoke about statehood in the language of civil rights, arguing that it “may be the only way to integrate the U.S. Senate.” Jackson and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, spent years building support for a statehood bill that came up for a vote in 1993, when Democrats controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress. When the bill was defeated, with 105 Democrats and all but one Republican voting no, Jackson placed the failure at his own party’s feet: “If the White House had pushed this, we would have won.”
The movement that rebuilt itself from this nadir embraced an incrementalist strategy. Though some groups continued to demand statehood, most were like D.C. Vote, an umbrella effort established in 1998, which supported any steps toward self-determination. In the House, Norton continued to advocate for statehood while also advancing piecemeal proposals, such as a bipartisan bill that would have paired a House vote for the District with an additional seat for deep-red Utah. (Conservatives torpedoed the idea all the same.) It’s only in the past decade “that the community of groups across the spectrum are full-on for statehood,” says Josh Burch, founder of the volunteer group Neighbors United for DC Statehood.
In the interim, however, the movement made gains. “Part of what’s happened today is a moment arriving, and part of it is that we helped make a moment,” argues Bo Shuff, executive director of D.C. Vote. “Luck favors the prepared mind.” With the help of Shuff’s organization, Norton attached 227 co-sponsors to her statehood bill before the vote this past summer. Meanwhile, Bowser has prepared a constitution for the proposed commonwealth. Other shifts in the city also helped lay the groundwork. Opponents once argued that the District didn’t deserve statehood because of a mismanaged budget — a justification that always veiled racist resistance to granting a mostly Black city self-government — but the D.C. of today is fiscally unimpeachable. And some advocates believe it’s not a coincidence that the nation has grown more comfortable with the idea of statehood as the city has grown increasingly White.
But it’s the Democratic Party that has undergone what may prove the most consequential evolution. “Democrats are shifting toward uniform support for statehood because they realize it’s one of the only ways they can gain power that’s equivalent to their numbers in the greater population,” historian George Derek Musgrove, co-author of “Chocolate City,” told me. The last time statehood was widely discussed, in the early 1990s, Democrats had held the Senate for more than 30 of the prior 40 years. Now, after two Republican presidents who were elected without winning the popular vote, and six years of Mitch McConnell’s ruthless tenure atop the Senate, Democrats can no longer avoid the reality that their political fortunes are shrinking even as their coalition grows. Unlike in the ’90s, “I don’t think there’s any question that people within the Democratic leadership understand the stakes, and the benefits that statehood would bring to the party,” Musgrove says.
Because D.C. has no lawmakers who can vote in Congress, activists like those at 51 for 51 must persuade other Americans to petition their representatives on the District’s behalf. 51 for 51 was created for this purpose: Whereas the statehood movement of previous generations largely lacked allies outside D.C., the new group was founded in 2019 with the backing of national organizations — such as Indivisible and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — whose stalled policy agendas could advance with the help of senators from a new state. (51 for 51, which consists of a nine-person team, also receives support from the Hub Project, a nonprofit that assists progressive campaigns.)
“Much of the action in the past has been centered in Washington, but that is not how you get statehood,” Norton told me in January. “51 for 51, by carrying the message around the country, has really amped up the support for statehood in a way that you simply can’t do from the District of Columbia, even from the House of Representatives or the Senate. That’s how all bills get passed, and no less so for D.C. statehood. You simply have to get the country involved.”
On a Tuesday in late September, Stratmon hosted a Zoom call with about 100 high school and college-age activists from across the country, all of whom had agreed to lobby their senators for statehood in two days, in a virtual trip to Capitol Hill. “I’m not a constituent of any of these senators, and that’s the fight we’re fighting as D.C. residents,” Stratmon told them. “They are your elected officials. They are there to serve you, and you have the right to speak with them and tell them why you believe in this cause.” Many of the young advocates were members of campus groups devoted to progressive issues — such as gun violence prevention, reproductive justice and climate action — that have been stymied by a conservative Senate.
In a breakout room, a group of California residents prepared to meet with their senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Feinstein had recently stated her opposition to abolishing the filibuster. “The fact that she feels the need to come out and take a stand shows that we’re making noise,” Nicole Mendoza, a member of 51 for 51’s communications team who grew up in Los Angeles, told the group. “Our goal is to hold her accountable and let her know that, as her constituents, we are going to keep pushing back on her unfavorable stance on the filibuster.” One of the youth advocates asked if he could propose his own statehood bill to Feinstein’s office. Mendoza looked momentarily taken aback. “No,” she said. “I love the ambition, but we’re trying to keep focused on our asks.”
In recruiting young advocates to their cause, the members of 51 for 51 hope to harness the energy and idealism that have propelled youth movements such as the March for Our Lives, started by survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the climate-focused Zero Hour. Stratmon, Holtz and Hobson-Powell are members of more or less the same generation as these other activists. Long before they joined 51 for 51, they met as participants in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute, a program for D.C. high school students with an interest in public service. They noticed one another immediately. Stratmon, from Takoma, was an award-winning dancer and the student president of Banneker High School, a prestigious magnet school in Northwest D.C. (Years later, she’s a professional cheerleader for the Washington Football Team on top of her day job as a government consultant.) Holtz, who grew up in Ward 8, wore a suit to the program and talked about his ambition to be mayor someday with a seriousness that made Stratmon and Hobson-Powell believe him. Hobson-Powell, a few years older than the other two, had grown up near the northern tip of the city and made the local news at age 14 when he became the youngest person ever to attend Howard University; he came to the program to talk about his work with the city government as a college graduate still in his teens. (Today, he’s a prominent local activist who helped organize the past summer’s demonstrations for racial justice.) Over the coming years, “we kept ending up in the same rooms, and it seemed like we should know each other,” Stratmon says. “We all wanted better for our city.”
In 2019, Holtz, then a junior at the University of Rochester, received a call from one of his mentors in Washington. Greg Jackson, who was Holtz’s boss when he interned in the mayor’s office in high school, had heard that 51 for 51 was looking for young Washingtonians who could put a face on its case for equal rights. Jackson suggested Holtz, who suggested Stratmon, then a junior at Dartmouth College, and Hobson-Powell, who was working for the D.C. government.
Jackson knew that Holtz felt strongly about the way D.C.’s dependent status shapes life in the city: Some of Holtz’s family members have been pushed out of Washington by rapid gentrification and rising housing prices, and childhood friends have lost their lives to gun violence — both problems that the District could address more forcefully if it weren’t constrained by Congress. Jackson had also admired Holtz’s ambition to serve his hometown ever since Holtz was a teenage intern who stayed late on Fridays at his desk at the mayor’s office. In addition to every other disadvantage that comes with D.C.’s status as a federal district, the city’s lack of statehood deprives its young leaders of a pathway into public life beyond municipal government. Holtz’s friends like to point out that, if D.C. were a state, he could someday ascend from mayor to governor. “Jamal might be statehood,” Jackson says. “He might be the living embodiment of it, if we can get this done.”
Holtz, Stratmon and Hobson-Powell, along with nine other young advocates from D.C., spent the ensuing months following the Democratic presidential primary candidates on the campaign trail, pinning them at state fairs and pressing them to go on the record about whether they supported not only the idea of statehood, but a plan to enact it with 51 votes in the Senate. Some, such as Sen. Cory Booker, declined to endorse their proposal to bypass the filibuster, no matter how often they sought him out. “We were like, ‘No, sir, we’re going to put the camera on you again,’ ” Stratmon recalls. (Booker’s office did not return requests for comment, but he has described himself as a strong proponent of D.C. statehood while saying that ending the filibuster is “not ... off the table.”) But 18 of the candidates eventually pledged their support, including Harris and Biden — who shook Hobson-Powell’s hand at a crowded function in South Carolina while the other advocates thrust iPhones in his smiling face, memorializing the moment for Instagram.
The months of bird-dogging candidates constituted an education in how the rest of the country views the city of Washington. The advocates encountered many people who had no idea that D.C. wasn’t a state, or that its residents weren’t represented in Congress. Over and over, the group explained that D.C. was full of doctors, teachers, janitors, shop clerks and hundreds of thousands of other people who didn’t work in the White House or on Capitol Hill. After Holtz spent the entirety of a Bill de Blasio event making this case to a woman from South Carolina, she friended him on Facebook and started sharing his posts about 51 for 51. Sitting in the back of the car between events, the advocates would open Twitter, search “D.C. statehood” and “literally just sit together and respond to tweets and engage in a dialogue,” Holtz says. When Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) justified his opposition to statehood in June by saying that D.C. wasn’t home to “working-class people,” 51 for 51 filmed interviews with a firefighter, a small-business owner and other city residents, and released them with the hashtag “#WeAreDC.”
As Black Washingtonians traversing mostly White Midwestern towns, the advocates also got used to chasing their quarry through rooms where “we were the only pocket of diversity in the space,” as Stratmon put it, “and we had to get comfortable and do our job anyway.” The first time Stratmon texted her friends back home that she was in Iowa, “they were like, ‘Are you being kidnapped?’ ” she says. Stratmon took a certain pride in representing the District to people far beyond its borders. “D.C. is a bubble, and it seems sometimes like the rest of the country wants us to feel that way,” she says. Taking her city’s problems to the rest of the nation felt to her “like pushing boundaries.”
At the same time, the group was contributing to a changing conversation within D.C.: a growing progressive consensus that abolishing the filibuster is a necessary step toward enacting the popular will. “We wanted to embrace the reality that Republicans, if we were successful in 2020 and took back the Senate, would use the filibuster to stop statehood,” campaign director Stasha Rhodes, who helped found the group, told me. “So we decided to create a campaign that leaned into that strategy and didn’t try to hide it.”
“51 for 51 deserves a ton of credit for making that a part of the conversation and the strategy around statehood,” Burch, of Neighbors United, told me. “I’ve evolved on the issue because of them.” Though 51 for 51 is calling for a “carve-out,” which would eliminate the 60-vote threshold solely for the issue of statehood, not wholesale abolition of the filibuster, that message still places them “way out in the fast lane” of the movement, according to Shuff of D.C. Vote. 51 for 51 framed its demand to avoid alienating partners who have yet to take a position on the filibuster, but its campaign has persuaded some of its allies to call for reform. The Brady organization, for example, started its own “51 is Fair!” campaign to pass gun control legislation with a simple majority vote. “I would definitely say that, for us, the egregious injustice of District residents being disproportionately impacted by gun violence while not being able to access democracy was our first foot in the door on this issue,” Christian Heyne, Brady’s vice president of policy, told me.
At 51 for 51’s Zoom lobby day in September, Sen. Feinstein’s staffer didn’t budge from her boss’s defense of the filibuster. Still, discussing the meeting in a virtual “war room,” the advocates concluded that the conversation had gone better than expected. “She was talking about how Feinstein supports D.C. statehood and is committed to revisiting the issue after November,” one recounted. “So that’s good.”
“That’s huge,” agreed Jennifer Mandelblatt, who works on campaigns at the Hub Project.
As the 51 for 51 team waited for reports from other meetings, they reminisced about the days when they could have visited the Hill in person. Eventually, good news began to trickle in. Waving a phone full of triumphant text messages a little before 10 a.m., Mandelblatt announced that Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had pledged his support for eliminating the filibuster for statehood. Mandelblatt did a celebratory dance from the comfort of her beige couch, and Mendoza cheered. Stratmon reentered the meeting beaming from another encouraging call. “You all make me fearless,” she wrote in the chat.
Two months later, Rhodes sounded more subdued. “We were pretty confident that we were going to have a different result in the Senate,” she told me a week after Biden secured victory. “We’ve been taking a step back to mourn the results we didn’t get. ... I’ve mostly cried and slept.” If the Democrats lost the Senate runoffs in Georgia, she wasn’t yet sure how the campaign would proceed. “We purposely put all our eggs in the winning scenario basket,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we take a break or relax our advocacy.”
Even now that two surprise wins in Georgia have delivered a Democratic Senate, statehood faces a narrower path than the group once anticipated. “I’m not sure, on this issue and many others, frankly, that Democrats are willing to fight as hard as Republicans,” Musgrove says. “I am more hopeful than I’ve ever been about the chances of statehood, but we’re coming up from a hopefulness level of single-digit percentages.” Other longtime observers expressed a similar skepticism. “The intensity of the fight for statehood has risen and fallen like a thermometer,” says Tom Sherwood, a political analyst for WAMU who has reported on the city since 1974. “Sometimes it gets white hot, and then it kind of falls back.” The statehood movement, he points out, has always been underfunded (though 51 for 51 has “been able to spend seven figures,” according to a spokesperson). “As a citizen of the city, I am for statehood, but as a reporter in the city, I have seen an episodic battle with no clear ending,” Sherwood says.
There’s no doubt that, even if Democrats decide to fight for statehood, they will be met by Republicans who see no political upside in extending full voting rights to the capital’s residents. “A coalition of left-wing special interests are explicitly campaigning for, quote, 51 for 51,” McConnell warned in July from the Senate floor, accusing the group of seeking “ill-gotten power” and conspiring “to pack the Senate.”
I asked Rhodes whether she feared that the promise of additional Democratic Senate seats could not only propel support for statehood but also fuel the opposition. “When we’re asked if this is about getting two more seats in the Senate, then we are unapologetically saying yes,” she said. “This is about getting two seats in the Senate, because over 700,000 folks in Washington deserve two seats in the Senate.” Polling suggests that Americans increasingly agree: One 2020 survey, from Data for Progress and YouGov Blue, found an eight-point shift in favor of statehood since early 2019, with a plurality of voters (43 percent) and a strong majority of Democrats (69 percent) in the pro column. Young voters and Black voters displayed the most movement, swinging toward statehood by 18 and 29 points, respectively. In a Hill-HarrisX poll conducted in June, a slim majority of an ideologically diverse pool of respondents, 52 percent, said they thought D.C. should be a state.
Rhodes argues that the more people learn about statehood, the more they see it as a matter of justice rather than a question of political expedience. “It’s a trick to focus on the partisan aspects of it and not focus on the justice side of it,” she says. “I’m from the South, I’m Black and I’m a lesbian. People before me have had to fight for every single right I enjoy, and all those things were partisan. We’re not going to apologize for that, or run away from it.”
In early January, at 51 for 51’s first meeting after the Georgia runoffs, the mood was resolute rather than exultant. In addition to discussing Democrats’ success in the Senate, the group needed to talk about the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The disaster seemed to be feeding the enthusiasm surrounding statehood: Bowser once again called for statehood the day after the riot, pointing out that the D.C. police officers who put “their lives on the line to protect our democracy” lacked representation in the halls they were called to defend. Observers also noted that the National Guard could have responded more quickly if D.C. had a governor with the power to call them in. The advocates welcomed the attention but felt ambivalent about the form it was taking. On the day of the attack, “I saw a tweet saying something like, ‘Today was the strongest argument yet for D.C. statehood,’ ” Holtz said. “For me, that was annoying.” The strongest argument for statehood, in his view, was not a security breach — however alarming — but the disenfranchisement that District residents endure every day.
Still, the new year had restored the group’s optimism and set their legislative effort in motion. Norton had already reintroduced her statehood bill in the House, with a record number of original co-sponsors, leaving advocates to focus on the Senate. “The best way to push reluctant senators is to have them hear from their constituents that D.C. statehood is good for West Virginia, for Arizona ... for Georgia,” Rhodes said, listing some of the states whose Democratic lawmakers have so far failed to endorse either statehood or filibuster abolition. “There is no way to accomplish the progressive agenda we need after such a devastating administration without democratizing the Senate.” To reach the grass roots, 51 for 51 plans to rely on the Just Democracy coalition, a group of Black- and Brown-led social justice organizations pushing for structural change to American institutions. “We’re prioritizing building on the support of the voters who have actually saved democracy,” Rhodes said.
Most of all, Rhodes told me, “we’re excited to have the opportunity to be heard. As an organizer, you like to think that if enough people show up, and you send enough emails and make enough phone calls, change will happen. But if the rules are rigged against you, none of that matters. With this new Senate and this new White House, I think we actually have a chance to be listened to.” On the other hand, “it would be a devastating sign that Democrats are not interested in democracy if we didn’t achieve statehood now.”
Advocates have two years to prevent that from happening. “Harris and Biden looked me in the eyes and told me I mattered,” Hobson-Powell says, recalling his experiences on the campaign trail last year. “That lets me know that what I have to do is continue to put pressure on them.”
Nora Caplan-Bricker is a writer in Boston.
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Animation by Kolin Pope.