The January transfer of gavels from Republicans to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee overseeing the District, put D.C.'s fate in friendly hands.
That Norton (D) has rounded up more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors is a testament both to her hard work and to the critical importance of having the House led by Democrats who are more attuned to the District’s disenfranchisement. There’s even a chance that Norton’s bill, appropriately designated H.R. 51, will pass the House before this session ends in 2021.
Statehood’s fate does not turn on the display of flags with 51 stars lining Pennsylvania Avenue or with citizen-packing pro-statehood hearings on Capitol Hill. Achieving full self-government and equal representation require a majority in both houses of Congress and a president who jointly agree that it is a gross injustice to deny 700,000 D.C. residents and taxpayers the same rights enjoyed by other Americans. We are nowhere near achieving that goal. But it is not out of reach.
An old-timer’s recollection:
Years of rallies, demonstrations, petitions and pleas for home rule were always met with fierce congressional resistance, largely in the form of Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), who ruled over the District for more than two decades as chairman of the then-House District Committee.
The Senate District Committee (where I worked) repeatedly steered home-rule legislation through the Senate, only to see the bills receive unceremonious burials in McMillan’s committee.
But McMillian (“Johnny Mac,” as he was called) fell victim to South Carolina voters in 1972 when he lost the Democratic primary. He blamed black voters for his defeat. “The colored people were bought out,” McMillan declared.
McMillan’s complaint overlooked the fact that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled black voters in his district like nothing else; that earlier in 1970, because of black voter enfranchisement, he had been forced into a primary runoff against a black Democratic opponent; and that many D.C. residents journeyed down to South Carolina to campaign against him. McMillan won that primary and general election. But justice caught up to him in 1972, when he lost a runoff. McMillan got about 17 percent of the black vote. His opponent waltzed to victory with about 47 percent of black voters.
McMillan’s political demise laid the groundwork for the real breakthrough for home rule: when Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.) became the House District Committee’s chairman.
Which gets us back to this moment and the quest for statehood.
Where the District goes from here will not be determined by Thursday’s House hearing, although Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) undoubtedly will make a convincing case for statehood in their testimony.
An unpleasant truth envelops the day.
A Republican-controlled Senate and White House are not the least bit upset about the denial of D.C. voting representation in Congress. Once a bill clears the House, it will run straight into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in June called discussion of statehood an example of “full-bore socialism on the march in the House.”
As with home rule, the way to statehood is not via rallies and parades but through elections beyond the District’s borders.
Holding on to a Democratic House in 2020 while flipping the Senate and ridding the White House of one of democracy’s worst enemies are statehood’s only way forward.
D.C. statehood adherents should find ways to provide support to candidates in key races against anti-D.C. incumbents in the Senate and House. In collaboration with state and local party leaders, they should direct D.C. volunteers, contributions and other resources to those campaigns, including the presidential contest.
To be sure, supportive rallies and demonstrations in the District have their place. But the path to statehood leads through the states. Thursday’s hearing should be a step toward that end.