As D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) gets ready to release a final version of a D.C. state constitution, based on recommendations made by her, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and others, District residents are offered an opportunity to weigh in on shaping their own political future for the first time since the advent of home rule in 1973 . It’s an opportunity they should invest in.
The draft state constitution is significant for its intention to maintain the current political framework. That is, morphing the current 13-member D.C. Council representative structure into the new state’s representatives. Perhaps the reluctance on the part of the mayor to alter the current representational dynamic is calculated to blunt any possible criticisms from Capitol Hill about any too-far-reaching reforms in District governance. And as strategies go, this is not altogether unreasonable; yet it ignores what the D.C. statehood movement has been about: achieving the right to be responsive to the will of the people of the District.
To tailor a proposed state constitution narrowly to placate opposition would be a disservice to the cause everyone in the District has cared so much about for so long: equality, democracy and freedom.
If the District is to become a state, its citizens should be entitled to craft the architecture of their own governance in a manner befitting their aspirations. The choices the District makes today matter greatly. It’s important that its citizens take this opportunity to consider what they want and what they’re getting in any proposed constitution.
The mayor has chosen to leave in place the 13-member “legislature” in the draft document, but is it the most responsive structure available to serve the District’s evolving political needs? Isn’t what the mayor is proposing really the same old Columbia — not a New Columbia? And should 672,000 D.C. residents be content to elect only 13 representatives to represent their vital interests?
To put the mayor’s proposal in perspective, let’s look at the levels of local representation other states provide their citizens.
Vermont, with a population of about 626,000 — less than the District’s — has enjoyed a bicameral legislature of 180 members since 1836. This figure means each legislator represents about 3,477 citizens.
Wyoming, often cited by District officials as having a comparable population when advocating for statehood, has a population that’s considerably smaller than the District’s. Yet its citizens, 586,000 of them, get the right to elect 90 state representatives; 30 to the Senate and 60 to the House of Representatives. That’s a citizen-to-representative ratio of 6,511-to-1.
North Dakota’s population is about 757,000, but its citizens elect 141 representatives to their House and Senate. They enjoy representation at a 5,368-to-l ratio, which means that elected state representatives know the majority of their constituents and are therefore more responsive and more solicitous.
And there’s Alaska. Alaska’s 756,000 residents get 40 members in the state House and 20 in the state Senate, for a total of 60. That’s a 12,600-to-1 ratio.
Then there’s the District of Columbia. Its constituent-to-representative ratio is, in comparison, through the roof: 51,692-to-1.
Compared with the legislatures of similarly sized states, the District’s proposed 13-member legislature is staggeringly small. Do District residents really want to enshrine that anemic level of representation into their glossy, new state constitution?
In the six states with the smallest populations, state citizens elect 638 legislators, for an average of 106 legislators for every state legislature. That seems reasonable, considering democracy is about reasonable and adequate levels of representation.
So why should the District settle for anything less than other states? Rather than elect 13 representatives, why not vote in 100, or more, thereby invigorating D.C. politics as has benefited others? Isn’t a more responsive politics, in the form of greater representation, exactly what the citizens of the nation’s capital deserve after centuries of living with less? Hasn’t the District’s quest for statehood been about heightened levels of representation?
Perhaps the levels of reasonable representation should be a major point of thoughtful discussion as the District’s state-to-be someday attempts to draft its future architecture. If greater representation has sustained Vermont, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska and Delaware well for centuries, why not New Columbia in the 21st century?