The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s not a local issue anymore’: D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to the center of the national Democratic agenda

With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, activists say they are in their strongest position yet to make D.C. the 51st state. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Joe Biden visited Southeast Washington in January 2015 to undertake a quintessential vice-presidential duty — inspecting a massive public works project on the banks of the Anacostia River to tout the White House infrastructure agenda.

But he strayed off topic when Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) joked that his home state of Delaware was “not much bigger than the District of Columbia.”

“You should be a state!” Biden shouted back, later adding: “I’m not making a statement for the administration — I’m making a statement for Joe Biden.”

Six years later, Joe Biden is himself the administration, with a Democratic majority in Congress behind him, and a fast-evolving political landscape has propelled D.C. statehood up the Democratic priority list after it passed the House for the first time last year.

The issue, once a fanciful dream of local activists, now enjoys near-unanimity inside the Democratic Party. Many congressional Democrats mention it in the same company as the party’s other top voting rights priorities, putting it at the center of the internal battle over whether to change Senate rules to allow for major legislation to pass with a simple majority.

The jolt of momentum stems in part from an increasingly urgent desire among Democrats to act while they have power to erode what they see as Republican structural advantages in the nation’s democracy — including the Senate. D.C. statehood would probably result in two additional Democratic senators, shifting the dynamic in a chamber where members from conservative, rural states can wield disproportionate influence over legislation, federal courts and presidential nominations.

Statehood supporters have also presented statehood for the District, a city with a Black plurality, as a crucial element of the broader racial justice movement that has energized liberal activists across the country.

“You have an atmosphere in which democracy is in the air — the need to protect democracy and to advance democracy,” said Wade Henderson, who leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a key umbrella group with close ties to Democratic Party leaders. D.C. statehood, he said, is part of “a package of remedies that really are absolutely essential if American democracy will be protected.”

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, a former Norton aide who now leads statehood advocacy efforts at the Indivisible network of liberal activist groups, said there has been a rapid “un-fringing” of the D.C. statehood issue.

“It’s not just a slogan on a license plate anymore,” Hatcher-Mays said.

GOP leaders are mobilizing against the statehood push, labeling it a partisan “power grab” by Democrats who they say are simply having trouble winning enough elections to advance their agenda.

The fight is arriving on Capitol Hill: The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Monday will convene a hearing on a statehood bill, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview that he expects that the bill will pass the House before summer.

Statehood advocates still face major obstacles: They do not yet have 51 allies inside the Senate, and as long as the body’s filibuster rule requiring a supermajority margin for most legislation remains intact, it will take even more support than that.

The statehood legislation, as written by Norton, would shrink the federal district to a two-square-mile enclave of federal buildings, including the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court. The rest of the District would become the 51st state: the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — honoring abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday confirmed that Biden believes D.C. residents “deserve representation” and favors statehood.

Many advocates have taken further encouragement from Biden’s decision to appoint a D.C. native and outspoken statehood advocate, Susan Rice, as his top domestic policy adviser.

But it remains unclear how much of a personal investment Biden has in promoting the issue.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), a close Biden ally who in January introduced the D.C. statehood bill in the Senate for the fifth consecutive Congress, said he has spoken multiple times with Biden about infrastructure but not about D.C. statehood.

“But the 117th Congress is still young, and we’ll have plenty of opportunity,” Carper said.

When a statehood bill first went up for a House vote, in 1993, more than 100 Democrats and all but one Republican voted against it — a reflection of how little traction the cause had beyond the borders of the District.

Bowser will make case for D.C. statehood at congressional hearing

After it failed, Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. (D-Mich.) — one of the most powerful House members — suggested D.C. statehood didn’t have the urgency that other pieces of civil rights legislation did: “No citizen of Washington is chained to the pillars of the U.S. Capitol. They can leave any time they want.”

Today, such remarks from a Democrat would be almost unheard of, the result of what advocates have described as a years-long, shoe-leather lobbying campaign that chipped away, co-sponsor by co-sponsor, at the party’s historical ambivalence to the cause.

“The caucus would be hard-pressed to be against D.C. statehood at a time when [the Democratic Party] has become the foremost proponent of democracy in our country,” Norton said.

A vivid symbol of the advances the statehood campaign has made can be seen in the transformation of the suburban Washington congressional delegation, which for decades resisted statehood, fearing that D.C. would use its enhanced powers to enact a commuter tax that would drain income tax revenue from the Maryland and Virginia governments.

Now, all the delegation’s Democrats have lined up squarely behind it.

The evolution was completed in 2019, when Hoyer, who represents part of Prince George’s County and the counties to its south, finally endorsed statehood after years of advocating for only partial D.C. voting rights. Hoyer brought a statehood bill to the House floor last year for the first time since the 1993 vote.

“It was not an epiphany, but it was a growing recognition,” Hoyer said in an interview. “I came to the conclusion the only way the residents were going to get equal treatment was if they were a state.”

The regional shift, Hoyer said, reflected several factors. “Race obviously plays a part in this,” he said, with Black residents migrating from D.C. to suburban congressional districts and making their views known to their new representatives. But he said the more significant factor was Maryland’s and Virginia’s transitions into firm Democratic strongholds — and the incompatibility of the party’s civil rights agenda with denying statehood to the District.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) experienced something similar, energizing statehood proponents when he abandoned his commuter-tax opposition in 2019. “It just seemed from a basic fairness standpoint and equity standpoint that it was definitely time,” Warner said.

From the magazine: Is D.C. Finally on the Brink of Statehood?

In another watershed, regional economic titans have openly warmed to statehood for the first time in the 40-year fight.

The Federal City Council, a powerful consortium of Washington business and civic leaders, this year began funding a think tank, Statehood Research D.C., in anticipation that statehood could become reality in a matter of years. Its first report, issued this week, details how race has played a fundamental role in early decisions to deny voting rights to Washington residents.

With local resistance all but vanished, statehood advocates have now been able to focus their efforts far beyond Washington. A decades-long problem, Norton said, has been that few Americans outside the Washington region cared or even knew about the statehood cause — in turn making it harder to convince their congressional representatives to care.

Bo Shuff, executive director of D.C. Vote, said that much became clear in the aftermath of the District’s 2016 referendum on statehood, for which 86 percent of residents voted in favor. Armed with overwhelming support from residents, the advocacy group developed a three-legged strategic plan — starting with a national education campaign.

“We had to do far, far more on that,” Shuff said. “All the polling we had seen at that time showed the general public knew absolutely nothing about statehood.”

Second, they wanted to convince all Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. And third, Shuff said, they needed to partner with organizations in other states to build a far broader network of support.

Explaining the hurdles to statehood.

Five years later, there has been significant progress toward each goal.

The cause is viewed with unprecedented urgency among Democrats, who see the disenfranchisement of District residents as a hole in the nation’s democracy that has also contributed to the Republicans’ hold on power in the Senate. Underscoring the extent to which the Senate structure favors the GOP, today the 50 Democratic senators represent a 29 percent larger population than the 50 Republican senators do.

“It’s not a local issue anymore — it’s a national issue,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who has advocated for D.C. statehood since the 1990s. “There’s obviously a powerful democratic imperative for getting everybody equal political rights and representation. But there’s a national political logic for it, too, because the Senate has become the principal obstacle to social progress across a whole range of issues.”

Groups such as Indivisible and 51 for 51 have connected D.C.’s lack of voting rights to the lack of action on other liberal priorities. The latter group — named for its goal of eliminating the Senate filibuster to establish the 51st state with 51 votes — has also sought to harness last summer’s explosion of protests over racial injustice to bring new followers to a cause focused on enfranchising the residents of a plurality-Black city.

“Racism is rooted in democracy,” said Stasha Rhodes, the group’s director. “It’s not just criminal justice, it’s not just policing — it’s democracy.”

Those groups have brought the battle to states such as Arizona, West Virginia and Maine, whose senators could make or break the campaign, in a bid to educate voters on why they have a stake in D.C. statehood and encourage them to contact their senators about it.

In Arizona, where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat, has been mum on her statehood position, billboards have sprouted up around Phoenix targeting her by name.

“D.C. statehood is a civil rights issue,” said one paid for by 51 for 51, located on the edge of a grocery store parking lot at the foot of a Phoenix mountain. “Where does Senator Sinema stand?”

The D.C. mayor’s office has gone national, too, spending the bulk of its $241,000 budget allocation for statehood initiatives on educational digital ads in those states plus Alaska, home of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is seen as a possible GOP vote for statehood.

“People think we’re wards of the Congress,” said Beverly Perry, the top adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on statehood advocacy. “We spend a lot of time correcting people” — even in neighboring Maryland, where Perry testified last Monday in support of a pro-statehood resolution pending in the House of Delegates.

Some lawmakers asked her whether District residents pay property or state and federal taxes — they do, more than most states — and how the District could get sustenance without farmland or livestock.

“I said, ‘No, we do not have cows, but we have an economy,’ ” Perry said. “We can have an economy without cows, okay?”

The growing Democratic unity on statehood has been countered by a more aggressive Republican push against it — attacking it as part of a liberal push to simply change the rules of democracy because Democrats aren’t winning enough elections.

Ahead of the November elections, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) included D.C. statehood among a litany of potential initiatives that could come to pass should Democrats win a Senate majority and eliminate the filibuster.

President Donald Trump also inveighed against statehood on several occasions. “It will make it really a one-party country, and the party will be the wrong party,” he said on Jan. 4 — two days before Georgia voters elected two Democrats to the Senate and put statehood into the realm of the possible.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, said the statehood issue has risen in prominence for Republican voters as Democrats get more serious about writing it into law.

“Our base is concerned,” he said. “This is their first step of their political power grab. And we’re going to make sure that America knows what they’re trying to do and why it wasn’t created as a state to begin with.”

Yet House Democrats have shown no sign of flinching. When Hoyer brought the bill to the floor in June, only one Democrat opposed it. (That lawmaker, Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, lost his reelection bid last year.)

Senate action, on the other hand, remains more daunting. Besides the filibuster, the more immediate problem for statehood advocates is that a handful of Democratic senators have yet to signal their support.

Advocates are confident that some of the nine holdouts — such as freshman senators John Hickenlooper (Colo.) and Jon Ossoff (Ga.) — will co-sponsor the statehood bill soon. But others, such as Sinema, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine), stand to be tougher to convince.

Quizzed about his position on the bill recently as he left a meeting of centrist senators, Manchin suggested he found the topic too divisive for the moment. “I’m just trying to keep our bipartisan group together,” he said. King said he was considering lending support and said he had felt some pressure from constituents. “But I wouldn’t call it a lot of pressure,” he added.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is managing growing pressure to at least partially dismantle the filibuster — a process that could start by bringing voting rights legislation to the floor in the coming months. It remains unclear if moderate senators such as Manchin and Sinema can be convinced, but others are willing to give it a look. Several pro-statehood senators, including Carper, are willing to explore a shift to a “talking filibuster” that would force opponents of a bill to actually hold the Senate floor.

Warner has long opposed eliminating the filibuster but said he may be open to creating an exception for voting rights legislation, citing the efforts in GOP-majority states to roll back voting access. Asked whether a D.C. statehood might fit into that category, he said, “I’m still trying to work through that in my head.”

But other Democrats have gone further, placing the need for action in the starkest terms. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who was born in the District, called statehood a matter of “moral urgency” that ought to place it among the top priorities for congressional Democrats.

“This is a movement and I think the movement continues to grow and we’re going to eventually win,” he said. “This will be a state one day. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and I hope that the when is this Congress.”