For the first time in 16 years, D.C. statehood is part of the official platform at the Democratic National Convention. And when President Obama takes the stage in Philadelphia on Wednesday, D.C. delegates are hoping the city’s most famous resident will make a prime-time pitch on behalf of their defining political cause.
It would be a breakthrough moment in the decades-long struggle for congressional representation for the city’s 672,000 residents — and a rare show of public support for an idea that Obama has been largely mute about during his presidency.
The first black president, who swept to office with 93 percent of the vote in the District, was once viewed as a savior who could help the District overcome its legacy of political disenfranchisement, which many regard as tied to race. Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted with joyous celebrations in the city’s streets, and his initial forays into the life of the District raised hopes that he would develop a kinship with a community that has long chafed at its treatment by federal Washington.
Instead, city leaders have been disappointed by what they see as the president’s failure to use his bully pulpit to raise the issue of voting rights for the city, and advocates said the White House’s neglect has motivated them to coalesce around a new statehood strategy, one largely without any presidential involvement.
“He has endorsed it. He seldom speaks of it,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has unsuccessfully lobbied the White House for a single mention of the city in the president’s State of the Union addresses.
“What we have lacked in this administration is someone who took a special interest,” Norton said. “I call the highest aides I know of. I don’t think any of them have a sense of anything close to how deeply we feel about this issue.”
The personal affection for Obama and support for his historic presidency remain strong across the District. But in a city well-practiced at cataloguing the slights from its federal overseers, the list of grievances ranges from the symbolic to the substantive.
At a town hall-style event in July 2014, Obama was asked about his support for D.C. statehood by a District resident. “I’m in D.C., so I’m for it,” he replied, adding that the goal would be difficult to get through Congress but was the right thing to do. It was the first and only time since moving to the White House that Obama expressed clear support for the idea.
While the president took the dramatic step of displaying the District’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine, he waited four years, until after he was reelected, to do it, leading some city officials to believe he was just playing politics. Over almost eight years, he never invited a city official to a White House state dinner. For nearly as long, he has allowed Republicans in Congress to block the city from using its tax revenue to fund abortions.
And his recent nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick B. Garland, was the deciding vote in a landmark federal appeals court decision in 2000 that D.C. residents had no constitutional right to congressional representation.
Even as his administration has pursued greater voting access for various disenfranchised communities — Obama has championed the rights of ex-felons to vote and opposed Republican efforts to impose stricter voter-identification laws in Texas and elsewhere — he has been relatively silent on the District’s status.
“Let’s be brutally honest,” said Philip Pannell, D.C.’s alternate Democratic national committeeman, who spent months running a phone bank for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “A Republican president would not have been any worse.”
White House aides declined to be interviewed. In a statement, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett blamed Republicans for blocking D.C. representation, which she called “deeply disheartening to the president.”
Early next year, when Obama moves out of the White House and takes up private residence in the city while his younger daughter finishes high school, he will become “another citizen of our nation’s capital who doesn’t even have a vote representing him in Congress,” Jarrett said.
“The idea of denying that basic tenet of citizenship would be unthinkable in any other part of the country,” she added, “and it should be unthinkable here.”
Obama has backed an incremental step toward self-governance for D.C. residents — voting representation in Congress — since he was a U.S. senator from Illinois.
He highlighted his support in July 2007 after then-D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) gave him a political foothold in the city, endorsing his presidential campaign at a time when Obama was badly trailing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary polls.
“Folks in D.C. still don’t have a voice in their national government. That’s wrong,” Obama said, appearing with Fenty at a recreation center in Southwest Washington. “Residents shouldn’t be treated like tenants.”
Earlier that year, Fenty had declined an invitation to sit in first lady Laura Bush’s box during the State of the Union address, citing President George W. Bush’s lack of support for voting rights.
There was great anticipation — almost certainty — that Obama would be different, and not just because he was a Democrat. Washington became the nation’s first predominantly black city in the early 1960s and gained the nickname “Chocolate City” when its African American population topped 70 percent.
Many residents believed the demographics were a primary reason Congress denied them full self-governance, even though the District has a larger population than Vermont or Wyoming and its residents pay more in federal taxes than those of 22 states.
Days before his inauguration in January 2009, Obama joined Fenty for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl in the historic U Street corridor, once a hub of African American culture. The president-elect embraced local custom by ordering a chili half-smoke, and he posed for photos with local police.
Congress created partial home rule in the District in 1973, allowing residents to elect a mayor and city council. But federal lawmakers retained veto power over local laws and spending decisions and have forcefully opposed granting congressional representation — especially two Senate seats — to a city whose electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic.
When Obama took office, however, everything appeared set for change: Democrats were in full control of Congress, and they introduced a D.C voting-rights bill to award one House seat to the District in exchange for another added in Utah, where a majority of voters are Republican.
The compromise, which Obama had supported as a senator, was approved by the Senate in 2009. It collapsed the following year in the House after lawmakers attached provisions to gut the city’s gun-control laws.
Despite that setback, D.C. advocates believed Obama would still play an important role in raising political awareness. But, preoccupied with health-care reform and a floundering national economy, the president never really returned to the topic and even repeatedly rebuffed requests for symbolic support: displaying the city’s “Taxation Without Representation” protest license plates on the presidential limousine.
Not until the D.C. Council passed a resolution in January 2013 urging Obama to use the plates — and city officials hand-delivered them to the White House — did the president relent.
“He’s not the friend we thought he would be,” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. “The fact that he might live in the White House and still consider himself from Illinois or Chicago, in a sense he’s a D.C. resident. He must be imbued with a sense of responsibility to the people in the community where he lives.”
In December 2010, Obama invited D.C. mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) to the White House for lunch, and the president spoke of his intention to have a bigger presence in the city. Emerging from the West Wing, Gray boasted to reporters that he had invited Obama to become the first president to visit the D.C. government headquarters a few blocks away.
The visit never happened. And soon the president’s relationship with the city took a turn for the worse.
In April 2011, Congress approved a spending bill that included a Republican-backed provision to ban the District from using its own tax money to fund abortions for low-income residents.
Obama reportedly caved over the measure during budget negotiations with then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “John, I’ll give you D.C. abortion,” the president told him before reaching a deal.
The outcome sparked protests along Constitution Avenue during which 41 people were arrested, including Gray and then-council member Muriel E. Bowser (D). Bowser, who is now the city’s mayor, said at the time that the provision put women “under attack,” and she threatened to withhold her support for Obama’s reelection in 2012.
Advocates said the moment did more than anything else to solidify decades of disparate efforts for D.C. voting rights around a central rallying cry for full statehood.
“Obama was supposed to be our friend, and if he wasn’t going to stand up to Congress, the only way for us to do so would be to have the protections of a state,” said Josh Burch, who went on to form Neighbors United for Statehood.
Casting D.C. Democrats’ votes Tuesday on the floor of the convention, Bowser identified the District as “the best city in the world, and soon to be the 51st State of our great union.” She continued: “We are 670,000 tax-paying Americans, just like you. And with statehood and only with statehood, will we have votes in Congress, just like you. The next president of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will sign our admission into the United States of America as the 51st State.”
Some D.C. officials blame a series of self-inflicted scandals for damaging the city’s relationship with the White House.
From 2012 to 2013, three council members pleaded guilty to separate charges of embezzlement and fraud. And Gray’s tenure was marred by a federal investigation of campaign contributions that, in the end, did not result in an indictment of him.
Such episodes evoked the political corruption under the late four-term mayor Marion Barry (D), who spent time in jail for cocaine possession in 1990. The District’s near-bankruptcy under Barry prompted Congress to appoint a financial control board from 1995 through 2001.
Norton said the recent scandals made it “difficult for the president to step up. I have no doubt it affected things.”
But even after Bowser replaced Gray in January 2015, relations did not warm considerably. The president had endorsed her general-election campaign, but in her 18 months as mayor, Obama has not had a one-on-one meeting with her.
The White House has in policy statements this year tried to dissuade Congress from intruding into District affairs, but the administration has not taken many other steps to build a relationship with city leaders.
For example, Obama has not restored the Bush-era tradition of inviting the D.C. mayor to sit in the first lady’s box for his State of the Union addresses. Bowser attended last January as a guest of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
As Obama’s tenure winds down, some residents are looking beyond his presidency.
Ahead of D.C.’s Democratic presidential primary last month, the Washington Informer, a weekly newspaper for the black community, published a guest column by Hillary Clinton, who pledged to pursue D.C. statehood if she wins the White House.
Denise Rolark Barnes, the Informer’s publisher, said Obama aides have been unresponsive to her efforts to get the president to weigh in on her pages. But she suggested there is a role for him as a private resident.
“We might see him out there on some demonstration lines, asking for statehood,” she said. “That would be a pleasant surprise.”