Election 2020 Politics

In faraway state houses, a battle brews over making D.C. the 51st state

The response came from state legislatures from Rhode Island to Missouri: a barrage of resolutions supporting D.C. statehood.

In less than two months, lawmakers in at least eight states have taken formal steps to support or oppose D.C. becoming the 51st state, an unprecedented nationwide response to a once-fledgling movement now surging with momentum in Washington.

In February, Democratic lawmakers in at least five states — Maryland, Rhode Island, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky — introduced pro-statehood resolutions, according to a count by The Washington Post using a database of bills compiled by Quorum.

GOP lawmakers in Arizona joined South Dakota in opposing statehood, while 43 Republican lawmakers in West Virginia wrote a letter asking their congressional representatives to oppose statehood legislation too.

The D.C. statehood bill sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, will be the subject of a House Oversight Committee hearing on March 11.

The bill has enough support to pass the Democratic-majority House, as it did for the first time in a historic vote last June. But it’s likely to face roadblocks in the narrowly divided Senate, where it needs 60 votes instead of 50 to pass because of the filibuster.

In her three decades leading the cause, Norton said, she has never seen such a flurry of action from so many states at once. She was even pleased to see the anti-statehood resolutions.

“The more that speak up, the better off we are,” she said. “Why would states against statehood speak up? They see the handwriting on the wall: They see statehood coming.”

Some of the lawmakers far from D.C. brought the resolutions on their own volition. But a 24-year-old D.C. statehood advocate, armed with a dizzying Excel spreadsheet, is responsible for others.

Noah Wills, president of Students for D.C. Statehood launched an initiative during the 2020 campaign cycle in which his group convinced more than 400 candidates for public office across the country to pledge support for statehood.

Students in the group are rushing to reach as many of the nation’s 7,383 state lawmakers as possible before the deadlines to file bills pass. Wills, a 2018 graduate of American University, is in touch with lawmakers of both parties in 25 states so far; in 15 of those states, he has found willing partners.

“They say, why does this affect my constituents?” he said. “I say, think about how different the country would look if D.C. had a voice in Congress for the past 200 years, the past two years or even the past two months.”

But Wills said he was thrown off guard when resolutions opposing statehood started popping up in red-state legislatures. It made him want to “retaliate against the opposition,” by bringing even more pro-statehood lawmakers on board, he said.

South Dakota State Sen. Jim Bolin (R), the sponsor of the state’s resolution, said he fears the addition of two senators from D.C. would “dilute” South Dakota’s power in Congress, since D.C.’s senators would most likely be Democrats.

The South Dakota congressional delegation largely shares his view: Rep. Dusty Johnson (R) filed a bill last month to retrocede the District to Maryland.

Echoing congressional Republicans, Bolin also insisted in an interview that D.C.’s economy lacked “basic human economic activities” — an argument that has rankled critics and ignores the hundreds of thousands of residents who are teachers, health-care workers or first responders in the plurality-Black city.

“You look at every other one of the 50 states, whether it’s farming in South Dakota, whether it’s forestry in Oregon or Washington . . . all of them have basic industries that are common to human society and human economic activity,” Bolin said. “The District of Columbia doesn’t have any of those type of things.”

South Dakota’s population (about 892,000 according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates) is only slightly larger than D.C.’s (712,000) — but Bolin said his concern is land mass. “Rhode Island, our smallest geographical state, would be 18 times larger than the District of Columbia,” he said.

Rhode Island, or at least Democratic lawmakers there, beg to differ.

State Rep. Rebecca Kislak said the inequity of D.C.’s situation has rankled her since she was a student at American University. When Students for D.C. Statehood reached out, she was happy to join the pro-statehood chorus.

“Geographic size shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether a state is a state,” Kislak said. “It should be the people, and we shouldn’t have residents of the United States unrepresented in Congress.”

Even before Wills began his experiment, Maryland Del. Gabriel Acevero (D) was planning to file a resolution supporting D.C. statehood, as he has in the past. Acevero represents Montgomery County, which borders the District. Residents who live on his side of Western Avenue have voting rights in Congress, while those on the D.C. side don’t.

In Missouri, Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove (D) said it was D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s impassioned plea for statehood in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack that moved her to file a resolution in support. The day after the riot, Bowser (D) noted that the District’s police and first responders were called to defend and protect a building in which they didn’t have a vote or representation, and that she did not have the power to summon the National Guard.

The more the Missouri lawmaker dug into the history of the fight, the more disturbed she felt about it as a voting rights issue. She acknowledged her resolution will probably “not see the light of day” in the GOP-controlled chamber — but wanted to try anyway.

“I think most people, unfortunately, we’re geared to only pay attention to the things that affect us,” she said. “But as a voting rights advocate, I’m just appalled at the thought that people could be disenfranchised on a mass level.”

The issue seems to be gaining traction in many places.

In an interview last week with 51 for 51, a statehood advocacy group, Cooper said what happens to D.C. residents is “10 times worse” than what happened to him in Central Park.

“That same racial bias has been playing out in Washington, D.C., year after year after year, where a majority Black and Brown population has no representation,” he said.

The prospect of both D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood was a focal point in multiple GOP attack ads in the Georgia runoff elections last month, with supporters of Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue noting the loss of their seats would give Democrats control of the chamber, making statehood more likely.

Wills said Students for D.C. Statehood are devoting extra effort to working with state lawmakers in Arizona, West Virginia and Maine — three states whose moderate senators are expected to play an outsize role in the statehood fight.

So far, South Dakota is the only state to fully pass any type of statehood resolution. Arizona’s anti-statehood bill passed through committee Feb. 18 on a 7-6 party-line vote.

During the hearing, one Republican suggested D.C. residents should just move away to get voting rights: “If they want representatives, move. That’s what they made Mayflower for. With that I vote aye.”

Quorum data contributed to this report. Quorum is a legislative and public affairs software company based in Washington.

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