Why The House Vote On D.C. Statehood Was Years In The Making Advocates say last week's House vote on D.C. statehood came from a years-long campaign, a commitment from local officials to prioritize the fight, and a political shift inside and out of Washington.
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NPR logo Why The House Vote On D.C. Statehood Was Years In The Making

Why The House Vote On D.C. Statehood Was Years In The Making

A bill to make D.C. the 51st state passed the House in late June, and advocates say they are confident the Senate could take it up as early as next year. Mike Maguire/Flickr hide caption

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Mike Maguire/Flickr

It was voted down in 1993. It never even got considered between 2007 and 2011. But last Friday, something historic happened: The House of Representatives approved a bill that would make D.C. the country's 51st state.

The vote prompted celebrations among D.C. officials and many statehood advocates, who have for years watched the fight for D.C. voting rights, home rule and statehood ebb and flow — but also hit roadblock after roadblock. But what advocates and activists say made the House vote truly historic isn't just that it was successful. Rather what it took to even get it passed is what they consider truly remarkable.

"It wasn't inevitable at all," says Bo Shuff, director of D.C. Vote, an advocacy group that has fought for voting rights, home rule, and now statehood.

Shuff and others say the bill's passage came from a years-long shoe-leather lobbying and coalition-building campaign, a commitment from local officials to prioritize the fight for statehood, and a political shift within and out of Washington — one capped off by President Trump's election in 2016.

And they say that same work is laying the groundwork for a Senate vote as soon as Democrats take control — which some say could be as soon as next year.

A History Of Failure — Even With Democrats In Charge

It wasn't until the early 1970s that D.C. residents, led by Julius Hobson, started agitating for statehood, arguing that it was the only solution to the city's longstanding disenfranchisement. But they were pushed aside by D.C. leaders, who instead fought for — and achieved — home rule in 1973, gaining an elected mayor and council.

The fight continued into the early 1980s, when D.C. residents wrote and approved a new state constitution as part of a formal push for statehood. But that effort proved futile, largely because in 1993 the House — then controlled by Democrats — rejected a bill to make D.C. the 51st state on a 277 to 153 vote. President Clinton did not advocate for the measure, and 40 percent of House Democrats voted against it.

"We have to look at the facts before us ... No citizen of Washington is chained to the pillars of the U.S. Capitol. They can leave any time they want," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Michigan) at the time.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the former civil rights activist who became the city's non-voting delegate in the House in 1991, says the vote was proof that while Democrats may generally have been more attuned to the city's grievances, many of them remained disinclined to take any substantial steps to change them.

"It was a different makeup of Democrats. We had many more Southern Democrats. And so we did have that vote, but even with Democrats in charge, we were not able to prevail," she says.

Anne Anderson, who moved to D.C. in 1964 and has been active in the fight for statehood with the League of Women Voters since the 1970s, uses less diplomatic language to assess why the statehood bill failed in 1993.

"There were still a number of Democrats that were Dixiecrats in Congress, and I think the racism issue, I mean, we can't go talk about D.C. statehood without talking about the racism issue that was still very prevalent," she says.

The push for statehood receded, in part because of the loss but also because Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. But even when Democrats regained control in 2008 — and then took the White House later that year — statehood remained something of a fringe issue, with advocacy groups and elected officials opting instead to push for measures to give Norton a full vote in the House and expand the city's ability to govern itself free from congressional interference.

A Messaging Problem

Shuff says that the challenge to getting statehood back on Democrats' radar over the years wasn't just historic Democratic skittishness around the issue, but also a reluctance on the part of local officials to fully embrace the cause. He says that even goes for D.C. Vote, which was founded 22 years ago but largely avoided a full-throated embrace of statehood until recently.

Without a simple demand like statehood to sell to voters and Democratic leaders, the city's cause failed to pick up much steam. Shuff compares it to the fight for marriage equality, which he was involved in before taking the helm of D.C. Vote in 2017.

"At one point on marriage, we talked about the pieces and parts of marriage. We talked about domestic partner registries, we talked about partner benefits, Vermont made up a concept called civil unions that no one had heard of before," he says. "It wasn't until there was a dramatic shift to actually 100% focus on marriage that we were able to move forward on that issue because suddenly people knew what we were talking about."

After an attempt to give Norton a full vote in the House failed in 2009, the pendulum started swinging back towards the fight for statehood. By 2011, then-mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council openly called for statehood, and Norton introduced her first statehood bill in years. Two years later, Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) introduced a partner measure in the U.S. Senate.

"When Obama became president, there wasn't even the statehood bill introduced at that Congress. It wasn't just that the Democrats missed an opportunity. D.C. residents weren't organized enough and focused enough to take advantage of that opportunity," says Josh Burch, a Ward 5 resident and founder of Neighbors United for Statehood. "We really started organizing when Congresswoman Norton introduced that bill [in 2011]."

"Having D.C. focus on statehood meant that we could go with one voice to say this is what needs to happen," adds Anderson, who says that over the last five years she traveled to speak to League of Women Voters chapters in 30 states.

Mayor Muriel Bowser cemented the city's fight for statehood when she proposed — and voters approved — a 2016 referendum backing the fight for statehood and signing off on a new state constitution.

"She has been a very consistent messenger for statehood, and that helps and has been and has been pushing this," says Burch. "No, it hasn't been perfect. But she's been pushing this and she has the attention of Speaker Pelosi. She has the attention of Leader Hoyer, and she's used that to our advantage. And that's what you need people in power to do."

A Changing Political Environment

If Norton's 2011 statehood bill provided the focus advocates say they needed, the results of the 2016 presidential election offered the fuel.

"People started to examine the results of the election and go, 'Stuff is broken,'" says Shuff. "OK, well, what are the things that are broken? And we were there at the right moment to say, 'Here's the thing that's broken. You should notice this thing.'"

That feeling only intensified as the Republican-led Senate voted to approve a number of controversial nominees, from cabinet secretaries like Betsy DeVos to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"When Trump got elected, I think it was a huge smack in the face to people that all of a sudden are being told constantly, 'Call your senators, call your senators.' And this growing chorus of D.C. residents were saying, 'I don't have any senators to call,'" says Burch.

Local statehood advocacy groups pushed liberal organizations to join the fight, and used that growing coalition to pressure more and more Democrats in Congress to co-sponsor the statehood bill. When she re-introduced her bill in the first days of the 116th Congress in early 2019 — which Democrats took over the House — Norton already had 155 Democrats onboard. Two months later, she was up to 200, a new record.

"Over the years the makeup of our Democratic caucus has changed fundamentally," says Norton. "One of the things I set out to do was to get every Democrat to co-sponsor the bill. That's fairly unusual. Rarely do we ask everybody to become a sponsor. I've wanted to do that, not because I doubted that we had the votes to make a case that the House felt deeply about this."

The fight for statehood was also tied into broader concerns over voting rights and access to the franchise; the demand for D.C. statehood was ultimately included in H.R. 1, a bill introduced when Democrats took control of the House in 2019 that centered on campaign finance reform, government ethics, and voting rights.

By earlier this year, Norton's statehood bill had gotten 218 co-sponsors — enough to pass the House. But June brought additional impetus for the measure: Trump flooded D.C. with federal police forces used them to attack peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square, prompting cries of opposition from local officials.

"Perversely, [Trump] did the statehood movement a huge favor," says Burch. "He was so reckless and so irresponsible that it really shed light on our situation to a lot of people around the country."

The bill passed the House on June 26 with 232 votes in favor and 180 against.

In the Senate, Carper's statehood bill now has 40 co-sponsors — five which were added in June alone. This week, Republicans detailed their opposition to D.C. statehood, saying it's an unconstitutional power grab for Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the statehood bill will not more forward. Even if it did, Trump has said he would veto it.

Norton and Shuff say that D.C. statehood will remain stalled until Democrats take the Senate, but they've started feeling more confident about what might happen in November. But Shuff adds that D.C. Vote's initial expectation that a Senate vote wouldn't happen until 2023 is now in question; should Democrats prevail in the elections, he thinks a vote next year is still possible.

"Come January, we'll see which Congress gets sworn in and who's in which seat," he says.

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