Fairness demands that Virginia’s neighbor earns statehood, despite Republican opposition

April 1, 2021 12:01 am

North Capitol Street is seen at dusk on Tuesday evening, March 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Image)

Growing up in the nation’s capital, I always felt congresspeople considered themselves overseers of local residents. They weren’t benevolent ones, either.

The plantation reference is harsh, I know. Yet it’s accurate, since predominantly Black officials from the District of Columbia were forced to go, hat in hand, for approval of local policies and budgets from U.S. representatives and senators, who were overwhelmingly White. 

Televised hearings and newscasts often displayed the condescension many in Congress held for Washingtonians and their efforts at self-rule. Grandstanding members of Congress were fond of nitpicking the local interests of the District, imposing their worldview instead. 

A variation of this kabuki theater took place again last week, as D.C. officials made their latest pitch to Congress in a decades-long quest to become America’s 51st state. Only this time, Republican opponents of statehood couldn’t mask their hackneyed, fallacious arguments to deny full citizenship to residents of the capital. 

They fear this act of decency could actually happen.

So you had Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., cutting off D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser whenever she tried to provide context about the subject. Hice’s retorts included, “Great answer to a question I did not ask” – as if the mayor were testifying at a criminal trial.

Hice was angry, among other things, that D.C. residents have consistently backed Democratic Party candidates since first getting the right to vote for president in 1964. The nerve! (Same standard doesn’t apply to states that consistently support GOP candidates, but I digress.)

He also offered the absurd argument that D.C. couldn’t be a state because it didn’t have a car dealership. (I’m still searching for that requirement in the Constitution.) Informed that Washington does have such businesses, Hice claimed he didn’t know where to find one – though he’s been in Congress since 2015. He should get out more. 

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., harrumphed that the statehood bill is unconstitutional. “D.C. statehood is a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America, along with the Green New Deal, defunding the police and packing the U.S. Supreme Court,” he also noted.

Comer must have been unaware that one of the leading Republican radical leftists of his day, then-President Richard Nixon, didn’t agree. And he said so in 1969 during an address to Congress.

“It should offend the democratic sense of this nation,” Nixon noted, “that the 850,000 citizens of its Capitol (sic), comprising a population larger than 11 of its states, have no voice in the Congress.” 

Shoot, that was a half-century ago. And still no full representation.

Everyone knows the overwhelmingly liberal place — nicknamed “Chocolate City” and still with a plurality of Black residents — would add two Democratic senators and one representative if given statehood. That’s no reason to continue keeping residents there in a second-class status, no matter what one party fears.

True story: I moved to New Jersey in late 1981 and traveled back and forth to my hometown frequently. I was so amped to finally vote for the U.S. Senate and House that, following a weekend trip to D.C., I sped back to Camden County on Election Day to reach the polls in time. 

The District of Columbia came into existence in 1790 under the Constitution. Virginia and Maryland contributed land to create the fledgling city. The commonwealth’s portion reverted to the state in 1847 — the spiffy term is “retroceded” — after Alexandria residents voted to leave D.C. 

Washingtonians didn’t get a chance to elect its own mayor until 1973. It still has limited self-government and must procure Congress’ blessing for its local laws and budget. Eleanor Holmes Norton is the city’s longtime delegate in the House, and she can vote in committees and advocate for D.C.’s interests in the Capitol. But she can’t take part in legislative floor votes with the rest of her colleagues. 

Today, with upward of 705,000 residents, the District has more residents than Wyoming and Vermont. Norton’s office notes D.C. residents pay more federal taxes per capita than any state and more total federal taxes than 21 states. Roughly 30,000 veterans live there.

It’s also the only capital of a democracy with no voting representation in its national legislature. (Imagine the people of Paris or London facing the same distinction.)

Some 86 percent of city residents voted for statehood in a 2016 referendum. The latest statehood bill would maintain a 2-square-mile federal district comprising the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments and the National Mall. 

The city likely is still a big draw for Virginians every day, at least it was pre-pandemic. Norton’s office couldn’t tell me how many from the commonwealth commuted there for work, and my emails to city spokespersons weren’t returned by deadline. 

A 2013 news story, though, said Washington “swells by 79 percent every workday” when commuters flock there from the around the region. Many commuters appeared to come from Dale City and Centreville.

With 215 co-sponsors, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House will probably approve the statehood bill. The Senate, evenly split at 50-50 with Vice-President Kamala Harris breaking ties, won’t be able to get around current filibuster rules unless it can attract enough Republican support. 

That won’t happen given the partisanship in Congress. Which means fairness and equity for D.C. residents will be delayed yet again. 

It’s not a radical notion, no matter what Republicans say. If they think their party will lose out, they couldn’t care less.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]