Sep 09, 2016

District of Columbia: Launch of Nationwide DC Statehood Campaign Ahead of November Referendum

Photo courtesy of Martin Austermuhle@WAMU

In a referendum taking place alongside the presidential elections this November, residents of the District of Columbia will vote on whether the district should become the United States’ 51st state. Should a majority of voters vote in favour of the November ballot, a formal petition for statehood would be submitted to the incoming president and Congress in 2017. On 7 September 2016, Statehood Yes! was launched, a large-scale campaign to promote the idea of DC statehood not only among the citizens of DC, but also among the general public and policy-makers outside the district’s borders.

Below is an article published by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio:

Statehood may be a relatively easy sell for District residents, but leaders of the movement are pledging to take their message national.

The Statehood Yes! campaign that launched Wednesday [7 September 2016] will not only push D.C. residents to vote for statehood in a November referendum, but it also will take the fight elsewhere, focusing on the home districts of reluctant members of Congress, which has the final say over whether to turn the District into the 51st state.

"We’re going to have work member by member, and in many instances I think we’re going to have to go to their home districts to persuade their local leadership and probably their state legislators and governors and mayors themselves to get involved," said George Vrandenburg, a D.C. philanthropist and former AOL executive who is serving as the campaign's chairman.

Vradenburg says that a perennial question for D.C. leaders — "How would you like Congress to overrule your budgets?" — might resonate with many local leaders.

The campaign seeks to support a statehood effort launched earlier this year by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). Under her plan, D.C. residents will vote in November [2016] on whether the city should become the 51st state. If residents approve, a formal petition for statehood will be submitted to the new president and Congress early next year.

The November referendum will also ask residents to approve a proposed state constitution, which was drawn up over the summer and will be debated by the D.C. Council later this month. The draft constitution would not make any dramatic changes to the government, though the new state — New Columbia, as is proposed — would have a 21-person legislature, instead of the existing 13-person Council.

Elected officials and statehood advocates say that although passing the November statehood referendum will be relatively easy, the national campaign will be crucial.

"We cannot expect to pass statehood in the House of Representative and the Senate of the United States if nobody knows that we want it," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton about the new push for statehood.

To that end, Vradenburg, a member of the D.C. Republican Party, says bipartisan outreach will be important. While Democrats tend to support calls for D.C. statehood, Republicans are usually critical — and are expected to retain control of the House of Representatives in 2017, and possibly the Senate, too.

"We don’t have to persuade everyone to get this done, but I think we have to persuade a number of Republicans to make this a bipartisan effort and one that does not stick in the craw of people in the Republican Party," he said.

But he faces an uphill battle: At the Republican National Convention this summer, the GOP not only included language in its national platform opposing statehood for D.C., but also any flexibility for city officials in spending local raised funds.

"We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional prerogatives regarding the District," reads the platform.

But Vrandenburg said he remains optimistic that fellow Republicans can be persuaded, and that the resources will be available to take the message of D.C. statehood across the country. To that end, Vrandenburg, who has donated money to a number of causes, provided seed funding for the Statehood Yes! campaign.

"We anticipate that there will be adequate resources to go to every state in the union we should be going to persuade their elected representatives to do for us what they assume for themselves, and that is to have elected representatives in Congress," he said. "I doubt we’ll have any problems with resources."

For Norton, who has fought for D.C. as a nonvoting member of Congress since 1991, the most important element of the campaign will be to build energy around a fight she says will continue for months, if not years, into the term of the new president.

"In the past, D.C. has often showed up for statehood, but our tendency is to show up when the Congress does something bad to D.C. and then there’s an outpouring. It’s been very episodic," she said. "We need sustained work."