By Bill Mosley
In what would otherwise be a sleepy election year in the District, with Hillary Clinton expected to win DC’s presidential vote by an overwhelming margin and a lineup of non-competitive races for DC council, there would hardly be incentive to go to the polls at all were it not for a controversial referendum asking voters to endorse DC statehood and a new constitution for the state-to-be.
Voting for statehood, for most DC residents, is an easy call; it’s the controversial constitution attached to it that roiled the local activist community for much of this year. It appeared the unpopularity of the constitution and the process that created it might drag both it and statehood itself to defeat on Nov. 8 until last-minute changes by the Council addressed some of the most vocal public criticisms – particularly a new provision calling for a constitutional convention with elected delegates to take place within two years of the District achieving statehood.
This past April DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, with little or no consultation with statehood activists, decided that the lack of a recent voter-approved constitution was a roadblock on the path to statehood. This revived a contentious struggle that is nearly as old as DC home rule itself. In 1980, DC voters approved an initiative calling for DC statehood and elected members to a convention to write a constitution, a necessary prerequisite to petitioning Congress to become a state. The resulting document not only set out the mechanics of government, but also contained a “Bill of Rights” that included number of policy prescriptions that, while certainly admirable as goals, were criticized as not something one should include in a constitution – such as a guarantee of jobs for all, which many worried would bankrupt the government by requiring it to provide jobs to everyone who requested them, including new arrivals to the District attracted by the promise of employment. Nevertheless, the constitution was ratified by voters in 1982.
After that nothing much happened, as the Reagan-era Congress was disinclined to take up DC statehood. Then in 1987 the DC Council, worried that the “radical” constitution was an obstacle to lobbying for statehood, replaced the 1982 Bill of Rights with the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution. This revision was never submitted to the voters.
Jump ahead to 1993, when DC statehood finally got a vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives – and lost. Many House members, mostly Republicans but also some Democrats, set out a number of objections to statehood – that the District was too small, that it couldn’t sustain itself financially, and that it just happened to be in the middle of a homicide epidemic fueled by the crack trade. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a supporter of statehood, put his finger on the real, unstated reason, which he called “the four toos:” that DC was “too liberal, too urban, too black and too Democratic.” But the lack of a voter-approved constitution was seldom if ever raised.
Nevertheless, here in 2016, the constitution issue was raised anew. Bowser, wanting to take charge of the drive for statehood (as she does with almost all aspects of DC politics), anticipated that Donald Trump might be a toxic-enough presidential candidate that he not only would lose but also take enough Republican members of Congress with him that in 2017 the District would have a more Democratic, DC-friendly Congress to work with – and she wanted a voter-ratified constitution to submit with a petition for statehood. The constitution, last considered three decades ago, also needed to be “updated,” according to members of the commission tasked with drafting the new document. And yet the result was a cut-and-paste job that would embarrass the laziest high-school term paper writer. For the mechanics of government, it essentially adopted the existing DC city government structure, only now calling the mayor the “governor” and the Council the “House of Delegates” in a unicameral legislature consisting of only 13 legislators, the same number as current councilmembers. Moreover, it re-adopted the US constitution’s Bill of Rights into the text – including the contentious Second Amendment, which has been the bane of DC’s attempt to control guns on its streets. It still called the new state “New Columbia,” the name adopted in 1982, before the Columbus quincentennial focused attention of that explorer’s genocidal behavior in the New World. Almost nobody this year spoke up for calling the new state “New Columbia.”
But the unimaginative document was consistent with the top-down process that Bowser put in place to move the constitution to the ballot. She wanted no drawn-out, contentious convention such as the 1982 conclave, nor anything resembling the radical document that it adopted. She wanted a governing framework enough like the current DC government so as to minimize disruption during a transition period, she said. So instead of a convention with working delegates, she held a series of “constitutional conventions” that were really listening sessions, meetings at which people could step up to the microphone and offer comments. Citizens also could file comments online. But the commission members had no obligation to adopt any of these comments – a large percentage of which were less about the content of the constitution than the lack of real citizen agency in creating it. The commission did modify a few provisions, including increasing the size of the legislature to 21 members.
The antagonisms over the constitution threatened not only the document, but the fight for statehood itself. For the referendum to be put to voters on Nov. 8 required them to vote either yes or no on the entire package; there was no separating a vote on statehood from one on the constitution. Therefore Bowser unwittingly jeopardized statehood itself by driving people who would vote “yes” on statehood alone to vote “no” in order to kill the troublesome constitution. (There are two other technical questions attached to the vote that have raised less controversy: setting the boundaries of the state – which would not include purely federal properties – and agreeing to abide by a “republican” form of government).
Criticism of the constitution threatened to hijack a Sept. 27 forum on DC statehood that was part of the multi-issue “Breaking Through Power” conference organized in DC by Ralph Nader. After a panel discussion on strategies for achieving statehood, nearly every comment from the audience was a complaint about the constitution and the process for writing it.
Citizens continued to push for changes to the constitutional process at a pair of DC Council hearings in late September and early October. One of the most reviled revisions was a clause stating that “on or about the fifth anniversary of the effective date of the Admission Act, the House of Delegates may (emphasis added) call for a Constitutional Convention” to consider revising the document. Many activists said that was too long a time for a rump constitution to be in effect, and the Statehood Green Party, among others, called for electing delegates to a convention to adopt a new constitution almost immediately after statehood was achieved. Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown, one of the members of the commission that drafted the new constitution, broke with fellow commissioners by joining this call at a Sept. 27 DC Council hearing.
In the end, the Council got the message: On Oct. 18 it voted to add language to the document calling for a mandatory convention to write a new constitution within two years of achieving statehood, with that constitution being put before the voters for ratification, making the document to be voted on this November more of a provisional constitution. This change made the constitution palatable to all but the most stubborn critics. As a sweetener, the Council finally sent the name “New Columbia” to the dustbin – the new state will now bear the familiar moniker “Washington, DC” although “DC” will stand for “Douglass Commonwealth” – after abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass, who lived for years in DC.
But this exercise in playing James Madison will be academic if the upcoming Congress shows as little interest in moving statehood forward as has every other Congress since 1993. Assuming voters approve the constitution on Nov. 8, the statehood movement can get back to lobbying Congress, attracting supporters around the United States and abroad, and building a stronger, more militant statehood movement within the District. The District can then file the newly adopted constitution away until needed.
Yes, There Are Candidates on the Ballot, Too
In terms of elections involving candidates, the race for president has sucked up most of the attention in DC this year – notwithstanding that Hillary Clinton will win easily over Trump in this, the most faithfully Democratic jurisdiction in the country. Since DC first voted for president in 1964, voters here have chosen the Democratic candidate every time by a landslide margin. Barack Obama, for example, won 90.9 and 92.5 of the vote here in his two races. Nevertheless, presidential elections draw the heaviest turnouts in the District, with many voters choosing to ignore that fact that the winner gets only three electoral votes, regardless of the margin.
But most of the local races are likely to be just as lopsided, for in this virtually one-party jurisdiction the winner of the Democratic primary usually has only token opposition, if that, in the general election. And so the District can look forward to incumbent councilmembers Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Brandon Todd (Ward 4) launching another term in the Wilson Building. This will be Todd’s first full term, having won a special election in 2015 to replace Bowser, who became mayor; while Evans, the longest-serving DC councilmember, has held onto his seat since 1991.
Three other Democrats will be newcomers – sort of. In the election for at-large councilmember, Robert White defeated longtime incumbent Vincent Orange. White is already in the seat, following Orange’s early resignation to become director of the local Chamber of Commerce. In a quirk of DC law, if there is a vacancy in an at-large council seat, the local political party of the departing member gets to name a temporary replacement – and in this case, the DC Democratic Committee named White, who had already won the primary. Having to wait until January to take their offices are Trayon White, who knocked off short-timer LaRuby May for the Ward 8 seat; and Vince Gray, victor over Yvette Alexander in Ward 7.
Yes, it’s the same Vince Gray who served one term as mayor, losing his re-election bid to Bowser following a term served under the cloud of a campaign-finance scandal. Only after Gray was defeated for re-election and left office did the U.S. Attorney announce there would be no indictment of the former mayor, which was not the same thing as a declaration of innocence. Nevertheless, Gray took advantage by returning to politics, defeating the unpopular Alexander to reclaim the seat that launched his advance to the mayoralty. It is widely expected that Gray will challenge Bowser in the 2018 race for mayor.
The one seat that sometimes becomes competitive in the general election is the at-large seat reserved for a non-Democrat. When the District gained home rule in 1974, Republicans, who feared an all-Democratic Council unto eternity, wrote into the Home Rule Act that every two years the District would elect two at-large councilmembers, but no more than one could be from the same party. The GOP hoped this would ensure that members of their party would be represented on the Council, and for a time they were – although they tended to be moderates, such as Jerry Moore, Carol Schwartz and David Catania, who usually got along well with the Democratic majority (and Schwartz and Catania eventually quit the party to become independents). But the minor-party set aside also helped the progressive Statehood Party (now the Statehood Green Party) capture and hold one seat for 24 years under Julius Hobson and Hilda Mason (the latter a longtime DSA member).
But over the last few election cycles, the set-aside seat has been held by ex-Democrats who re-registered as Independents to avoid having to run in a crowded Democratic primary. The ex-Democrat on the ballot this year is first-termer David Grosso, who is coasting to victory with only token opposition. Grosso has compiled a reasonably progressive record during his first term; he was a principal sponsor of the pending bill that would provide 16 weeks family leave for workers – one of a series of pro-labor bills to emerge from the current session of the Council, along with the $15 local minimum wage. He also has been perhaps the most anti-Trump councilmember, making appearances at rallies to protest the conversion of the Old Post Office into the Trump International Hotel (although his leverage to do anything about it is minimal).
With a Council completely in the hands of Democrats (including the two Democrats in independent clothing), open ideological clashes are few – everyone calls themselves a progressive. Some, such as Evans, are relatively friendly to the business establishment; a few others openly position themselves to the left, such as Council Chair Phil Mendelson and first-term at-large member Elissa Silverman. Often they swing back and forth based on who is giving them the largest campaign contributions.
But over the past couple of years, the real division in the Council has been between the members who are hitching themselves to Bowser vs. those who retain the right to criticize the mayor. And in the Democratic primaries Bowser’s “Green Team” took a major hit; her buddies Orange, May and Alexander went down to defeat, replaced by White, White and Gray, a bland-sounding palette that will nevertheless bring some needed color to Council debates. This is healthy because Bowser needs pushback – her attempting to dictate the terms of the statehood campaign being one example. She also has been lukewarm to the Council’s pro-labor agenda, and her allies’ losses at the polls seemingly has emboldened its members to press ahead over her objections.
Franklin Garcia, the District’s non-voting “shadow” U.S. Representative, is also certain to win a second term. As an unpaid, volunteer lobbyist for DC statehood to the U.S. House of Representatives and DC’s most prominent Latino elected official, Garcia has had a reasonably high profile and has helped win a few co-sponsors on the DC statehood bill – but the Republican majority in that chamber has thrown up a brick wall of opposition. Garcia also was a member of the commission that drafted the DC constitution, which heightened his visibility but also led to clashes with activists over the heavy-handed process with which it was pushed forward. One of his extra-curricular activities has been organizing some of the anti-Trump protests at the hotel.
And then there is Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s great warhorse on Capitol Hill for 26 years and running, once again seeking re-election without serious opposition. By now most District residents appreciate her dogged defense of the District against nearly daily assaults by Congress on local governance, and how she has held off many of the most egregious ones. That she has not moved the needle on DC statehood more than she has is a result of factors mostly out of her control. Unlike the shadow representative, who has no official standing in Congress, Norton has a vote in House committees and a voice, although not a vote, on the floor. She has used these to maximum advantage, and the energy and determination she brings to her job will be needed in the years to come, regardless of whether the District moves closer to statehood in the near term.
And so as District voters troop to the polls, they will find their choices of candidates as constricted as their rights under the rule of Congress. At least the vote for statehood, and the constitution to go with it, gives them a reason to show up.
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