Puerto Rico referendum could revitalize D.C. statehood debate

As Puerto Rico prepares to hold its first status referendum in 14 years this November, a leading advocate for D.C. statehood said he sees strong parallels between the two jurisdictions’ political situations.

Democrat Paul Strauss, elected to his third term as a symbolic “shadow” U.S. senator for the District in 2008, said he is an “interested observer” watching the decades-old status debate in Puerto Rico. That debate may come to a head on Election Day, Nov. 6.

Mr. Strauss suggested the D.C. statehood movement could be emboldened if Puerto Rico votes to become the 51st state.

“The similarities aren’t lost on me, and the fact that states have frequently been admitted in pairs … is also not lost on me,” Mr. Strauss said. “I think this is a step along the journey for Puerto Rico as it is for the District of Columbia.”

Sen. Jamin B. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, a constitutional law expert who has testified in favor of D.C. statehood, said he agrees.

“History tells us that most states admitted to the Union after the original 13 came in pairs … like animals on Noah’s Ark,” Mr. Raskin said. “So it’s possible that D.C. could try to link its cause to Puerto Rico in the event that the Puerto Rican statehood movement takes off.”

As the Constitution stipulates a federal district for the seat of the government, the admission of the entire District as a state would require a constitutional amendment, something Mr. Raskin said he does not believe would succeed.

“Statehood for the District would require shrinking the federal district down to the White House, the Capitol and the federal buildings, and ceding the [remaining] land to a new state,” Mr. Raskin said. “That would be the same process as retroceding the District to Maryland.”

Under the retrocession option, the city’s populated portions would return to Maryland, which ceded land north of the Potomac River to form the District in 1800. Precedent for this option dates back to the 1840s, when the District, which originally straddled both banks of the Potomac, lost modern-day Arlington County and Alexandria to Virginia.

James Joyner, the Alexandria, publisher of the political blog Outside the Beltway, prefers retrocession to statehood.

“Because of the strange constitutional structure we have, statehood means a representative, which probably wouldn’t be a problem, but it also means two senators,” Mr. Joyner said. “And it just doesn’t make sense to give a little rump of a city … equal representation to California.”

Mr. Joyner has also supported a modified form of retrocession wherein the District would remain intact as a congressional district and would retain significant control over its own affairs, though he acknowledges it would require a constitutional amendment.

But Maryland might benefit more from D.C. statehood than it would from retrocession, Mr. Strauss argued.

“I think if D.C. got statehood, it would be tremendous for Maryland. I think it would benefit Maryland greatly, probably Virginia as well,” Strauss said. “The interests of the D.C./Maryland region, or the Delmarva region, whatever you want to call it, are two votes short in the Senate.”

Mr. Strauss named Amtrak funding and Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts as among the regional interests that could get a boost.

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