Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Statehood, yes. Voting rights, nah. That’s the sentiment of D.C. voters who have been trying to gin up support for statehood. These supporters don’t oppose the push for congressional voting rights. However, they say statehood is what residents of the nation’s capital want and what they are due.

The D.C. Council held hearings on statehood and voting rights, and lawmakers will reconsider legislation when they return this month from summer recess.

Disparate scenarios are under consideration. Chief among them are statehood, voting rights for the city’s nonvoting House delegate, and allowing D.C. voters to vote in Maryland.

As far as statehood supporters are concerned, the key forums are the council’s Special Committee on Statehood, which was created in March, and the D.C. 51st State Commission Act, legislation that calls for a panel to conduct a thorough study and recommend what actions the city could take to make the District the nation’s 51st state.

One of the founders of the statehood movement, Sam Jordan, and other advocates told the council at a hearing earlier this summer that the city should fund a strong statehood commission. He also said congressional voting representation without statehood would be a “mirage.”

Mr. Jordan, a former Statehood Party chairman, cited a recent campaign for a vote in the House and said that “at the community level, the grass roots, the congressional campaign did not inspire, did not energize because it did not teach the fundamentals of the principles and history of the universal fight for enfranchisement as it applies to the District of Columbia. Without such grass-roots support from an informed citizenry, democracy can never prevail. That is the work of the 51st State Commission.”

He also questioned the wisdom of using taxpayers’ money to fund organizations that push for congressional voting rights but not statehood.

(Corrected paragraph:) Council member Yvette Alexander, who chaired the hearing, said lawmakers are reconsidering the bill’s introductory language referring to congressional voting representation without designation as a state. She said statehood should be the stated goal. She also said the Special Committee on Statehood, which is chaired by Council member Michael A. Brown, had reserved $100,000 to fund statehood purposes.

Other witnesses strongly supported the creation of a statehood commission or, alternatively, the reactivation of the old commission, or an amended version of it, which is still in the D.C. Code but has been moribund since Congress prohibited the city from spending local dollars to promote statehood.

In addition to Mr. Jordan, witnesses included Shelley Tomkin, a professor of political science and first vice chairwoman of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee (which recently unanimously endorsed statehood); David Schwartzman, a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party and D.C. Statehood - Yes We Can; Elinor Hart, a member of D.C. Statehood - Yes We Can; Joyce Robinson-Paul, a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party; Wallace Dickson, a local businessman and member of D.C. Statehood - Yes We Can; and Beverly Hunter, a D.C. resident.

The fiscal 2010 Budget Support Act of 2009 calls for “a competitive grant” to be awarded to “an organization with a history of promoting D.C. voting rights.” Supporters urged the council to transfer $250,000 to the statehood commission during the upcoming budget year, which starts Oct. 1. Supporters also proposed that commissioners include experts in public relations, government operations, education and curriculum development, finance, and political grass-roots organizing.

Ms. Tomkin suggested that the commission include two as opposed to one appointed member from each of the city’s eight wards, as well as the shadow senators and representative. This would give the citizenry a larger stake in the commission, she said. Ms. Tomkin also suggested that all commissioners be D.C. residents.

Mr. Dickson, a Cleveland Park businessman, urged that the legislation be adequately funded so commissioners might initiate and promulgate a national conversation on the question of D.C. statehood.

“American citizens who live outside the District of Columbia have little or no knowledge or appreciation of the issues and generally do not understand or appreciate that residents of their nation’s capital, unlike any other capitals in the world, do not share the rights and privileges of citizenship everyone else enjoys and takes for granted at birth,” he said.

• Ann Loikow is a writer living in Washington.

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