CONCORD, N.H. — Nobody said this would be easy.
For three hours on Friday, a D.C. delegation of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, council members, veterans and city residents tried to explain to a panel of New Hampshire legislators why they should obtain rights inherent from birth but not explicitly stated in the Constitution, that the District raises its own money and that Maryland will probably not ask for its land back if the nation’s capital is recognized as the 51st state.
The Committee on State-Federal Relations and Veteran Affairs sorted through fact and myths about the District and ultimately sympathized with the D.C. advocates’ plight for representation in Congress. But a Republican caucus of members had key reservations and guided an 8-3 vote to ditch a resolution that would recognize the District’s right to statehood. Despite the unfavorable outcome for the District in a largely conservative committee, the bill will still go to the floor of the New Hampshire House of Representatives for a vote.
“They exercised their prerogative, and hopefully one day the District will get that power for ourselves,” a spokesman for council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, said. Mr. Catania spearheaded the trip to the Granite State, which cost the city about $4,000, alongside council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent. The trip is the first stop in what has been billed as a state-by-state tour in support of D.C. statehood that is expected to head to Florida and Tennessee in the near future.
If the result sounds familiar, it’s because D.C. advocates have seen this script play out time and time again. For years, voting rights proponents have bemoaned the indifference of Congress to their taxation without representation, their lack of budget autonomy and their unique duty to send local laws to Capitol Hill for a 30-day review.
Yet the debate on Friday, once again, dissolved into an academic discussion of what the Constitution dictates, a reflection of tea party principles that present a paradox vis-a-vis D.C. democracy — they see taxation without representation as abhorrent, yet the idea of fiddling with the Founding Fathers’ most sacrosanct document is even more daunting.
Restrictive gun laws in the District do not help the city’s cause among conservatives, who feel city lawmakers have not done enough to respond to the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case that found the city’s handgun ban unconstitutional.
More of the same
The D.C. delegation’s state-to-state tour was supposed to rally support and erode steadfast opposition in Congress. Yet in New Hampshire, they found more of the same.
The committee’s no-nonsense chairman, Rep. Alfred Baldasaro, expressed reservations from the start about the constitutionality of D.C. statehood and the city’s crime rate. A Republican and a retired Marine, he said many of the committee’s inquiries into gun laws were passed along from his constituents, who also wanted to know why the New Hampshire legislature was considering the measure in the first place.
Yet Mr. Gray and five council members, including Chairman Kwame R. Brown, were greeted warmly by each of the committee’s 11 members. The panel sat patiently while more than a dozen witnesses spoke on behalf of the District, they asked well-researched questions and they complimented private citizens for traveling almost 500 miles to testify in support of their beliefs.
In front of the dais, the D.C. delegation offered an emphatic and well-designed defense of their right to two senators and a representative on Capitol Hill, the right to approve the city’s budget and to pass their own laws without congressional interference.
“The day will come when the District of Columbia will be the 51st state,” Mr. Brown said, challenging the committee “to have the courage” to be on the ground floor of the historical process.
As a state, “there’s no question we would be able to support ourselves,” Mr. Gray told the committee.
City officials drew parallels between the Granite State’s “Live Free or Die” motto and focus on democracy — 400 legislators serve a state of only 1.3 million people — into support for the District’s fight against “taxation without representation” in Congress.
“It seems to me one of the legacies I can leave to those who will come behind me is the opportunity to live with greater freedom than we live with now,” Mr. Gray said. “That translates to me into ‘Live Free or Die.’”
‘A positive step’
The delegation set out for New England before dawn, boarding a 7:15 a.m. flight out of Baltimore Washington International-Thurgood Marshall Airport. They cruised at 35,000 feet from the 60-degree January temperatures in Maryland to the 30-degree coolness and slush of snow and rain in Manchester, N.H. From there, they boarded vans for the quick jaunt to the capital, Concord.
D.C. lawmakers may have found their surroundings familiar. Many of them joined former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2008 to tout a New Hampshire resolution that supported D.C. voting rights in Congress. A committee reported favorably on the resolution, but it came to the floor on a snowy day and failed to get the two-thirds vote required by state law.
Its sponsor, Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, is a Democrat who has known Mr. Catania for many years as members of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices. She upped the ante this year with the D.C. statehood resolution.
On the morning after its defeat, Ms. Rosenwald said an amendment that supported D.C. voting rights in Congress, yet not statehood, was drafted but not introduced from the dais on Friday. She felt the hearing was a positive step toward educating the nation on the District’s unique position, even if colleagues such as Mr. Baldasaro are not ready to add a star to the American flag.
“He just couldn’t get beyond the part of the Constitution he was quoting,” Ms. Rosenwald said, referring to the passage about the District serving as the seat of the federal government with no mention of its own autonomy. “Because he’s never seen any plan.”
Vice Chairman Lynne Blankenbeker, a Republican, expressed similar concerns and consulted her pocket-Constitution alongside the chairman, yet she was among the three members who voted not to kill the resolution.
“I thought it was a very respectful and good hearing,” Ms. Rosenwald said. “I was very appreciative of how much time the chairman devoted to it.”
Yet some questioned whether the D.C. delegation returned that respect. Mr. Gray and the council members left halfway through the marathon hearing to catch an earlier flight than planned, while members of D.C. Vote, former Deputy Mayor Herb Tillery and Sam McCoy, both veterans, private citizens and three young men who went on a hunger strike for D.C. democracy testified before the committee. Most of the city’s delegation — except for hunger strikers Adrian Parsons, Sam Jeweler and Joe Gray, who drove to New Hampshire — and D.C.-based reporters who made the trip had to leave for the airport before the final vote.
D.C. “Shadow” Sen. Michael D. Brown said he was disappointed that officials left on an earlier flight. If D.C. residents do not stand behind their own, “where does that leave us?” he said. The New Hampshire committee did not seem to mind, because the D.C. officials were up front about their need to leave at the appointed time.
Perceptions and misconceptions
Because Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution says members of Congress must be elected “by the People of the several States,” the 600,000 residents of the District, a federal territory, have no voting congressional representation.
Attempts to give the District voting rights made it to the House floor twice.
In 1978, a constitutional amendment that would have given the District representation in the House and the Senate was passed by Congress, but failed to be ratified by the required number of states. In 1993, a measure granting the District statehood was easily defeated in the House, by a 277-153 vote.
Most recently, a 2010 measure that would have granted the city voting rights in Congress was withdrawn after its supporters learned of Republican plans to introduce an amendment that would eviscerate the city’s gun laws. Since then, advocates have refocused their efforts on statehood.
Mr. Baldasaro said he was committed to sending the D.C. delegation home with an answer on their resolution. Testimony also entered into a contentious, yet civil, debate about the District’s reputation for violence.
Mr. Baldasaro said there were certain D.C. neighborhoods he would never take his children to when he passed through to Quantico, Va. The crime rate, he said, was an indication that the District is not doing enough to provide Second Amendment rights to his citizens.
Johnnie Scott Rice, a third-generation Washingtonian, launched into spirited defense of her city and its safety, pointedly accusing of Mr. Baldasaro of relying on old stereotypes.
“Like there’s no crime in New Hampshire? There’s no crime in Maryland? There’s no crime in Colorado?” Ms. Rice said, expanding on redevelopment throughout the city. “Southwest Washington would blow your mind if you actually came back and saw it.”
Mr. Baldasaro said he did not mean to offend anyone, but he did not back down from his assertion that neighborhoods in cities across America have a reputation for danger.
Nonetheless Mr. Brown, the shadow senator, and D.C. Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka were pleased with unqualified support from certain members. Outside the hearing room, they thanked representatives like Robert Theberge, a Democrat who had earlier said it “would be an honor” to be the first in line to support D.C. statehood.
“I think it’s long overdue,” Mr. Theberge said in an interview. “There are so many myths going around and misconceptions about what’s going on” in the District.
Rep. Bill Hatch, a Democrat who does not normally sit on the committee, offered the third vote in favor of the resolution.
Case for statehood
New Hampshire representatives are essentially volunteers, making $100 per year, yet they seriously vetted the legality and practicality of what the D.C. delegation proposed.
Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and a law professor at George Washington University, ably made the case for District statehood based on the legal timeline of land maneuvers in the District since the days of the Federalist Papers.
Mr. Brown, the at-large council member, said people flocked to the District to support the seat of government but then it grew into a thriving network of communities, schools and hospitals.
“No one anticipated they would lay roots there,” he said.
Those transplants continue to flock to the District today. Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, noted he grew up in California but has called the District home for about 30 years.
Mr. Catania provided candid remarks on the city’s haves and haves-nots, after Republican Rep. Frank McCarthy noted that paying the “highest income tax per capita” just means residents are making more money.
Mr. Catania said, yes, the city is well-educated and many residents are successful, but there is a vast disparity in income across the city that oftens falls along racial lines.
“We’re asking for something we’re entitled to by birth,” Mr. Catania said of statehood. “Bring us in the bandwidth. We’re not asking for anything more or anything less.”
Residents like Mr. Tillery have been waiting a long time to feel like a full member of the country he, quite literally, has fought for. He said his city’s request for help makes him feel like his city is a third-world nation that relies on benefactors for its needs.