- - Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In 1993, when Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was in her second term as a non-voting member representing the District of Columbia, the House voted down a bill to make the federal city the 51st state. The Democrats were in the majority, but 105 of the 258 Democratic members joined 172 Republicans to defeat the legislation.

As she embarks on her 16th term, still without a floor vote, the lifelong Democrat expects a different outcome when the House votes as early as next week on the D.C. statehood bill H.R. 51, which would change the city’s name to State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.

“Thirty years ago, we controlled the House in no small part because of Southern Democrats,” Ms. Norton said on the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast. “They were good Democrats, but when it came to a matter that they had never considered before, and that’s what D.C. statehood was, it was a step too far for them. Now Southern Democrats are Republicans.”

In 2021, more than enough Democrats support statehood to pass the legislation in the House, and Ms. Norton is confident her party will be able to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, where a final vote would potentially come down to a tiebreaker cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

That may be a long shot. Whatever the outcome, the D.C. statehood movement is as close as it has ever been to achieving its goal, some 60 years after the movement began to coalesce during the civil rights era. And the District’s first elected delegate to the House, Democrat Walter Fauntroy, was instrumental in building support for the passage of the Home Rule Act of 1973, which gave the city more autonomy short of full statehood.

“When I moved to Washington in 1970, the city was 71 percent Black population,” said historian Steven Diner. “At the time, the issue of statehood was closely, intimately tied to Black political power.”

President Lyndon Johnson was behind one of the first major changes in D.C.’s relationship to the federal government, Mr. Diner said.

“In 1967, Lyndon Johnson created a mayor-commissioner to be the chief executive of the city, and also created a nine-member city council. There is no question, Lyndon Johnson’s creating this was intended as a first step toward allowing the District to elect its own local government,” he said.

After the passage of the Home Rule Act, D.C. residents would indeed be able to vote for their own mayor and council members, although all local ordinances and budget still must be approved in the end by Congress and the president.

Statehood remains adamantly opposed by almost all Republican legislators and conservative activists. They argue against statehood for constitutional and historical reasons, but also for political ones. Republicans oppose the creation of Douglass Commonwealth for the same reason Democrats support it: D.C. would in all likelihood elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

At a congressional hearing in March, Heritage Foundation legal fellow Zack Smith testified against statehood, arguing that Congress has no authority to create a state by simple legislation. Instead, it requires a constitutional amendment that has to be ratified by 38 states.

“Advocates for H.R. 51 certainly recognize that the existence of the 23rd Amendment poses a constitutional problem for them. Unfortunately, H.R. 51 seeks to deal with this problem in a wholly inadequate and unconstitutional manner,” Mr. Smith said.

“It seeks to nullify the clear commands of the 23rd Amendment that the District, constituting the seat of government, shall appoint electors for president and vice president, and it proposes to nullify this by simple legislation,” said Mr. Smith, who added it should be clear to everyone that Congress has no authority to do so.

Whatever the outcome of this legal and constitutional tussle, it has renewed the focus on the lack of representation for the city’s 712,000 tax-paying residents, as well as on the strained, often dysfunctional relationship between the city and the Congress that governs it. 

These tensions boiled over last summer when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser led objections to the Trump administration’s deployment of the D.C. National Guard to quell Black Lives Matter protests near the White House. 

Ms. Norton said she is going to propose legislation to deal with the National Guard issue, one of many matters that are tied up in a cause to which she has dedicated her public career.

“It does mean something to me personally, and not only because I represent the residents of the District of Columbia. My great-grandfather was a runaway slave from Virginia, and that means that everyone in the Holmes family, the Holmes side, has never had the same rights as other Americans,” Ms. Norton said.

For more of Ms. Norton’s thoughts as Congress prepares to vote on D.C. statehood, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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