Reflections from 1985: Number 51

DC statehood is back on the nation’s agenda. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, only a likely Senate filibuster stands in the way of adding a 51st star to the US flag. The response of DC’s Metropolitan Police to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, in which local officers came to the aid of a body that denies their city a vote, added to the District’s moral authority to demand full democratic rights. Immediately following the insurrection, Metro DC DSA reaffirmed its demand that the US government make DC statehood a priority. As this article from the April/May 1985 issue of the Washington Socialist shows, DSA’s advocacy of DC statehood goes back at least four decades. Rich Bruning, then a DC DSA activist now living in Baltimore, participated in the 1982 convention that drew up a constitution for the prospective state of “New Columbia” — a name since changed to “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.” Will the current Congress and president end DC’s colonial status and grant full citizenship to the more than 700,000 residents of the nation’s capital?

-- Bill Mosley

Number 51

from the 1985 April/May editions of the Washington Socialist

by Rich Bruning

Statehood for the District of Columbia, languishing as a political issue since the passage of the New Columbia Constitution in November 1982, should soon burst to the forefront of District politics. It is vital that DSAers know the issues and vigorously support the movement.

Statehood has recently picked up the powerful support of new allies, particularly DC Delegate Walter Fauntroy. At the same time, the DC Voting Rights Amendment, often perceived as opposed to statehood, has almost reached its ratification expiration date. In the 50 states, the opposition to the Amendment, which would grant voting senators and a representative to DC, has been significantly racist and conservative. While unspoken, the fear of having two liberal blacks in the Senate has raised the blood pressure in many a legislature.

Though the opposition to statehood will be similar, it will be no worse. Indeed, while the Amendment required a two-thirds vote of both Senate and House, and three-fourths of the states, statehood requires only a majority vote of Congress and the signature of the president. And the Statehood movement, which began in the early 1970s, believes that only statehood will guarantee District residents full citizenship, including congressional representation and control over local legislation, the courts and appropriations.

In 1982, the Statehood Constitutional Convention drafted, and District voters narrowly approved, a constitution for the State of New Columbia. Five of the 45 Statehood delegates were DSA members.

Progressive provisions in the constitution included strong equal protective action, equal pay for equal work and equal pay for comparable work, and limits on utility rates.

Two sections, however, engendered strong opposition. Section 20 of Article I said everyone “had the right to employment, or if unable to work, an income sufficient to meet basic human needs.” Secondly, the “right to strike” for public employees was promulgated and could be abridged only under narrow circumstances. Opposition to these provisions, combined with other criticisms of the Bill of Rights, almost resulted in the document’s rejection.

During the ratification debate, many constitutional proponents assured the voters that the constitution would be amended.

The ratified constitution was transmitted to Congress where it has remained under the aegis of the House District Committee on which Fauntroy serves. After the committee held brief hearings for congressional comments, Fauntroy and Senator Kennedy introduced statehood bills in the House and Senate in both the 98th and 99th Congress.

Meanwhile, Delegate Fauntroy convened the Statehood Partnership, a group of District officials, congressional staffers, Statehood delegates and organizational representatives with the intent of deciding what changes should be recommended in the constitution to help ensure its passage by Congress. A smaller group, the Statehood Task Force, has been working on proposed changes for months.  

The Task Force, which will probably report in March, will almost surely recommend deletion of the “jobs or income” section, limit the right of government employees to strike to those “non-essential” jobs and change parts of the Bill of Rights.

These changes, if approved by the Partnership, would provide a framework for changing the constitution. The House District Committee would probably hold hearings and invite comments from city officials. District officials could then take these changes, tacitly approved by Congress, to public hearings and offer amendments to public referendum. Whatever changes that passed would be incorporated into the pending document.

Additionally, the DC Voting Rights Amendment, which would give the District voting senators and representatives, faces a ratification deadline of August 22, 1985. Less than half of the necessary 38 states have ratified the amendment.

Amendment proponents are already examining their options. Some groups may press for reintroduction. Others will likely oppose this and shift to statehood. The most obvious realignment appears to be Delegate Fauntroy who masterminded the passage of the amendment through Congress. He may or may not oppose reintroduction, but his emphasis has clearly shifted to statehood.

After years in the political wilderness, statehood for DC may be an idea whose time is almost here. Even if statehood is years away, it is both inevitable and right and DSAers must be ready to join its advocates.

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