Residents of Washington DC want the federal capital to become an independent state. In 2016, 86 percent of DC voters supported a petition to Congress to permit DC into the Union as its 51st state. The chief issue for Washington residents — ‘Taxation Without Representation’ — is displayed on all their license plates: the 700,000 city residents do not have a vote in either House of Congress.
Unfortunately for Washington, though, the DC statehood movement is unpopular nationwide. According to a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents oppose the US capital becoming an independent state, while only 29 percent support the proposition. Among self-identified liberals — the most supportive demographic — only 40 percent support DC’s claim for statehood.
Despite its unpopularity, Democrats are all-in for the District of Columbia becoming a state. A bill for DC statehood, H.R.51, has 216 sponsors who are all Democrats. An identical bill in the Senate has 33 Democratic sponsors. All the Democratic presidential candidates are in favor of making DC the country’s 51st state. Why, then, have Democrats unified behind an extremely unpopular bill? The clearest answer is that if DC becomes a state, with its overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, it would elect two Democratic senators.
Republicans have been explicit with their political objections. In June, Sen. Mitch McConnell said statehood for the District and its likely two Democratic senators would help Democrats enact ‘full-bore socialism.’
While DC statehood is a non-starter with a Republican controlled-Senate, Democrats, with an eye toward 2020, have promoted the issue by repackaging it with other progressive causes. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg includes DC statehood in his newly released racial justice plan. In March, House Democrats listed statehood for the District in their bill for electoral reforms, which includes federal funding for congressional elections, automatic voter registration, and designating Election Day as a federal holiday.
51 for 51, a new drive for DC statehood, which campaigns for an end to filibusters on bills like H.R. 51, has partnered with environmentalist billionaire and presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, progressive PAC Democracy for America, and other left-leaning national organizations. Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have endorsed the campaign, which has raised millions of dollars from undisclosed donors since May. A 51 for 51 partner, gun control lobbying group the Brady Campaign, has argued statehood and the 51 for 51 initiative is somehow necessary for ending gun violence.
Under any scrutiny, most progressive repackaging of the statehood issue is essentially this claim: ‘DC statehood is instrumental in achieving my favored political agenda in Congress.’ Elizabeth Warren provided an illustrative example: ‘In 2017, when Republicans tried to rip away healthcare from millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of people in DC, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton [DC’s delegate in Congress] didn’t have a vote. This is not right.’ Surely, Sen. Warren wouldn’t cite this example if she thought Rep. Norton would turn around and join the Republicans in trying to replace Obamacare.
Some senators are a little more transparent in their political aims for DC statehood. On the day Brett Kavanaugh became a Supreme Court Justice, Democratic senator Brian Schatz called for DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa to have voting representatives in Congress. Sen. Schatz could have presented a plan for breaking California up into 10 separate states and the connection to Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation and his desire to block future Republican-appointed Justices would not have been any more explicit.
As the 2020 election approaches, marketing a statehood initiative as a power grab may attract supporters in the Democratic electorate. While 39 percent of self-identified Democrats support DC statehood, 52 percent support packing the Supreme Court with Democrat-appointed Justices. It seems power and control are as appealing to voters as they are to politicians.
Local advocates are skeptical of Democrats running away with the issue. Josh Burch, who leads Neighbors United for DC Statehood, commented last year that despite the political aims of Democrats, ‘this [issue] is something fundamentally deeper than which party we belong to: whether we deserve the same rights, no matter what initial is by our names, when we go to vote.’ Unfortunately for advocates like Burch, DC may only achieve statehood if voters see the prize, not as congressional representation for DC voters, but as a boost in political power for the Democratic party.