Voting Rights and Democracy

#PurpleChairChat Episode 12: D.C. Statehood: Why Representation Matters

Why D.C. statehood is a necessary and an important step toward equity. CAC President Elizabeth Wydra, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson discuss on #PurpleChairChat

Show Transcript

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Wydra, President of the Constitutional Accountability Center and welcome to today’s Purple Chair Chat. We call these conversations Purple Chair Chats because normally we would be coming to you from our iconic purple wing chairs in CAC’s Washington, D.C. office. But we like so many of you have been working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic and making do. So many of us have lost so very much during these difficult times and I sincerely hope that you are staying safe and well.

Purple Chair Chats no matter where they come to you from, from our offices or here in our homes, tackle the important legal political and constitutional moments of the day. And today we are talking about an issue that is near and dear to my heart as a longtime D.C. resident, but also as a constitutional scholar, and that is D.C. statehood.

I am beyond honored to be joined for this conversation by two brilliant D.C. leaders. First, the truly legendary Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has served the people of D.C. for 15 terms. She came to Congress as a national figure who had been a civil rights and feminist leader, including having been the first woman to chair the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Carter, and she’s also a tenured Professor of Law and still teaches here in D.C. Those lucky students. The Congresswoman’s work for full congressional voting representation and for full democracy for the people of D.C. continues her lifelong struggle for universal, human, and civil rights. She’s a co-sponsor of H.R. 51, the bill that is currently pending in Congress that would make the District of Columbia, the Douglas Commonwealth, and 51st state.

I’m also thrilled to be joined today by D.C. Council Member Christina Henderson. Councilwoman Henderson was elected in 2020 as an at-large member of the D.C. Council and throughout her career she has been a trusted political advisor for United States Senators, D.C. council members, and state and local education officials on a ray of domestic policy issues. Prior to serving as a member of our D.C. Council, Christina Henderson served as Legislative Assistant for then Minority and now Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and so I look forward to getting her expert opinion—getting all the scoop–on how this issue will fare in the Senate. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

So, I want to jump right in with questions because we have a lot to talk about on this important issue. Congresswoman Norton, as many of us might remember from grade school U.S. history, Congress has the power under the Constitution to admit states to the union, but there are a few more details to be worked out in the context of D.C. statehood because again, as many of us know from grade school trips to D.C., D.C. also serves as the seat of the federal government which has an important kind of special provision for in the Constitution. Congresswoman can you explain what the D.C. Statehood Bill that you have introduced in the house would do and what our new state would look like?

CONGRESSWOMAN NORTON: What my bill does is admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state. States are admitted by a majority vote of the Senate. We will have the filibuster to contend with, but we think we can find our way around it. We already have a close to enough co-sponsors to pass. We pass the bill in June. It’s gathering steam, for a bill of this importance, it certainly takes more than one Term. We are having a hearing on March the 11th. That’s a second hearing. The reason we’re doing another hearing, is we find that these hearings educate the public about what they do not know.

Many people, particularly when they see me on the floor of the House and I can speak on the floor like any other member, the only thing I can’t do on the floor, is cast that final vote. I chair a subcommittee. I can do everything that every other member can do. So, I believe I have created the false impression that D.C. has the same rights as everyone else. That’s why having these hearings have been so important.

For example, last year after the hearing we found that well, let me put it this way before the hearing Americans were all over the map on D.C. statehood. Many said they didn’t know. According to the polls, many said they were against it. Members said, well don’t they already have statehood? That hearing, which resulted in passage in June, apparently cleared up a lot of that confusion because the most recent polls show that fifty percent of Americans now support D.C. statehood. We’re coming.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Honestly, I think that’s so true Congresswoman. I think you’re too good at your job. And so, a lot of people don’t realize just how disempowered residents of D.C. are, so I think you’re absolutely right that these hearings are incredibly important and the one coming up in just a few weeks, I think will continue to be very important on that front.

So, Councilwoman Henderson, in sort of the misconceptions about D.C. Statehood a lot of people think that D.C. can’t be that large of a place, especially if you’ve been here, but the fact is we are a vibrant substantial community. We outnumber the residents of Wyoming and Vermont. We pay our taxes and we serve our country in many ways, but unlike the folks in Wyoming and Vermont, we cannot elect Members of Congress with full voting power or have full control over local affairs. What would statehood mean for your constituents? Me and my neighbors here in D.C.?

 COUNCILWOMAN CHRISTINA HENDERSON: First, let me say Elizabeth, thank you so much for the invitation to join you. It’s really exciting to be on this panel with Representative Norton, who I’ve admired for many years.

The statehood question it would mean so much to D.C. residents to be able to have an equal voice in Congress. I think that the events over the last year, whether it be the protest that happened over the summer and the incidents that occurred on Black Lives Matter Plaza, or even incidents that occurred on January 6 where it was our officers, local D.C. officers, who were called in to help, you know deal with the insurrectionist and protect the capital and protect Members of Congress who were voting on this very important matter pertaining to our democracy and yet we didn’t have a vote. We have over 700,000 residents who pay taxes, who serve in the military, who serve our country in many ways and yet on some very important matters we don’t have a full say.

I think the other thing that folks don’t realize is that without statehood the local work that we do in the District, the work that we do on the Council is not alone. Every single bill that the Council passes has to go through a congressional review period whereby Members of Congress can decide that they want to engage in local affairs of the District of Columbia and decides to block legislation that we pass. We have riders on our local budget that other states and cities do not have, that restrict how we can spend funds and how we can serve our residents. So, statehood provides in many ways a little bit of freedom for us to really be able to exercise our voices completely.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Thank you for that. I think that a lot of folks actually started thinking about the lack of D.C. autonomy with the events of January 6th and seeing how vulnerable that made us because D.C. is not just the folks who work in the capitol or live in the White House, D.C. is the folks who live here. And Congresswoman Norton, I know that you are a multi-generation D.C. family, and you know D.C. statehood is obviously about local authority. It’s about taxation without representation. It’s a democracy issue, but it’s also undeniably a civil rights issue and I think Congresswoman Norton you’ve been very forceful in explaining it that way. D.C. has long been a majority-black city and we are still a majority black, indigenous, and other people of color city. So, suppressing the votes of D.C. represents, refusal to treat people of color as equal citizens deserving of dignity political self-determination, and that crucial representation. Can you speak to some of this history and how D.C. statehood is about really meaningful equal citizenship?

CONGRESSWOMAN NORTON: Yes, and you raise the race question, of course, it is on the table. There’s no question about it. But I certainly should clear up any notion that for its history and we’re talking about a history of more than 200 years, that race alone has been the central ingredient in our not having statehood. So, to show you just how complicated this issue is for most of our existence as the District of Columbia, the District has been a majority white city.

It became a majority black city during the 1970s. At the moment it is not a majority black city. It is pretty evenly divided between whites and blacks, and it’s on its way very soon, and I think you’ll see it in the next Census to being a majority white city, so that really puts on the table race along other factors. The other factors need to be educating the public about why their nation’s capital doesn’t have the same rights they have. It’s very important to put that ingredient in because we think it’s only about race. What are we going to do when it becomes a majority white city and by the time we get to the next Census, that is what I predicted will be, just as it has been for most of our time as a city.

So, if we look at what really the other large ingredient is, that we for so long been a city paying by the way not only federal taxes, but the highest federal taxes per capita in the United States. We have got to change people’s understanding of why their nation’s capital doesn’t look like their States and that’s far more complicated than race. It requires us to understand that the Framers initially didn’t quite know what to do about the District of Columbia.

But if you look at the legislative and constitutional history, it is clear that they did not mean the people who lived in the nation’s capital to have fewer rights than other Americans. One of the best ways to understand that is to understand how we formed, or the Framers formed the District of Columbia, formed from two states, Maryland and Virginia. In those States people have the right to vote for Senators and Representatives.

When the District in 1801 became the nation’s capital, the residents of Maryland and Virginia who had given their land to form the nation’s capital learned for the first time that they had lost their rights, particularly their rights to full representation in the House and Senate. What did they do? Right away. They went into the streets to demand that the new capital—residents of the new capital like themselves—have the same rights as the residents of the states. This is a long and complicated history, but it’s important to understand all of its major ingredients as we try now, and I believe are closer than ever—surely closer than ever—to achieving D.C. statehood.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Thank you so much for that, especially on that last point. So, we had a historic moment in the last Congress with the D.C. Statehood Bill being passed in the House and I know that this Congress with Representative Norton at the helm of things will be smooth sailing. I’m sure. That is oversimplifying of course.

Councilmember Henderson you have worked in the Senate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you think things will proceed in the Senate and with respect to the Senate in particular. And then I’d love to hear from Congresswoman Holmes Norton about the House side as well what average citizens can do to help speed this process along and make D.C. a state?

COUNCILWOMAN CHRISTINA HENDERSON: Well, I think when it comes to the United States Senate, particularly this Congress, I would say it’s complicated because D.C. statehood, we know will not receive 60 votes of members of the Senate. Therefore, in order to do 50 plus 1, which would be the Vice President, the Senate would need to change the rules as it pertains to the filibuster to make this happen. I know that there is some dissent amongst some of the members of the Democratic Caucus in terms of changing the Senate rules and getting rid of the filibuster to do that. But at this point, I don’t see a different avenue for that to happen.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep pushing forward. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep having that conversation because I do think that as Congresswoman Norton said the more we talked about statehood, the more everyone is being educated on what’s actually happening here. And I think that’s the same for you know, Senators who have expressed not doubt but they have not been sure in one camp or the other in terms of what they want to do about D.C. statehood.

I believe there was an interview where Senator Manchin said, I need to learn more. Okay, great. I would love to have an opportunity. I’m sure the Congresswoman would love to have the opportunity to meet with the Senator to educate him on you know, what is happening in the District of Columbia and why this is so important that over 700,000 people have full representation in the Congress, but it is going to be an uphill battle. It’s going to be uphill fight and I think it’s one that residents are up for and we hope that we have not just allies but co-conspirators for residents and other states who have Senators and Congresspeople that they can call on to vote Yes.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Thank you so much. Congresswoman, do you have anything to add for the House side? And I think that Councilwoman Henderson is exactly right, that a lot of this is educational as you mentioned, and I certainly hope that folks in the Senate are willing to listen and be educated on that.

CONGRESSWOMAN NORTON: Well look, I do a lot of my work on the Senate side. I can’t just get a bill passed in the House and hang it up. I have been able to get many bills passed largely by making many allies in the Senate and we certainly have those allies now.

In fact, we have 90% of the Senate Democrats who are sponsors of the bill. Yes, the filibuster is a problem, but I don’t see the filibuster is being something we can’t ultimately get around. And the reason I say that is because we used to need 60 votes for legislation, and we got rid of that. And frankly, I’m sorry. They got rid of that for most matters. You still need it for legislation. But you don’t need it, for example, for confirmations. They have gotten rid of the filibuster for some matters. And if you will note when the Senate organized this year, there was one reason and only one reason that organization of the Senate was held up, and that really had to do with the filibuster.

So, please bear in mind that the filibuster has to do with a lot more than D.C. Statehood. In fact, when McConnell was in charge of the Senate last term for example, nothing went through except Senate confirmations. So, there was no legislation. The House had passed more than 400 bills and virtually none of them got through. Some of them were bipartisan. So now we’re seeing a real shake-up in the Senate. That’s why you see the Senate evenly divided now. And do bear in mind that we have a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic President who supports statehood.

It was just this morning I was with the Vice President Kamala Harris for an event here in the District of Columbia. Both Kamala Harris and President Biden support statehood. We’re trying to build on that strength to move the bill ahead and we think with their support you’re going to see more and more Americans supporting D.C. statehood. Even with that vote in June alone we now have 50 percent of the American people saying they support D.C. statehood.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: So, I think the constitutional questions we can talk about of course, but in terms of educating average part of that 50 percent of Americans that are not yet on board on of the most common things I hear from folks who don’t know D.C., that well, why don’t you just get absorbed into Maryland or Virginia. My answer is we don’t want to, and we don’t have to but I’m sure that both of you have much more eloquent and powerful responses to that. So please help me out.

COUNCILWOMAN CHRISTINA HENDERSON: No, I think you got the right one. I am going to let the congresswoman go.

CONGRESSWOMAN NORTON: Well, Christina since you would be the one absorbed, I thought you’d be the first to go but let me let me say something about it. First of all, Virginia took back its land. So, what we’ve got is Maryland’s land. They gave that land in perpetuity. They’d have to pass a bill and I don’t think you could pass if it’s in perpetuity.

The second, is you even see Republicans beginning to understand statehood is on the way. For example, there is a Republican bill to retrocede D.C. into Maryland. What does that mean? Give it back to Maryland. Why would anybody want to do that? They say because you would get a vote. Yes, you would get a vote. You see that means they understand we’re entitled to vote.

So, they want to retrocede it to Maryland. I indicated they gave that bill in perpetuity and it’s important to note that the second-in-command in the House, Steny Hoyer, is not only a co-sponsor, but he also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post supporting D.C. statehood. That’s the state from which we were formed, so Republicans are seeing the weakness of having more than 700,000 people who have no representation.

So, when they say well let’s give it back to Maryland, but either way without asking Maryland’s consent, what they are doing is conceding that it is time for D.C. to have representation in the Congress of the United States. And if I may say, one reason why you don’t hear Maryland saying please give us D.C. I think is that Maryland is one of those States that has only one large city. That is Baltimore. So, suppose these D.C. was a part of Maryland that would virtually brought out Montgomery County and a large part of the state because you’d have two large cities. It just doesn’t fit. You just got to do it the old-fashioned way, make the District the 51st state.

COUNCILWOMAN CHRISTINA HENDERSON: Yeah, and you know, it’s so funny. I think that there are some people who are tied to this idea that the Senate can only be 100 members and I think they clearly know that if the District of Columbia is granted statehood and we are granted two Senators it changes the balance and for some of them they may feel like some of them on the Republican side of the aisle that they can’t possibly compete for the votes of the District of Columbia. Which you know, why not try but instead of saying give D.C. back to Maryland why aren’t we also saying combine the Dakotas. I don’t see anyone making a suggestion of freeing up two seats by combining states that one could say are fairly small in population and could perhaps being served by just two Senators.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: Yeah, thank you. There’s definitely a very practical reason for why some folks are opposed to D.C. statehood. So, thank you for bringing a dose of reality. So, we’re almost out of time but I could not let this opportunity go, particularly as we are wrapping up Black History Month and moving into Women’s History Month, to ask the Congresswoman about this particular piece of history that one of my colleagues found in an archive. It’s this amazing photo of legendary civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and our very own Eleanor Holmes Norton. Could you say something about this moment and your reflections on these mentors of so many in the Civil Rights Movement?

CONGRESSWOMAN NORTON: Oh my goodness. Appreciate seeing that photo again. That’s from the 1964 Democratic Convention. I had gone as a law student into Mississippi in 1963. When I went into Mississippi, the first thing I found was that Fannie Lou Hamer had been riding a bus on interstate travel and had been imprisoned. When I got to Greenwood, Winona, Mississippi, or excuse me, Greenwood, Mississippi they told me that she had been imprisoned. And here I’m a law student and they say would you go get her out of prison because the rest of them were college students. And I was told that what I should do is call the sheriff. And I said look my name is Elena Holmes, and I go to Yale Law School.

I have informed everybody, the Dean, not only my family, but the Dean and everybody up there, that I’m about to go over and try to get Miss Hamer out of jail. I understand that at least one student on the SNCC Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that’s what I was a part of, had gone over to get Miss Hamer out of jail and he had been imprisoned. So, I said, I don’t see any reason for me to be put in jail because I’m going to get somebody out of jail. I’m calling you, your the police chief, I understand all I know about you is that when the white citizens councils circles the SNCC office every single day or evening you are not among them. And so, I appreciate that.

I’m just asking you to tell them that a law student is coming to get Ms. Hamer out of jail and she’s going to post bail. That’s all she wants to do. I went over there and I’m here to say that unlike Ms. Hamer I was not put in jail. So, you didn’t have to be a lawyer to try to figure out what should you do to keep from being the third person from SNCC to go to jail and it was one of the highlights of my life that I’ll never forget.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for that snapshot of a key moment in American history and as a fellow Yale Law grad I’m extremely proud and I think that it is a great moment in Yale Law student history as well.

Thank you both so much for joining us today to talk about this crucial issue of D.C. statehood and as a D.C. resident myself I thank you both for your service to your constituents, myself, and my family among them. Thank you so much for joining us at the Constitutional Accountability Center, Congresswoman Holmes Norton and Councilmember Christina Henderson. And thank you all of you at home for joining us and I hope that this was an educational conversation about D.C. statehood.

And as the Constitutional Accountability Center has endorsed the bill that Congresswoman Norton has introduced in Congress this term, we hope that you will do everything you can to advocate for it and see that it gets past. Call your Representatives, especially those of you who are lucky enough to have them with full voting rights. Help us get the same and you can find out more on our website theusconstitution.org. Thank you all so much. Please be safe and be well.

More from Voting Rights and Democracy