WASHINGTON – For the first time since the establishment of the District of Columbia 230 years ago, the House of Representatives voted to declare the city as the nation’s 51st state, a legislative milestone that supporters say begins to right historical wrongs.
The vote on Friday afternoon, which fell mostly along party lines, comes as the United States grapples with systemic racism that officials in the nation’s capital say has led to the disenfranchisement of their 700,000 residents.
The White House confirmed Thursday that it opposes statehood, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has said he will not bring the legislation to a vote in his Republican-controlled chamber.
But that did not stop the celebration by statehood advocates and District officials who have pushed for passage of the legislation for years.
A video tweeted by the office of District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, who watched the proceedings with aides and statehood supporters at a restaurant on the Southwest Waterfront, showed her waving her hands above her head during the vote.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. And statehood is our demand,” the fifth-generation Washingtonian said in a statement, referencing a famous quote from abolitionist and onetime District resident Frederick Douglass. She added: “I was born without representation, but I swear – I will not die without representation. Together, we will achieve DC statehood, and when we do, we will look back on this day and remember all who stood with us on the right side of history.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, who has served as the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress for nearly three decades, managed the bill for Democrats on the floor, doling out time for lawmakers from her party to speak and rebutting Republican arguments against statehood. In an interview, she said the experience was a thrill – with one major caveat.
“Every member got to vote on D.C. statehood except the member who represents the District of Columbia,” she said. “We’re close to putting an end to this kind of anomaly.”
The House voted on District statehood once before, in 1993. The bill failed 277 to 153.
This time, the legislation had 227 co-sponsors – a majority in the House. It passed 232 to 180, with 19 members not voting. The lone Democrat to oppose the bill was Rep. Collin C. Peterson, whose Minnesota district heavily favored President Donald Trump in 2016.
A companion bill in the Senate is co-sponsored by 39 Democrats and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
District statehood has become a civil rights litmus test for the Democratic Party’s left flank, particularly because the once majority-African American city – home to historically black Howard University and a rich tradition of black music from jazz to go-go – still has a population that is 46 percent African American.
Many Democrats in the House chamber, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, wore black face masks emblazoned with “51” on Friday to protect them from the novel coronavirus.
Bowser and others who joined her to watch the vote wore masks in the restaurant and socially distanced.
Pelosi said when her late father was in Congress, he was chair of a subcommittee in charge of the District, earning him the informal title “mayor of Washington,” but he nevertheless supported home rule.
“So, yesterday, someone said, ‘Can you find middle ground?’ ” Pelosi said. “This is middle ground, the status quo is. We have to go forward.”
Norton said federal law enforcement action in the District during recent protests against police violence, which went against the wishes of local leaders, would not have been tolerated if the District was a state.
“The federal occupation of D.C. occurred solely because the president thought he could get away with it here,” Norton said. “He was wrong.”
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said D.C. could not be admitted into the union without a constitutional amendment and that the new “microstate” of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, would have undue influence over the federal government.
“Because I believe in states’ rights, I cannot support this city becoming a state,” he said. “D.C. is simply not equipped to shoulder the burden of statehood.”
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said Democrats were eager to grow their ranks with the two Democratic senators likely to be elected if the deep-blue city became a state. The best way to enfranchise the 700,000 people who live in the District, he said, would be for D.C. to rejoin Maryland, which ceded part of the land needed to create the nation’s capital.
“This is a pure political bill,” Harris said. “Go to the Maryland General Assembly, fully controlled by Democrats, and say, ‘Take it back.’ ”
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., countered: “Maryland doesn’t want D.C., and D.C. doesn’t want to be in Maryland. The consent of the governed is a fundamental part of the American architecture.”
The vote is the culmination of decades of advocacy by Norton and statehood activists, who saw their signature issue pick up national steam in recent weeks as Trump and Bowser faced off over the police response to demonstrations in city streets.
Bowser amplified the cause on national television, Hoyer swiftly scheduled a vote and Republican opponents prepared their counterarguments.
Norton said this week that her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, escaped enslavement on a Virginia plantation and settled in the District, where he found freedom, “but not equal citizenship.”
“My life as a third-generation Washingtonian has marched toward this milestone,” she said.
Her bill, H.R. 51, would shrink the seat of the federal government to a two-square-mile enclave, including the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings, which would remain under congressional control.
The rest of the District would become known as the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named for Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and later lived in Anacostia.
Even if Democrats take control of the Senate, they would need 60 votes for the bill to overcome a likely filibuster.
Advocates from a group called 51 for 51 traveled the country over the past year getting presidential candidates – including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who tweeted in support of statehood on Thursday – to commit to supporting statehood and an exception to the filibuster.
The group on Friday launched a website, whywecantwait.com, and digital ads. They focused their campaign on trying to sway the six Democratic senators who are not co-sponsors of the statehood bill.
Norton said polls showing the Senate and White House is in reach for Democrats in the November elections are encouraging signs for the potential enactment of statehood in the next congressional session. She plans to launch an effort to educate the nation on what rights D.C. residents forfeit by living in the city.
“What pleases me about this vote is that it is so strong that it moves us with some enthusiasm to the Senate,” she said. “There’s widespread ignorance in the country about these core matters of citizenship affecting their own capital.”
Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, said he believes it is only a matter of time until the District achieves full statehood.
“I want people to look through history at the number of times important legislation has failed before it passed,” he said.