POLITICS

Washington’s Lone Voice In Congress Praises 'Historic' Vote For Statehood

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said the bill could pass the Senate with a simple majority vote.

The House is set on Friday to do something for which Washington’s sole nonvoting delegate in Congress has pushed for decades: pass legislation that would admit the District of Columbia as the nation’s 51st state. 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) spearheaded the first vote on district statehood in 1993. It failed, and the issue has been dormant ever since. The fact that similar legislation, which she also sponsored, is expected now is a  “historic” moment for both the city and the nation, she told HuffPost. 

Norton was elected in 1990 as the second elected delegate to the House from Washington since the position was created by Congress in 1970.

The 1993 vote on district statehood failed as a majority of Democrats and all but one Republican voted against it. When Republicans took control of Congress the following year, there was no movement on the issue. When Democrats briefly gained a majority in the House from 2007 to 2011, they didn’t pass the measure, either.

Now, 226 House Democrats — a voting majority — back Norton’s bill. In the Senate, a companion bill has the support of 41 Democrats and independents who caucus with the party.

Pressure to pass the legislation increased after President Donald Trump ordered an array of federal forces and the district’s National Guard — which he, not the city, controls — to seize and hold city streets with force during the George Floyd protests.

HuffPost talked to Norton about Friday’s vote, Trump’s use of federal force in the city, the bill’s prospects in the Senate and whether it can pass there with a simple majority vote to avoid a filibuster.

Why is this vote for district statehood so important?

Well, it’s important to know that as a freshman, when I first came to Congress, I was actually able to get a vote on statehood, but the Democrats were controlled largely by Southern Democrats, and that did not succeed. For most of my term, I’ve been in the minority.

As soon as I got in the majority here, and that was only this term, I have been able to get the votes, guaranteed the votes, for D.C. statehood. Indeed, when I say guarantee, it takes 218 votes. We now have 226 co-sponsors. That’s very unusual for a bill to have that many co-sponsors ahead of a vote. So on Friday, the 26th of June, we are guaranteed passage of the D.C. statehood bill for the first time since the city was created 219 years ago. 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton holds an American flag with 51 stars in her Washington office on Feb. 18.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton holds an American flag with 51 stars in her Washington office on Feb. 18.

Why does this vote matter so much in the history of Washington?

This is a salient moment in our history. Imagine being the only democratic country in the world whose citizens of their nation’s capital don’t have the same rights as others. Don’t have, in our case, two senators. Don’t have a voting representative, though I vote on some matters in the Congress, and they hear me speak in the Congress on that final vote. I think when you put that beside the fact, and perhaps this is a salient fact, that the district is No. 1 in federal taxes paid to support the government of the United States. Not No. 8 or 10. No. 1 in federal taxes. [Editor’s note: District residents pay more federal taxes per capita than those of any other state.]

The residents of this city pay more in [total] federal taxes than the residents of 22 states that already have two senators [as well as] voting members of Congress. Most Americans don’t know that we have a budget of $16 billion. And that’s a budget larger than the budget of 14 states. And that we have a AAA bond rating, which is in excess of the bond rating of 35 states. If you want to look at so-called qualifications to be a state, the District of Columbia is overqualified and, I must say, overdue. 

With all of those overqualifications, how do you feel and what have you seen about how the federal government treats the district and its residents differently because of its current status and its lack of statehood? 

Well, we see some of that in real time. We see it every year because Republicans introduce bills to overturn D.C. legislation. Imagine that. If you lived in a state, and I don’t know what state you live in, and the Congress of the United States didn’t like some of the bills you passed, or Congress said, “We don’t like that,” and tried to wipe it out. I spend a good deal of my time simply trying to preserve what the democratic legislature in my own city has done with respect to local matters having nothing to do with the federal government.

The intervention into the affairs of our city has been a lifelong issue for me because I’m a third-generation Washingtonian. By the way, that means that nobody in my family has had the same rights for three generations. And I say three generations because my own great-grandfather Richard Holmes was a runaway slave from Virginia. Beginning with Richard Holmes, nobody in my family has had the same rights as other American citizens. We’re about to see that begin to change on this coming Friday, with the passage of our D.C. statehood. 

One of the things pushing this bill forward and getting a lot of attention right now is the actions of President Trump in reaction to the George Floyd protests around the White House and the deployment of federal troops onto district streets. What did you think about the deployment of those federal forces onto district streets? Where might that rank in the ways the federal government has intervened against the will of district residents in the past? 

Well, the president’s intervention into the George Floyd protest is a running real-time case of why the district should have statehood. We did not even have control over our own National Guard when the president virtually created a riot when he tried to walk over to St. John’s [Episcopal] Church.

It’s important to have control over your National Guard and over your own police because they are very practiced in demonstrations here in the District of Columbia. Federal police are not. And when the district has to go to the president to get control of the National Guard ― I have a bill that could get that done even without statehood ― you see one way in which our inequality puts even the nation, much less the city, at risk. There are so many ways in which not having full autonomy deprives the city and the nation of what it needs just to run safely, quite apart from the freedom associated with being a state. 

The recent protests and district statehood can be tied together in another way, as the district would be the only state in the union with a plurality Black population. Black people have been greatly underrepresented in Congress. What would it mean for the country for there to be a plurality Black state where the majority of elected politicians are Black?

Yeah. The district is about, in population, half minority, half white. The states tend not to have as large a percentage of African Americans. I don’t think you’ll make much difference to the way things are governed here, but the district has always had a large African American population.

Interesting to note that for most of its 219 years of existing, the district has been a majority white city. Only in the 1970s did it become majority Black. And, as you can see now, that’s fading.

The white people who live in the District of Columbia tend to have the same views as African Americans, not only on statehood and autonomy, but also on other issues as well, just like people who live in other states. People tend to think concurrently or about the same way in many states, even though there will in many states — particularly Southern States — be differences between African Americans and the majority population.

Ahead of a historic vote on district statehood, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned #MuralsDC51, a project to create
Ahead of a historic vote on district statehood, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned #MuralsDC51, a project to create 51 statehood, Black history and social justice murals across the city's eight wards.

In the past, the opposition to statehood has been explained in constitutional terms. Now, Trump says that it would be “very, very stupid” for Republicans to let the district become a state because it would elect two Democratic senators. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called district statehood “full bore socialism.” I was wondering what you make of these arguments.  

Well, I’m not surprised. But do consider that statehood has always been a political issue. We make the case in constitutional terms, as you indicated as well, that states have to come in, as people may not understand, by majority vote.

And the Constitution does give the Congress full control over the district, which gives the Congress the power to say what the capital is. And without going into all the constitutional niceties, that’s not the issue, and as you have indicated, that’s not the issue that Republicans are raising.

The president, when he says, “You would have to be crazy to give the district statehood,” what he means is they wouldn’t vote for me. And he’s right about that, pure and simple. So it’s a political issue. Statehood has always been a partisan issue. States get in based on the politics of the moment.

Right. And based on what McConnell said, it seems like this bill will have a difficult time passing the Senate right now. What do you think of its prospects there? And what do you think of its prospects next year if the Senate is not run by McConnell?

I’m encouraged by the prospects of this bill in the Senate because the polls, as I speak now, are showing that Democrats have a very good chance of taking over the majority in the Senate. So what Mitch McConnell believes will be in the minority, if he survives his election. And what the president says will also be last year’s comments. They will have to reckon with a different Senate, a different House, and the president is in a struggle for his life.

So there could be a majority of Democrats who would support this. But that wouldn’t necessarily get it over a filibuster. Do you think that this could pass without a filibuster? Or should it?

Well, there is an effort to have the bill passed without a filibuster. It needs only a majority vote. It could well [pass]. And almost every bill incurs a filibuster. If you look at what’s happening in the Senate today, nothing is happening except action to confirm judges. I mean, I’ve been in the Congress too long to play down what it takes to get a bill through the Senate. But, yes, bills do get through the Senate if there’s enough of a push from the public and if the Senate changes its political complexion.    

You said that you’re a third-generation Washingtonian and that you were born here and have been advocating for this for decades. What would it mean for you personally to see this bill pass on Friday?

Historic is an overused word, particularly by members of Congress like me. But there’s no way to see the first vote to make the nation’s capital the 51st state as anything but historic. When you think about history itself and how for 219 years American citizens have been in this country and ever since there’s been an income tax state paid federal taxes without the same rights as other Americans ― and other Americans wouldn’t tolerate this. There’s no way to look at it except in its historic context and see it as a turning point in the history of our country. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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