"Let them have gun laws! Let them have weed! Let them decide the things that they need!"
You may remember those lyrics from John Oliver's Last Week Tonightsegment on D.C. statehood that broadcast in early August. The HBO host brought national attention to an issue that has plagued District residents for centuries: Without full voting representation in Congress, D.C. denizens are largely powerless to advocate for their interests at the federal level. Oliver was able to tap into residents' frustration over the status quo by appealing to civil rights, and in part thanks to social media; local merriment and momentum ensued.
Almost three months later, a campaign spearheaded by At-Large D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange seeking to highlight the issue of D.C. statehood on the national stage may be gaining traction. Called "Statehood or Else," it proposes to collect one million signatures on a petition that would be delivered to the president, all 535 members of Congress, and party leaders at the Democratic and Republican conventions being held next July in Philadelphia and Cleveland, respectively. The Council's Committee of the Whole held a public hearing on the measure this morning, during which a few witnesses questioned the outward presentation of the campaign and found an opportunity to call for greater funding for D.C.'s congressional delegation. Still, most speakers present testified that they supported it.
"I think some of our colleagues who are supportive of this effort... have been a little bit confused by the 'or Else' aspect of the statehood petition," D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss said. "So as we move forward with it we may need to tweak the branding of it, as we say."
Orange originally introduced a "sense of the Council" bill that would declare the body's support of the campaign in July, joined by At-Large Councilmembers David Grosso and Anita Bonds as well as Ward 7's Yvette Alexander. In practice, "Statehood or Else" may mean training volunteers (possibly hundreds) to canvass during major events like the Cherry Blossom Festival and D.C. Emancipation Day, which next year falls on Apr. 15, Orange said. (That the holiday falls one day after Tax Day is explicitly acknowledged in the bill.) The campaign would almost certainly play out on social media, too: Orange suggested something along the lines of a Change.org page.
Elinor Hart, who identified herself as a D.C. statehood advocate, wondered aloud what one million signatures would accomplish. She also expressed surprise that the New Columbia Admission Act before Congress—which would make D.C. the 51st state in the U.S. and has been regularly introduced by Del.Eleanor Holmes Norton—isn't mentioned in the bill. Meanwhile, David Schwartzman of the leftist D.C. Statehood Green Party asked what the "or Else" in the campaign's title was meant to signify: civil disobedience, perhaps?
The hearing was punctuated by pro-statehood comments from councilmembers, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 1's Brianne Nadeau, Ward 4's Brandon Todd, and Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie. Nadeau, for her part, quipped that she's opposed Maryland's anti-D.C.-marijuana legalization representative Andy Harris before and would "do it again." McDuffie commented that statehood is a "national issue" and must be characterized as such moving forward, particularly because the 2016 presidential election is getting closer.
Others plugged for more resources for D.C.'s congressional delegation, which includes Strauss, Shadow Senator Michael Brown, and Shadow Representative Franklin Garcia. "A lot that goes on in our [work] is ad hoc, unsustainable, underfunded, uncoordinated, and as a result, ineffective," Brown said, adding that funding from the Council would allow the delegation to mount a more-robust statehood campaign. (Members of the shadow delegation are not paid; in 2013, Orange introduced a bill that would have given them stipends and other resources.) Donald Haines, a resident of Ward 6, alleged that the Council had effectively "sabotaged" D.C. statehood by not fully funding the shadow delegation. But it was perhaps public witness V. Hector Rodriguez who delivered the most poetic speech today.
"America, tear down this wall," he said in Reaganesque fashion, referring to D.C. citizens' lack of equality. "[We are] political prisoners."