Two New Stars for the American Flag?

Crashing surf on the beach at El Morro Fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico

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Why you should care

Because taxation without representation is undemocratic … especially in our nation’s capital.

In the fall of 1970, Ann Loikow was in St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House, when an alt-journalist stepped to the lectern to deliver a sermon with a radical message — that Washington, D.C., should be made into a state. “It was my whole introduction to D.C. history and politics,” the longtime community organizer tells OZY. It was only fitting that when Loikow first heard about the cause that would come to dominate her political activism, she had recently returned to the district after attending Vassar College, where she majored in political science and minored in drama.

She’s seen plenty of both in the decades since, but recently there’s been fresh momentum behind her cause. When talk of a statehood referendum was first floated last spring, some worried that if it didn’t pass overwhelmingly, critics would say district voters “cared more about legalizing marijuana than your right to govern yourself,” Loikow says. But the people spoke — and 86 percent approved a petition that called on Congress to make D.C., with a population bigger than either Wyoming’s or Vermont’s, a state. That capped one of the movement’s most active years, from a summer convention to draft a state constitution — the district’s first such conclave since a similar run in the ’80s — to the statehood advocates who attended both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. “We’ve accomplished a lot in educating Americans around the country,” says Paul Strauss, the district’s two-term “shadow senator,” who sits in Congress but can’t vote.

It’s just unconscionable in a democracy to have [a] capital city [with] no voice.

Alice Rivlin, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

The movement could struggle to cross the finish line, however. Local activists felt that the convention was flawed, especially because the selection of local delegates was bypassed in favor of a brief, town hall-style process. “A lot of this was smoke and mirrors,” Loikow says. The biggest roadblock will be the recently elected GOP legislature. Some Republicans have constitutional concerns, specifically that the Constitution calls for a non-state seat of federal government. And narrower political considerations are an unavoidable conflict. “It’s adding two Democratic senators and a Democratic representative, and what Republican Congress is going to vote for that?” asks Brookings Institution senior fellow Alice Rivlin.

That reality is why D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser discussed statehood with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in December. Afterward, in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Trump signaled that he would be in favor of “whatever is best for them” regarding statehood. To stress the movement’s bipartisan nature, Strauss recalls a business leaders forum sponsored by American University, in which a Wyoming state legislator fretted over how the federal government passed arbitrary regulations: “‘They don’t understand ranching, or the local issues affecting our state,’” Strauss recalls him saying. When the microphone was passed to Strauss — the moderator introduced him as “a senator so far left he may be more left than Bernie Sanders” — the D.C. politician argued the district was in the same boat as Wyoming, since its budget and laws are set by the U.S. Congress. “Now, they may be talking about ranching, and when it comes to our farming, it may be locally grown marijuana,” Strauss admits, but “they were astonished this was the same message.”

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Washington, D.C.

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A “big information campaign is needed, and this could be the start of it,” says Rivlin, and the argument ought not be partisan. “It’s just unconscionable in a democracy to have [a] capital city [with] no voice.” To solve the political dilemma that Republicans face, the district may have its biggest ally in an island south of Cuba — Puerto Rico, which has been making its own moves toward statehood. In 2012 islanders approved a resolution similar to the district’s recent one, and in November they elected as governor Ricardo Rosselló, a 37-year-old conservative-leaning centrist and avid statehood proponent. Rosselló has talked about implementing a “Tennessee-style plan,” notes Strauss, which would mean drafting a state constitution before being accepted into the union and marching on Capitol Hill to force inclusion, as Tennessee did in 1796. Puerto Rico faces a severe budget crisis, and it must “get back to fiscal health,” says Rivlin, before the United States would consider adding the commonwealth’s star to Old Glory. Budget mismanagement used to be a knock against D.C., too, which was considered damaged goods in the ’90s, but it has grown its economy tremendously since.

The trend lays bare the difference in statehood efforts, where “in Puerto Rico, the statehood movement originates from the right side of the political spectrum,” says Strauss, while the district’s cause is promoted by progressives. That may work well for both, considering the admittance of Alaska and Hawaii to the union in 1959. At the time, the twin upgrades to statehood were deemed politically viable because of the newly minted states’ party leanings: Alaska trending Democrat and Hawaii, Republican. Ironically, the states would soon shift their allegiances as the national parties reformed themselves.

To address the constitutional issue, D.C. statehood proponents have suggested shrinking the federal district to include just the National Mall and the lawmaking bodies, including the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol. Everything else would be “New Columbia,” allowing representation to those who reside within its borders. As Rivlin, a longtime district resident, puts it: “We pay taxes, we serve in the armed forces, we die in foreign wars … and we can’t vote.”

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