You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The D.C. Statehood Debate Is Coming, Like It or Not

The most important liberal advocacy organizations—and a broader swath of the public—are pushing to make the District of Columbia the fifty-first state.

Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks during a news conference on District of Columbia statehood.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

While it remains unclear how Biden’s legislative agenda will take shape once coronavirus relief and impeachment have been dealt with, one item that will be competing for his attention will be statehood for the District of Columbia. Biden, like the last two Democratic presidents, reiterated his support for admitting D.C. as a state on the campaign trail. More Americans have come to back the idea in the last year, as well: A Data for Progress poll in September registered 43 percent support from American voters, an eight-point increase from 2019 levels, attributable mostly to new enthusiasm from Democrats.

Those Democrats might have been taking cues from the party’s leaders. Last summer, House Democrats passed a statehood bill with almost unanimous support from the caucus. And D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who reintroduced the bill on the first day of this new Congress, sees the progress statehood made in 2020 as reason for optimism. “This is the closest the district has gotten to statehood in its 220 years of existence,” she told me in an interview this week. “We’ve got the votes in the House. Last Congress, and I believe we will have more this time, we had more than 90 percent of Democrats in the Senate that were co-sponsors of D.C. statehood.”

The attack on the Capitol earlier this month briefly brought the District’s status to renewed national attention. Had the mayor of Washington had the same control over the city’s National Guard as other state executives have, Trump’s rioting supporters might have been thwarted sooner than they were. But because D.C. is a federal territory, the commander of its guard on that day was, functionally, Trump himself. This is a problem Norton intends to fix whether the District obtains statehood or not: She plans on reintroducing a long-standing bill called the District of Columbia National Guard Home Rule Act that would transfer control to the city.

But Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of the group 51 for 51, which is demanding that Senate Democrats eliminate the filibuster to pass a statehood bill, argues that the attack underscored even deeper inequities. “I think that our entrenched systems of white supremacy protected the men and women committing treason,” she says. “And for over 200 years, the same racist institutions have disenfranchised the majority Black and brown residents in D.C. who live in the heart of our government but who also help keep it running. Any time D.C.’s lack of sovereignty is on display for the nation, it heightens the awareness and the calls for statehood.”

Josh Burch, founder of the local group Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, agrees and believes the attack will be at the front of mind for many Americans if and when statehood is taken up in Congress. “I’m sure Americans across the country who tuned in were wondering why the National Guard was not there sooner to protect the U.S. Capitol, and it was because of the district’s political status and bureaucratic bullshit,” he says. “I think it does help paint the picture for Americans about why statehood is important. And I don’t think they’re going to forget it because those images aren’t going away.”

But as salient as those images might have been, the statehood push remains a steep uphill climbone made steeper by the limits the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on traditional organizing and advocacy work. “We used to do a lot of door-knocking and having face-to-face meetings,” Burch says. “It’s now either Zoom meetings or phone calls, which are imperfect and much less personal. The good thing is that we have fewer and fewer senators we need to convince to get on board with the statehood bill.”

Those senatorsWest Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, and Maine’s independent Senator Angus King, by Burch’s countwill be pivotal votes on most of Biden’s legislative agenda, and the efforts Burch and other statehood advocates plan for moving them probably resemble the efforts being planned by issue groups across the Democratic coalition. “Really, it’s concentrating on those senators and helping them understand the issue,” Burch says: “reaching out to their constituents, and especially advocacy groups that are organized in their states, and educating those advocacy groups so that they can add this to their list of things that they think their Senators should prioritize.” Norton says more than 100 national organizations have backed statehood, and Neighbors United and 51 for 51 list major organizations such as the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Indivisible, Demand Justice, March for Our Lives, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Sierra Club.

The impressive breadth of the groups that are on board with statehood for the District indicates not only the strength of the case for statehood in itself but the extent to which Democratic and progressive organizations have come to understand the boon gaining two likely Democratic seats in the Senate will be for all parts of the Democratic agenda. Advocates are hoping statehood is passed quickly enough for the District to exert an influence upon the policy fights of the coming months. Rhodes and 51 for 51 are pushing specifically for action within Biden’s first 100 days. “Residents of Washington should have a seat at the table for Covid discussions,” she says. “So we’re going to push for that. We’re going to have paid media campaigns in key districts across the country but also here in D.C. And there’s going to be a lot of local organizing in states that matter.”

But speedy admission doesn’t seem terribly likely, especially given that support for a statehood bill is sure to break down fairly neatly along partisan lines in both chambers if it happens at all—fodder for more rhetoric from Republicans about the supposed divisiveness of Biden’s agenda. Burch is fully undaunted by this. “I’m not going to rationalize with those folks,” he says flatly. “Is the country divided? Sure, it’s divided. But is it OK for the country, because the country’s divided, for my family and my neighbors, and the 700,000 people that live in D.C. to go without representation? There’s nothing good or normal about that.”

Democrats who have said the same, including the president, now have an obligation to pressure those still opposed or on the fence into rectifying the district’s situation which, as a bonus, would also play a small role in balancing the disproportionate amount of power the right holds in the Senate at the expense of America’s minorities. “In my view, it would be a devastating civil rights failure if we didn’t achieve statehood now,” Rhodes says. “Democrats control Congress and the White House. Not making D.C. a state would be a decision. It would be a choice to not grant representation for over 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C. And maybe even more, it would also be a sign that Democrats, like Republicans, are not really interested in restoring and strengthening American democracy. We have all of the tools, all of the power necessary to end this injustice. So, I think it would be devastating if it didn’t happen.”

And it might not. The Senate’s procedural progress in recent daysthe end of McConnell’s forced standoff on a power-sharing agreement and the filibuster, the continued drive to pass coronavirus relief through budget reconciliationhasn’t given statehood advocates all that much reason for hope, unless one believes Joe Manchin’s on the cusp of a political epiphany or that Democrats will be willing and able to stretch the loophole offered by the budget reconciliation process wide enough to enable the creation of a new state. But the work of making the unlikely likelier is underway anyway. If the president and other Democrats want to make good on their rhetoric about the district’s status and the state of our democracy, now would be a good time to join in.