On Friday, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would make the District of Columbia the 51st state. While the bill is unlikely to survive the Republican-controlled Senate—or President Donald Trump’s veto pen—it’s still a milestone in the long battle for full political representation for the residents of the nation’s capital city.
D.C. residents have only had the right to vote for president since the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, and to elect their own mayor and city council since 1973. Still, today, D.C. has no voting representatives in Congress, laws passed by the district government can be overturned by Congress, and it has no control over most local prosecutions or—as recent events painfully showed—its own National Guard.
And a dog whistle–laden speech on Thursday by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton showed that some national attitudes toward Washington haven’t changed much since the civil rights era. D.C. statehood would likely result in two more Democratic senators, but the GOP tends to define its opposition to the idea as being a matter of hewing to the Constitution, which created a federal district as the seat of government. Not every Republican argument has feinted such high-mindedness, however. In his speech, Cotton questioned whether current Mayor Muriel Bowser or controversial former Mayor Marion Barry—both Black—could be trusted with the powers of a governor. And he contrasted D.C. with Wyoming, noting that while the Western state has a smaller population, it is a “well-rounded working-class state.”
Shortly before the vote, I called veteran D.C. reporter Tom Sherwood to discuss the state of statehood. Sherwood has covered local politics in D.C. for a number of outlets since the mid-1970s and co-authored the definitive history of the Barry years, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. Today, he’s a columnist for Washington City Paper and co-host of the weekly Politics Hour on WAMU. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Sherwood: Hi, I’m just listening to Tom Cotton again to get my blood pressure up. Let me turn the damn thing off.
Joshua Keating: Thanks. So, listening to that debate, does it feel like the arguments against D.C.’s autonomy and voting rights have changed over the years, or is it still the same talking points?
No, there’s long been a willful ignorance about the nation’s capital and intense discrimination and even racism in how it’s treated. Before home rule in 1973, D.C. was largely governed by segregationist Southern politicians who held sway in Congress and appointed the commissioners that ran the city. They helped define home rule as it was passed in ’73. There’s a woeful and at time willful ignorance on the part of some to deny recognition to the people who live here.
Across the country, candidates for office rail against “those people in Washington.” They may be specifically thinking of Congress and the White House, but we get lumped in.
It also still seems like there’s this image of corruption and dysfunction associated with the city. D.C. government certainly has its problems, and you regularly write about them, but it doesn’t seem that much worse than other places in this country.
Well, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume the district is a woefully corrupt place. If that were the basis for statehood, Illinois with its corrupt four governors in a row would have to give up statehood. Maryland would have had to give up statehood after their governor went to prison. Lord, let’s not even talk about Louisiana. It’s not a legitimate basis to decide if we should be a state or not. It’s really superficial and shows either willful ignorance or racism.
As someone who covered Marion Barry for years, what do you make of the fact that he’s still such a polarizing figure all these years after he left office, and still seen as so symbolic of the city?
Barry is indelibly stamped on the District of Columbia as a place. He’s famous for his drug abuse and his arrest, which was a terrible thing. He never will be known in America for fixing firehouses that had never been fixed before he became mayor. He’ll never be known for the summer jobs program that gave tens of thousands of poor people in the city access to jobs. He’ll never be known for making sure that senior citizens homes got food and quality services. He’ll never be known for those things because he’s known for his outlandish comments and his drug use and his failure to pay income taxes for 13 years. Yes, he’s a bad person in the big scheme of things, but many people here—African Americans but whites also—know the good things he did as mayor. I always tell people, the one thing Marion Barry didn’t have was discipline. He spent too much of his time and his smarts getting out of trouble. He once said at a press conference that he’d “suffered a thousand wounds.” And the council member sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Yes, all self-inflicted.”
Obviously, race is a major factor here, but the city’s demographics have also changed a lot in recent years, becoming much wealthier and much whiter. Do you think that’s changed the national view of D.C. at all?
Well, you know, about 30 years ago, the District of Columbia was 71, 72 percent Black. The most recent stats show that it’s 46 percent Black and 46 percent white. That’s a historic change. But I recently heard one guy say to me, “Well, it’s all those Blacks and liberal whites that make it such a terrible place.” So we all kinda get lumped in.
But that’s one of the things that irritated me the most about Tom Cotton’s speech, when he said Wyoming was a well-rounded working class state. Wyoming is 93 percent white. It virtually has no Black people. That’s not well-rounded. That’s a bubble, and he lives in that bubble. Tom Cotton doesn’t know local Washington. He flies in, he flies out. His call in the New York Times for federal troops to put down the insurrection here, it was just like the U.S. cavalry attacking the Native Americans in Wyoming back in the 1800s. The idea of using federal troops to attack American citizens, it’s just really distasteful. I’m a Navy veteran. I grew up in a military family. And it was just disgusting.
Do you think that the National Guard deployment and seeing armored vehicles on the streets of the city is itself a good argument for statehood?
It’s not so much an argument, but it’s an example. The mayor who runs the city doesn’t have control over the National Guard. I like to say that America’s national capital is in fact the most un-American place because of the absence of basic rights.
To tell you one story, back when I was a police reporter, I remember going to the Mall and talking to this one couple from somewhere like Kentucky. And I asked them, do you think that residents of the District of Columbia should have voting rights in Congress? And the guy looked at me with a quizzical look and said, “But you work for us.” This gentleman thought the entire district population were all employees of the federal government. No, we have citizens who have nothing to do with the government. They go to their churches or mosques or synagogues, they go to their grocery stores. They might not even know where Lafayette Park is.
I always tell D.C. Vote and other advocates, and I’m going to tell the mayor today on the radio, why doesn’t the district have a multimillion-dollar campaign to educate the people of America about who lives here? The people of America don’t know us. Certainly, Tom Cotton and President Trump don’t know us.
So how optimistic are you about statehood being achieved?
The vote today is important because the House will in fact approve it in the first vote since 1993. The Grim Reaper over in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, says he won’t bring it up, so that will be it. The real test for statehood will come in November if the Democrats win the Senate, keep the House, and win the presidency. If that happens, it’s going to be possible for the Congress to vote for the district to become a state and for the president to sign it. There might be legal challenges, but that’s the way that other states have gotten in.
It’s not a matter of how many people we have. If we just went by population, then California could be three states. New York City could be its own state. It’s not the total number of people—it’s whether we are a sustained independent territory. Do we have the economic wherewithal to sustain ourselves? Yes, we do. Do we have the voting population to qualify for representation in the House? Yes, we do. Do we pay taxes, do we fight in wars? Yes, we do. Why aren’t we a state? There’s no good argument for it. Maybe they’re worried if we got control of the National Guard, we’d turn it on the White House.
Thanks so much for your time.
No problem, and if you happen to talk to Tom Cotton, tell him I’d be happy to show him around town.