Credit: Alex Guerrero

Thirty-seven times since the nation’s founding, we have added states to the union. The last time was in 1959, when two new states, Alaska and Hawaii, were admitted.

The 52-State Strategy:

The Case for Puerto Rico.

There are a couple of reasons to think such a moment may be arriving again. The first is the scandalously poor response to last year’s hurricane in Puerto Rico. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens, the island, which for more than a century has been governed as a U.S. territory, has neither congressional representation nor Electoral College votes. As many have observed, this lack of representational clout goes a long way toward explaining why the federal government has felt free to slow-walk the hurricane recovery. Puerto Ricans’ lack of political power may have caused thousands of lives to be lost. The second factor pushing in favor of statehood is the Republican Party’s ongoing effort to use anti-democratic tactics—from voter ID laws to voter roll purges to racial gerrymanders—to tip the electoral scales to their advantage.  

As a result, some on the left are saying that the time has come to right the balance by expanding democracy and granting statehood both to Puerto Rico and to another region that has been denied full representation for even longer, the District of Columbia. We sent out two reporters, Ben Paviour and Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza, to explore the opportunities and challenges that a push for fifty-two states would present. What follows is Paviour’s dispatch from D.C. For Buckwalter-Poza’s report on Puerto Rico, click here.

Like so many of their progressive peers, advocates of statehood for the District of Columbia approached the November 2016 election with optimism. Common sense said that Hillary Clinton would win the White House; hope said that Clinton, who had promised to be a “vocal champion for D.C. statehood,” could be convinced to deliver the old dream of full congressional representation for the district. Advocates queued up a citywide referendum to register the overwhelming local support for the proposed State of New Columbia. “The whole theory was, we’d be all set to get statehood when the Democrats moved in,” says Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, a nonprofit that has argued for increased autonomy for the district.

What happened next is a familiar story: the gut check of Trump, the months of soul searching, the bleary-eyed march forward. But outside of the movement, few Democrats wasted tears on the cause of D.C. statehood. Though the 2016 party platform explicitly included a policy of “finally passing statehood for the District of Columbia,” most lawmakers who are even aware of the issue continue to see it as morally righteous but politically irrelevant. “Few, if any, Democrats would give D.C. statehood a higher priority than policy issues that directly concern the voters in their state,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “This subject is well down the agenda for almost all senators, and I doubt that changes.” 

It’s natural for Democrats to prioritize parochial concerns that matter for their constituencies. But from a long-term, institutional perspective, the Democratic silence on statehood is a tactical oddity. Any future state centered around the current district would be all but certain to elect left-leaning Democrats to its two Senate seats and one House seat. It’s a margin that would have doomed the Republican tax reform bill and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court career, and one that would help a future Democratic president avoid the gridlock of an opposition-controlled Congress.

The low priority Democrats place on D.C. statehood speaks to their squeamishness about framing the issue as a win for their party. “Even when we go and have closed-door meetings with the staff of members of Congress, people do not talk in those terms,” says Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of the pro-statehood group DC for Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that is one of at least a half-dozen organizations pushing for statehood. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s longtime Democratic, nonvoting House delegate, contends that the partisan implications are best left unspoken. “If that isn’t self-evident, nothing is,” she says. 

A hungrier Democratic Party might decide to ditch the subtlety. “Two decades of framing this as a moral issue and not as a partisan one has not paid any meaningful dividends,” says David Faris, a political science professor at Roosevelt University and author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. “So my question would be: Who are we pretending for?”

Faris and others envision a stiffer-spined Democratic Party—one that could see statehood as the partisan gift that it is, and gun the proposal through Congress and a Democratic White House at the next opportunity. There would be significant political risks, and Republicans would resist at every turn. (Ohio governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich warned that statehood would mean “just more votes in the Democratic Party.”) The effort would require Democrats to marshal uncharacteristic ruthlessness. 

“The failure to prioritize D.C. statehood over the last administration is reflective of an overall problem of the Democratic Party, which is not focusing on how to build and develop power to push more the inclusive populist reforms our country needs,” says Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a political action committee started by Howard Dean. “The reality is, if the shoe were on the other foot . . . there’s not a doubt in my mind Republicans would have jammed statehood through decades ago.”

Congress has been cool to the idea of empowering D.C. citizens since 1783, when a group of Continental army soldiers stormed sessions of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to demand overdue pay. Pennsylvania denied aid to the besieged delegates, leading to a consensus that the new republic’s capital would need an extra layer of protection from state interference. The resulting constitutional clause gave Congress exclusive legislative control over a capital district “not exceeding ten miles square.”

The arrangement inspired animus almost as soon as the district was carved out of Virginia and Maryland in 1790. In the second book in her Washington series, Capital City, 1879–1950, historian Constance Green describes nineteenth-century senators bellyaching that their chamber was reduced to a “mere town council” when it took up debates over local property taxes. When renegade Republican Senator Henry Blair proposed a constitutional amendment in 1890 that would have given the district congressional representation, his party ignored the proposal. The 1892 Democratic platform advocated that federal territories like D.C. and Alaska maintain “home rule and control of their own affairs,” a position that Green describes, in terms likely to resonate with contemporary statehood activists, as “purely decorative until discarded.”

D.C. citizens only became able to vote for the president living in their midst with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1961. The Home Rule Act of 1973 finally granted the city its own elected mayor and council, but Congress retained the power to review and reject its budget and legislation. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have granted D.C. full congressional representation cleared both chambers in 1978, but earned ratification from just sixteen states by the 1985 deadline. Cynics suspected that conservatives like Strom Thurmond, who had voted against the 23rd Amendment, supported the 1978 amendment only to appear righteous, betting that ratification would flop. 

In 1993, with Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and White House, the statehood movement saw another opening. Norton, the district’s then relatively new nonvoting House delegate, introduced the New Columbia Admission Act. The bill proposed carving out a new state while preserving a far smaller District of Columbia that would maintain control over key federal buildings. The Constitution, after all, only mandated a maximum size for the capital, and new states had been carved out of federal territories in the past. Voters in the district would have to approve the idea of statehood, as well as a constitution, then hold elections for two senators and one representative. Then Bill Clinton would sign off on a proclamation admitting New Columbia into the union. 

The bill snuck out of committee and reached the floor of the House—the first time statehood had ever been debated in Congress—where it received a vote and was unceremoniously put to rest. All but one Republican voted nay, and 105 Democrats joined them. Today, Norton says that many of the more conservative Democrats likely weren’t ready to put their weight behind the addition of new left-leaning seats. Newspapers at the time reported that some Democrats justified their no votes by suggesting that there were constitutional concerns with statehood. “No citizen of Washington is chained to the pillars of the U.S. Capitol,” said then Michigan Congressman John Dingell during the House debate, choosing an infelicitous metaphor to describe the residents of a then majority-black city. “They can leave anytime they want.” 

The city hall debt crisis of the mid-1990s brought increased congressional micromanagement and set back the statehood movement at least a decade. “There was such a lack of confidence in the affairs of the city that statehood became this pipe dream,” says Ladduwahetty of DC for Democracy. Then came 2007 legislation that would have added House seats in a conservative Utah district and liberal D.C. while stopping short of statehood. The bill withered on the vine, finally dying in 2010 after the addition of a rider that would have gutted D.C.’s gun laws. Norton calls the episode “maybe the most heartbreaking moment of my career.” The failure helped convince statehood skeptics like Ladduwahetty that any partial attempt at voting rights for the district that stopped short of taking it out from under the thumb of Congress would always be doomed by toxic legislative add-ons. “It was an absolute turning point and drove many of us into the statehood movement,” she says.

As piecemeal attempts at increased autonomy for the district have stumbled, there is growing consensus among the fractious movement on a path forward. “The only real answer and permanent answer is statehood,” says Bo Shuff, head of DC Vote, the most prominent and best funded of the advocacy groups. Shuff and others see constitutional amendments as unnecessarily cumbersome, and instead have proposed pushing through statehood with a referendum and a simple vote in Congress similar to the one in 1993. The newer proposal, however, would err on the side of demanding recognition rather than requesting it.

They are drawing from an old playbook. In the 1790s, settlers of what is now Tennessee got fed up waiting around for the federal government to turn their territory into a state. Residents arranged a vote on statehood, approved the proposal, organized a convention to ratify a new state constitution, and declared themselves a state in March 1796. The new general assembly elected a congressman and two senators and sent them to D.C. Congress initially balked, but caved just a couple months later through a simple vote and presidential signature. Six more states, including, most recently, Alaska, have followed a similar template.

The November 2016 referendum, which asked voters to approve statehood and empowered the city council to write a constitution, was D.C.’s first step in that direction. Under a draft constitution prepared by the council before the referendum, D.C.’s mayor would become governor of the new state. The council would grow from thirteen to twenty-one members to become its unicameral legislature. The new state would take control of its budget and judicial system. 

While nearly 80 percent of D.C. voters voted in favor, the referendum was dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Congress. But that could change after the 2018 midterms. If Democrats take back the House, Norton says she’ll press for a vote on her latest bill, H.R. 1291, which follows the same general contours of the 1993 bill but calls the new state “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” after Frederick Douglass, who spent his final years in the capital. The bill has more cosponsors—159 House Democrats, as of mid-April—than any of its predecessors. “I don’t know what kind of Democrats will be here, but I can tell you that I have gotten virtually all of the ones we’ve got now,” Norton says.

The Senate is a taller hurdle. The chief statehood champion there is Delaware Senator Tom Carper, whose 2014 hearing on the subject was roundly ignored by his colleagues. His bill has attracted twenty cosponsors, including possible 2020 presidential contenders Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand. Like any number of progressive priorities, a successful statehood vote in the Senate will require Democrats to win a filibuster-proof sixty-vote majority—or to embrace political hardball by doing away with the filibuster altogether. 

Everyone involved in the statehood project concedes that they’re playing a long game. One of their biggest obstacles is putting the issue on the national radar. “I can’t repeat this enough: the country is not aware of this issue,” says Smith of DC Appleseed. He believes that more Americans would be upset if they knew about D.C. dwellers’ plight. They will need convincing: a 2014 national poll from Rasmussen Reports found that just 24 percent of likely voters supported D.C. statehood. 

A 1993 statehood bill snuck out of committee and reached the floor of the House, where it received a vote and was unceremoniously put to rest. All but one Republican voted nay, and 105 Democrats joined them.

Jamie Raskin, a left-leaning House Democrat from Maryland and cosponsor of Norton’s bill, can’t remember ever discussing statehood with his colleagues. “It’s just not on the table,” he says. But, he believes, with the right messaging, the gravity of the “scandalous” situation could become a viral national issue overnight. “The whole point in politics is to make things that look impossible inevitable through organizing.”

Some statehood advocates are trying to get their issue on the map by tethering it to other progressive causes with larger constituencies. DC Vote has courted allies like the Human Rights Campaign and NARAL Pro-Choice America, a strategy Shuff borrowed from his organizing work on the Kansas and Ohio marriage equality movements. “One of the things we recognized on that campaign is that we weren’t winning when we were talking to the center,” Shuff says. 

The sell to these organizations is straightforward: without full representation, one of the most progressive cities in the country remains at the whims of a Congress that has used its clout to override popular will on everything from cannabis laws to access to abortion funding. Because of the district’s political leanings, the interventions almost always have come from conservatives. There are also clear parallels backers could draw between the disenfranchisement of D.C. citizens and Republican-led minority-voter suppression tactics across the country. 

While those arguments might rally the left to the cause, they also risk antagonizing white swing-state voters who may be less sympathetic to the plight of a city whose two major constituencies are African Americans and white liberal elites. Picking up two reliably blue Senate seats might not matter if the Claire McCaskills or Joe Manchins of the Senate lose theirs in the process. “The District, a liberal bastion of corruption and crime, doesn’t even come close to meeting statehood requirements,” declared Texas Republican Tom DeLay during debate on the 1993 bill. Today’s conservatives would be sure to reprise that talking point. 

Overcoming such hurdles will require Democratic leadership to commit to statehood because of its politics rather than in spite of it. It would be a bold step for a party that has sometimes chosen high-mindedness over its own long-term interests. Critics like David Faris, the Roosevelt University professor and book author, see proof in the party’s failure to prioritize state races in the years leading up to 2010, which allowed Republicans to dominate state policy and gerrymander their way to national victories. President Obama’s overtures at bipartisanship, meanwhile, bore little fruit. “If we kick away the opportunities presented by the next unified Democratic government, we may not get another chance,” Faris says.

Sam Coppersmith, a lawyer who served a single term as the Democratic House representative for a conservative Arizona district from 1993 to 1995, has hazy memories of voting against the first statehood bill in 1993. He recalls minimal debate before the vote, and notes that at the time party was a less accurate indicator of ideology than it is today. But if he got another chance now, Coppersmith says he’d back statehood—if only because he believes Republicans would have done so years ago. The era of cross-aisle olive branches has long passed, he says. “I think it’s kind of foolish to uphold a norm that wouldn’t be respected on both sides.” 

The statehood issue slots neatly into the progressive ethos that leading Democrats are trying to reclaim. It also offers obvious political advantages. Republicans will seize on the latter point, and some moderate Democrats might blush and fold. But if Democrats are serious about advancing their agenda in the bitter partisan present, they may come around to bolder power moves. If they are looking for a place to start, they need only step into their own backyard.  

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Ben Paviour is a politics reporter based in Richmond, Virginia.