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Free DC! The Obama Inauguration and a New Chance for Democracy in Our Nation's Capital

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When hundreds of thousands pour into Washington, DC next week to witness Barack Obama's landmark swearing-in, they'll see red and white yard signs up in windows, on front lawns, and along the city streets promoting the cause of DC statehood.

People across America are already somewhat aware that residents of the District of Columbia are denied many of the rights that all other American citizens enjoy, that some of the US Constitution doesn't apply to the 'federal enclave.' For those of us who live in the nation's capital, the District is America's 'last colony' and 'last plantation,' nicknames that have special resonance in a city whose population is mostly black.

Many of us see the January 20, 2009 inauguration of the first African American President of the United States as a chance to educate the rest of the country about one of the last unfulfilled goals of the civil rights struggle -- achieving self-determination, self-government, and full citizenship for people who live in the 'Capital of the Free World.' For most of the District's population, that means winning statehood.

It's also an opportunity to bring the message directly to the new president, who has expressed his sympathy with District residents and indicated he's ready to make some changes.

Under the District's current status, all laws, policies, and budgets are subject to the review of Congress, which holds the power to veto locally passed legislation and to impose laws that residents don't want. For example, Republican-controlled Congresses have outlawed needle exchange, which has surely led to the loss of many lives to HIV. (The prohibition was canceled when Democrats gained the upper hand in Congress in 2006.) In 1998, Congress overturned a ballot measure for medical marijuana (Initiative 59) that had passed with a 69% majority.

Congress has also imposed zero tolerance laws and a controversial charter school system, prohibited the District from taxing commuters (a source of revenue for all other cities), and demanded construction of a new convention center, to be paid for with a surtax on local businesses, a project that mostly benefited businesses outside the city. In 2001, Congress, through an appointed Financial Control Board, ordered former Mayor Anthony Williams to dismantle DC General Hospital, the District's lone full-service public health facility.

In 1997, Newt Gingrich called the District a 'laboratory' for Republican policies. Congress members have tried to overturn local gun control laws, enact the death penalty, impose a school voucher program, and deny benefits for same-sex couples. They failed to accomplish these goals, but if they had succeeded, District residents would have been powerless to reject them. In no state do Americans suffer such affronts to their right to democratic self-government.

Furthermore, District residents have no voting representation in Congress. While other Americans get to elect a Representative and two Senators, District residents have no say in our national legislature. During the past seven years, young men and women from Washington, DC have risked and lost their lives allegedly to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, in wars that no one representing them voted for or against.

Whether Democrats or Republicans have dominated Congress, we've seen a reluctance to grant District residents these basic rights. For Republicans, the reason is pretty clear -- in a city with over 75 percent registered in the Democratic Party, representation would no doubt increase the number of Democrats in both chambers. Why Democrats have mostly rejected DC statehood is less obvious, but it might have something to do with the influence of Congress members from suburban Virginia and Maryland who don't want to surrender their power to exploit the District for the advantage of their own constituents, blocking commuter taxes and enacting policies that economically drain the city and encourage sprawl.

It's also difficult to shed the suspicion that some members of Congress don't want a new Representative and two new Senators in their midst who will very likely be African American and will cast liberal and progressive votes. There have been no shortage of op-ed columns alleging that District voters, responsible for electing flawed and corrupt pols like former Mayor Marion Barry, simply aren't ready for hometown democracy. No one has declared the (mostly white) citizens of New York and Illinois unqualified for democracy because they elected Gov. Elliot Spitzer and Gov. Rod Blagojevich. With a few notable exceptions, including Mr. Obama, the Senate in particular has remained an Old White Men's Club.

In fact, Democratic politicians have retreated further from the goal of DC statehood, deleting it from the Democratic national platform in 2004 and keeping it out in 2008. The only party to endorse statehood in its national platform is the Green Party, represented locally by the DC Statehood Green Party. The latter, a product of the 1999 merger of the DC Green Party and the DC Statehood Party (founded by Julius Hobson, Josephine Butler, Hilda H. Mason, and other civil rights activists in 1970), has made winning statehood its chief priority.

DC Voting Rights or DC Statehood?

Instead of statehood, some of the District's most prominent politicians have campaigned for 'DC voting rights', a plan to create a single voting seat in the US House with no other change in the District's political status. The chief proponent of voting rights is Eleanor Holmes Norton, who already holds a nonvoting US House seat on behalf of the District. The proposed voting rights bill, formally titled the 'DC Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act' (HR 328), has steadily gained bipartisan support. President-elect Obama has signaled that he will sign it if it passes in Congress. Ms. Norton, who has held the nonvoting seat since 1991 and is held in high esteem by many District voters, would almost certainly get the new voting seat.

Statehood supporters have found flaws and traps in the voting rights bill and have warned against confusing representation in Congress with self-government and full constitutional rights. "Don't be fooled -- the voting rights bill is a symbolic piece of legislation dressed up to look like democracy," says Gail Dixon, a Statehood Green Party member, former elected member of the DC School Board, and long-time statehood advocate.

On January 6, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) joined Ms. Norton in introducing the voting rights bill. The attraction for Republicans is that the bill balances the new seat for (Democratic) Washington, DC with a new seat for (Republican) Utah. But it would also give the GOP a slight edge in presidential elections, because the number of electors is tied to the number of US Representatives, and Republicans would thus win a new Electoral College vote. The District already has three Electoral College votes and won't gain a new one.

Furthermore, if it faces a lawsuit, the voting rights bill may be found unconstitutional. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides voting representation in Congress solely to states. A decision by a US District Court in 2000 (Adams v. Clinton) held that "the Constitution does not contemplate that the District may serve as a state for purposes of the apportionment of congressional representatives." The Supreme Court reviewed the ruling and offered no challenge.

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Scott McLarty is former media director for the Green Party of the United States. He has had articles, guest columns, and book reviews published in Roll Call, TheHill,, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Green Horizon, The Progressive (more...)

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