When looking at government and the private sector people often ask “how can we get more for less?” As it relates to the cause for DC Statehood it would be hard for the District to get more for less considering it spends so little currently on statehood efforts. After years of a Congressional ban on spending our own money on the statehood cause the ban was recently lifted but the District has been slow to spend any significant money on the effort. Presently, on an annual basis the Office of the Secretary issue a request for proposals in which $200,000 is awarded in grants to non-profits to further the causes of self-determination, voting rights, and statehood. Out of a budget that is roughly $11 billion dollars annually the District spends a paltry $200,000 or .002% of our overall budget on self-determination, voting rights, and statehood efforts. With that type of investment no wonder we have yet to have any success. $200,000 might be a lot of money for a nobody like me but for big time campaigns and lobbying efforts it’s chump change which is why we’ve seen no results thus far. The District, if it really believes that statehood is our democratic destiny, needs to refocus and reorganize to put the statehood movement on more sound footing and with a clear direction to follow.
While we penned a piece last week suggesting changes for the shadow delegation to Congress this piece will focus on what the Executive Branch of the District Government can and should do to better organize, promote, and move forward the statehood movement. As previously, noted last week, no government action can replicate the power of an engaged citizenry. We have 632,000 disenfranchised Americans who all live within a 15 walk, 30 minute bike or car ride, or 45 minute bus or subway ride to the US Capitol. If we all decided one day to march on the Capitol in unified support of statehood it would dwarf what a well-funded, coordinated, and unified government effort could do. Therefore, the actions and improved operations of the executive branch should focus on the effort to educate Congress but more importantly to educate District citizens and inspire us to act so that we carry this movement to completion.
The Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM) plays the central role in setting the vision and direction of the city and it should play the same role in how we will become the 51st state. Prior to President Obama’s 2nd Inauguration the Mayor announced a few ideas on how to focus more on the statehood issue but since then he has yet to follow through on those comments so I’ll use this venue to propose my own ideas:
Say It, Mean It, Fund It: The District government’s commitment to the statehood cause needs to be demonstrated first and foremost by the mayor himself. He has been a long-time advocate for statehood but recently his words and deeds are more in tune with phrases like ‘autonomy, self-determination, and voting rights’ instead of ‘statehood’. He has the power of the purse and if he wants to set the District on the right course of action, next year when the Office of the Secretary (or a new Office for DC Statehood) issues a request for proposals it should only fund efforts promoting statehood. It’s a very simple change to that RFP process but it would send a powerful message, a message reflective of what he says and has said repeatedly over the years. If this administration is a ‘statehood’ administration then their RFP should only fund statehood focused efforts.
Additionally, they need to go through a serious remaking of their web presence and messaging in general around statehood. Whether it’s the mayor’s page that lists his priorities (http://mayor.dc.gov/page/self-determination) or the page on DC Statehood (http://government.dc.gov/DC/Government/Data+&+Transparency/DC+Statehood) the mayor’s office needs to have better messages, more concise and clear messaging, and provide online opportunities for citizens to learn more and become involved. Right now, the District message and messaging on statehood is a muddled mess. The District website should be a tool to teach and empower but instead it has a bunch of words but says very little. The Mayor’s office needs to dedicate time and attention to how it messages for statehood and how it conveys that message because right now it’s an absolute mess on prime display at the recent inauguration.
The Office for DC Statehood : Prior to President Obama’s 2nd Inauguration the Mayor announced that he wanted to create an office with an Executive Director and staff that focused on statehood. This is a great idea (not a fan of a Statehood Commission though) but he has yet to provide any details on the office itself. What follows are my recommendations on where the office should be structurally and what it should focus on. The Office for DC Statehood (ODCS) should be positioned within the EOM where it will be both a natural fit and be a prime position to begin the hard work of both rallying District citizens from various neighborhoods but also different backgrounds around the statehood cause. Within EOM the Office for DC Statehood should be tasked with working with the following offices:
- Office of Cable Television (OCT): From day one the ODCS should work with District of Columbia Network (DCN) to develop a documentary series on the history of the District, the statehood movement, and a piece on what citizens should/could be doing to promote the statehood cause. There are a good number of folks out there who watch DCN and we should use it as a tool to reach people, teach people, and empower people in the effort to achieve statehood.
- Office of Neighborhood Engagement (ONE): ODCS should work with this office and its staff to build links Ward by Ward for a unified push for statehood. ONE staff attend community meetings all the time and they should be used to not only respond to constituent complaints but to help inform residents on what they can do to assist the effort toward statehood. They can help share the vision for the movement and update the community on how people can become involved.
- Office of Community Affairs: Just as ONE can help covey messages to neighborhoods the Office of Community Affairs can help convey messages and develop strategize for working with specific constituencies. This is the office that can make the statehood effort a big tent effort and help link the statehood movement with not just the GLBT community in the District but around the nation (one example of many possible links to making our local cause a national one through working with targeted constituencie).
- Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs (OPLA): The ODCS should work with this office to help pick a fight with Congress if needed. As a prime example DC Vote and DC Appleseed are spearheading an effort through to get the District budget autonomy by circumventing Congress via referendum. While I have my doubts about it’s legality I’ll vote for the referendum and I think that Congress or more likely the Courts will overturn the referendum. Irrespective of what the courts do we should be asking why aren’t the District’s lawyers and policy team thinking outside the box like DC Vote and DC Appleseed? The ODCS should work with OPLA to make it a legal incubator and innovator in legal thought around the statehood movement.
In addition to working with the current offices within the EOM the Director for DC Statehood should also act as:
- The Mayor’s point person on Capitol Hill: This person/office should be setting up meetings by with members of Congress or working in concert with the shadow delegation to show a unified front in Hill meetings focused on statehood. While no one can replace the political heft of having the Mayor lead delegations to the Hill a lot of lobby work is behind the scenes work to educate staff and members of Congress. It’s time consuming work that would best be done by mayoral designates to lead this effort on a full-time basis.
- The Mayor’s point person to other states: This person/office should also be fostering relationships with elected officials and interest groups in the 50 states to help build a coalition of pressure on members of Congress not just from the people of the District but from the people who sent them to Washington. This again is a necessary task that would be aided by having the weight of the Mayor’s Office behind it but involves grunt work not suited for the Mayor of the District due to its time consuming nature.
- Apply for Grants: While I firmly believe that the District should fully fund this office and that of the shadow delegation I also see it prudent for this office to apply for competitive grants. There’s no reason why the District shouldn’t be soliciting funds from private foundations to help with this effort should we be deemed well qualified to implement the grants. There is a lot of money out there for ‘democracy building’ and the District should apply for those grants. Heck, I even think we should be mock applying for USAID Democracy Building Grants given how much the State Department cares about democracy oversees but not across the street.
The citizens of the District of Columbia (and Congress) hold the keys to statehood in our own hands but the Executive Office of the Mayor can and should play a key role in push for statehood. First and foremost, the Mayor’s Office needs to send a clear message on statehood in words and in deeds. We need to move past terms like “autonomy and self-determination.” While those terms sound nice they aren’t tangible, my relatives in Kentucky know and understand statehood, and they love it, they feel it as a cherished part of their being Americans, and so should we. And secondly, the Mayor needs to create an office focused solely on statehood so that we can start bringing all neighborhoods and all constituencies to the table to create the 51st state in the Union.
This piece should not be viewed as a catch-all for what we need to do achieve statehood rather these are a few suggestions on how to better leverage systems already in place so that we use our time and money wisely but also in a manner that will have the most impact. As I said above and I’ve said many times before statehood is in our hands, it’s in the hands of the people of the District 8 Wards, it’s in the hands of our friends, neighbors, and family members in the 50 states, but the government of the District of Columbia plays a role in this process too. The District has an obligation to put its time, money, and resources where its mouth is and $200,000 per year dedicated toward the statehood movement won’t get us very far.
Just a few thoughts,