What Loose Lips Didn’t Mention

Loose Lips (aka Will Sommer) of the Washington City Paper wrote a brutal assessment of the District’s shadow delegation in a recent story. The story touches on some uncomfortable truths which point to why the statehood cause has not moved forward much in over 20 years. Sadly, with regards to the shadow delegation we’ve gotten what we’ve paid for which is nothing (until recently). The fundamental question asked is: Given a history of bad gimmicks and poor strategies should the District spend $1 million to fund a delegation that hasn’t achieved much in 23 years? Despite the scathing piece I believe the answer to that question is: Yes, we should fully fund the shadow delegation as I testified about in July. The City Paper piece has a few key points that, while not completely unjustified, don’t tell the whole statehood story. I won’t defend the lack of progress due to gimmicks and the antics of some in the shadow delegation but all is not lost and we’re in a better place as a movement than we’ve been in about 20 years.

While the piece focuses mainly on the statehood delegation the reality is we, all 632,000 of us, are in this together (yes, I know some folks don’t support statehood). We all bear responsibility for working toward statehood and we’re fools if we just sit back and think that three unpaid office holders will wave a magic wand and statehood will appear. It is however fair to question the effectiveness of those who hold an office that they voluntarily ran for. Paid or unpaid, our shadow delegation holds elective office and with that comes responsibilities and in some cases office holders have done very little substantively but we as voters are the ones who should hold them accountable.

Loose Lips presents a picture of the District’s relationship with Congress over the last 20 years but fails to mention a key point about the statehood bill itself: the bill has rarely been offered by our own delegate. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has not really focused energy or effort on statehood since 1993. Delegate Norton offered the statehood bill in 1993, then again in 1995, and then not again until 2011. Given that the Control Board ended in 2000, why did it then take 11 years to offer a statehood bill? For 15 years the one person District citizens are allowed to elect who can at least introduce bills in Congress didn’t even offer the bill. For 15 years on the House side there was no statehood discussion because there never was a statehood bill. This type of action or lack thereof crippled statehood efforts on the Hill. How can citizens, the non-profit community, or the Shadow Delegation go up to the Hill and ask members of Congress to support statehood if our own delegate didn’t even offer the bill?

The lack of focus on statehood from Delegate Norton’s (yes, I know she has many responsibilities not just statehood but she still could have at least offered the bill sometime between 1997-2010) has thus caused a lot of statehood advocacy work over the last 3 years on the Hill to focus on either introducing the subject of statehood to staff or reintroducing it to them. One of the most common lines I’ve heard from offices (I’ve met with about 100 offices in the last 2+ years both the House & Senate) is “Senator/Representative X supported the statehood bill in 2007” but the problem is there wasn’t a statehood bill in 2007. That bill was for one vote in the House which is definitely not statehood. We need to reach and educate every office because they seem to not fully grasp the issue since it’s been so long since statehood was seriously considered. The article seems to brush aside the work of Shadow Representative Nate Bennett-Fleming and his interns in getting cosponsors on the bill. What they are doing is vitally important and it is exactly what more of us should be doing across the District. We need to first educate people on the bill, then get their confirmed support for the bill and that’s what many of us have been doing. Now is the time to recruit supporters of this bill around the District, around the country, and on the Hill and sometimes that means spending time and energy on what seems like easy sells on the cause but that’s where the movement is at.

The congressional outreach, education, and advocacy on statehood that our group, Nate’s team, and the DC Statehood Coalition have done over the last several years are reasons to be hopeful. We’ve started to not only erase 20 years of statehood amnesia in Congress but we’ve begun to build a coalition of allies and advocates for the bill. It’s great that we have over 50 sponsors in the House as it’s the most since 1993 and in the Senate we have 11 (really 10) cosponsors which is the most since 1993 as well. Building a base of support and well informed staff are keys to making this cause winnable and that’s what the statehood movement’s been doing. This is a demonstration of the movement’s progress and we need to enhance these efforts with more District citizens heading to the Hill.

Loose Lips is right that Republicans have historically not supported this legislation. When it was last voted on in the House only one Republican, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland voted for it. Breaking down the veil of partisanship is one of our biggest obstacles on the legislative front for statehood but I don’t think the piece tells the whole story. Sure, the GOP doesn’t want two Democratic Senators but to be fair we’ve done a piss poor job of engaging Republicans on this issue. Our group has made a concerted effort to reach out to GOP offices, especially in the Senate to make the case for statehood. We haven’t won anybody over (yet) but if we don’t try we never will. The District’s lack of engagement with the GOP is troubling. Obviously, some in the GOP have looked to encroach on Home Rule, but that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t be engaging the GOP on the issue of statehood. We need to let them know that this cause lines up with the GOP’s principles of a more limited federal government, representative democracy, and local control over local affairs. Our lack of support from the GOP can’t be just put solely on them instead we need to admit that we’ve failed to fully engage them on this issue as well. Building a base in both parties should be the focus of the statehood movement and that’s what our group has been doing (or at least trying to do).

Loose Lips also brings up that statehood folks (myself included) don’t agree on strategies and we gripe about disagreements all the time. I guess my best response to that is: so what? This piece was published on the heels of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and the civil rights movement was a movement that had huge divisions within it and groups griped about each other, strategies, and tactics all the time yet the movement still changed our country for the better. I don’t always agree with DC Vote nor do I always agree with the strategies of the shadow delegates but we’re all in this with a common goal. Given our limited resources it’d be great if we were all united but social movements have always had divisions within them yet still working for the same goal.

I wish that Loose Lips had touched on how the District Government, from our Mayor to our Council fail to invest any time, money, or effort on the statehood front on Capitol Hill. While Loose Lips mentions the poorly planned trip to New Hampshire he fails to mention that none of those elected officials seem to spend any time on the Hill. We don’t need the approval of the New Hampshire House of Delegates to become a state but we do need Congress’ approval yet I know of no one on the Council who has met with folks from New Hampshire’s congressional delegation or other delegations for that matter (10 minutes from the Wilson Building). It’s a shame that local politicians all give great statehood speeches yet do little heavy lifting for the cause. The statehood movement can’t and shouldn’t rest in the hands of the shadow delegation alone. Our council members need to start walking the talk and so does our mayor. It’s shame that the folks that talk the biggest game on statehood also do the least amount of footwork for it.

John Capozzi in the piece is given credit for saying positive things (which I appreciate) about the work our all-volunteer group has done on the Hill advocating for the statehood bill. I’m proud of the work we’ve done but there are limits to what we can do and what we can accomplish. All of our members have full-time jobs doing non-statehood stuff, families, and other duties in life that need attention. Maybe if we had 1,000 or 10,000 volunteers in the District working for statehood we wouldn’t need to fund the Shadow Delegation or statehood focused non-profits but we only have a small group of volunteers consistently working on this cause presently. Our group’s largest lobby day had 16 people show up and yes we have met with a lot of Hill offices and we’ve had success but somebody needs to do this full time to make it a reality.

During the Council hearing on the DC Statehood Advocacy Act after my testimony Chairman Mendelson asked the panel I was on if we felt the Shadow Delegation should be paid similar to what the Council gets. My answer was and is, yes. To me, it’s worth my taxpayer money that the District fund a delegation to spend their full-time energies pushing for statehood on the Hill. I have no problem paying folks to make me, my family, and my neighbors full & equal citizens so we can elect national representatives to vote on issues like war & peace, national education and health care issues, and make decisions about the role of the federal government in our lives.

I’m well aware of the poor results of the Delegations’ work, but results don’t solely rest with them as the Mayor(s), the Council, the non-profit community, and those of us who care about statehood but haven’t done enough either. Yes, there are aspects of and actors in the shadow delegation that need to move on (and we, the voters, should do that) and the Loose Lips piece aired a brutal assessment of the delegation but I don’t believe it tells the whole story as to where we are as a movement. A delegation is a component of a larger movement and we are in a much better place than we’ve been in 20 years yet we have a long-long way to go.

Fundamentally, the statehood movement rests with us, the citizens of the District of Columbia. We have 632,000 people within a walk, bike ride, metro ride, or short drive of the place and people we need to lobby to make us a state. If we don’t get off our butts, if we don’t get better organized, if we don’t become a constant and vocal presence on the Hill paying our delegation won’t matter. I do, however, believe that paying our delegation is a step in the right direction toward making our presence on the Hill constant. Can they and should the shadow delegation do more and do better? Of course, but they need the resources to do it and they need an engaged citizenry to both work with them and to hold them accountable.

As a statehood advocate, activist, and organizer I’m not discouraged by Loose Lips’ piece. There were some hard truths in it and the reality is if our movement were so great more people would be involved and we wouldn’t be 200 years behind schedule. Having said that, I’m optimist of what our group is doing and I’m heartened by the work Nate and his team have done in their short time in office. So while there’s plenty of blame to go around there’s also been a lot of progress made recently by just a few people with few resources. I’m confident that statehood is our democratic destiny and we’ve been building the foundation for a movement that will achieve it but our work doesn’t get much notice because it’s not flashy and doesn’t involve hot dogs or Hollywood.

The best way to see why there’s reasons to be positive and what you can do to help the cause come to our next meeting (Saturday, Sept. 14th at 3pm at Askale Café in Brookland) or email us and sign-up to join one of our lobbying meetings on the Hill (unitedforstatehood@gmail.com).

Some thoughts,

Josh Burch

Brookland, DC

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One Response to What Loose Lips Didn’t Mention

  1. Pingback: Chatter: Autonomy of Scale - City Desk

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