Laying a Foundation

I used to be a construction supervisor for Habitat for Humanity. Whether you’ve built a house or not you should know that the foundation is where you start when building a house. Having a sound and sturdy foundation is the most important thing to do in home building. The foundation supports everything that comes after it in the construction process, it allows you to build a level house above it, it allows you to branch out and expand beyond, and if done properly it’s the one part of the house that lasts the longest and needs the fewest adjustments.

Over the last three years I like to think that we’ve been building a foundation for DC statehood in the Halls of Congress. In 2011, the District’s Delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, offered the statehood bill for the first time in 15 years. Though she introduced the bill in January of 2011, no other members of the House cosponsored the bill until October when citizen activists started seeking cosponsors for the bill. While statehood is our goal, we have to realize that for the 15 years prior to 2011 there was no discussion of statehood on the Hill and our elected representative and the we the citizens of the District deserve the blame for not more aggressively pressing this cause after 1993. In the fall of 2011 citizen activists essentially had to start from scratch by educating and re-educating offices on the Hill about what the statehood bill was and why it was important.

In late 2011, and throughout 2012, a small group of citizens from around the District met with over one hundred offices on the Hill seeking to educate staff about the bill and seeking new supporters for the cause. By the end of the 112th Congress only 28 members had cosponsored the bill. Though a small number it was a good start for a bill that had no chance of being advanced by congressional leaders and for an issue that had been long ignored by both political parties.

After the 2012 elections I began meeting with staff in the Senate to see if anyone would sponsor a Senate bill. In November and December of 2012, I met with several offices that had previously cosponsored statehood legislation in the early 1990s when one of the staff members I had previously met with called to tell me that “Senator Lieberman was going to offer the statehood bill and was seeking cosponsors.” Eureka! I couldn’t believe it and definitely never would have guessed Senator Liebermann would be the lead sponsor but was quite happy about it. Senator Liebermann’s offering the bill though late in the 112th Congress did set an important precedent for Senator Carper as the incoming Chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to offer the bill early in the 113th Congress.

In the 113th Congress, now that two statehood bills are before both Houses for a full congressional term Neighbors United for DC Statehood, the DC Statehood Coalition, Shadow Representative Nate Bennett-Fleming, and others have been building a base of support for the statehood legislation. It seems silly to some that we’re spending time getting Democrats (and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)) to sign-on to the statehood bill but when we’ve gone so long without a bill to discuss we have to start somewhere and we have to show members of Congress, District citizens, and the rest of the country that there are many members of Congress who support equality for District citizens through statehood. It’s also important to note that there are prominent Democrats (Steny Hoyer, John Dingell, and Jim Moran to name a few) who have voted against statehood so we still have lots of work to do among our so-called friends, the Democrats.

While we’ve celebrated the 16 cosponsors on the Senate bill and the 66 cosponsors on the House bill a lot of work went into that. Our group alone, in addition to the 100+ offices Shadow Rep. Bennett-Fleming has met with plus the offices the DC Statehood Coalition has met with, has met with over 50 House offices and over 60 Senate offices, some multiple times. We’ve met with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents because we know that winning passage of the DC Statehood bill won’t come from cosponsors but it will come from having an informed Congress knowing the intricacies of bill while also coming to grips with the politics around it. One role we play is giving members of Congress the information necessary to justify to their constituents why they would either cosponsor or vote for the bill. By educating and advocating to offices on the Hill over and over again in the 112th and 113th Congress we are building a foundation of support for this bill.

Just as important to building up supporters for legislation our meetings, our education efforts, and our advocacy work is hopefully breaking down some of the opposition to the bill. Over and over again we meet with staff who don’t quite understand that statehood is in fact constitutional. They don’t understand that the bill keeps a federal district but simply shrinks the current size of it thus allowing the residential and commercial portions of the District to be admitted as the 51st state. Time and time again as soon as we show Democratic and Republican staff the map of the new state and smaller district delineated in the bill there is a bit of an ‘aha’ moment based on the simplicity, brilliancy, and constitutionality of the statehood bill. We won’t get everyone in the House or Senate to vote for this bill but our work is both building support for it and chipping away at opposition to it.

Our work on the Hill over the last three years isn’t headline grabbing like getting arrested, nor has there been a transformative moment where an opponent of the cause has ‘seen the light’ on statehood but we are building a foundation for the statehood cause. We’re establishing bonds with supporters that will last. We have eight months left in this Congress and Senator Carper has promised a hearing on the bill in the Senate so there is plenty of time to keep adding cosponsors thus building more support and allowing us to concentrate time and energy (the only resources we have) on other members next year.

The list of current cosponsors to the Senate bill should give us hope as well. A powerful committee chair is the lead sponsor, Senator Carper (D-DE). The Senate Majority Leader and virtually the entire Democratic leadership are on the bill. Numerous committee chairs are cosponsors and there is also significant long-term promise as several Senators without a record of support for statehood but with what seem to be promising Senate (or greater) careers ahead our on the bill like Senators Gillibrand (D-NY), Booker (D-NJ), Kaine (D-VA), Coons (D-DE), and Warren (D-MA).

Building a foundation of support for statehood in the Halls of Congress might seem like a waste of time to some, especially since it is assumed that Democrats support this bill, but it is vitally important work. This early stage of building support for DC statehood takes time and effort but we’re making progress and this is a good first step. In the ensuing years our focus, strategies, and tactics will have to change. While we’ve done this some this Congress in the 114th Congress we’ll need to get citizens in the 50 states to start speaking up and out on our behalf. We’ll need constituents (aka voters) to start contacting their Senators and Representatives asking them to support our cause. We’ve done this some but we’ll need to do much more of it and as Derek Musgrove points out this type of work involves strategic thinking, an investment of time, and a commitment of financial resources. Our group’s work has limits (all volunteer and no money) and in all likelihood this type of work will need full-time focus and resources to substantively galvanize support in the home states of members of Congress on the fence about statehood or opposing it.

We’ve done good work for a bunch of unpaid activists over the last several years. We’ve begun to build a foundation for the statehood movement that will allow us to concentrate energy, effort, and resources elsewhere but for now we know who our base of supporters are and we must begin looking forward to expanding our base. With the House most likely to be in Republican hands until at least the 2022 election and the Senate seemingly up for grabs every two years the statehood movement will do itself and the people of the District a disservice if we don’t figure out a way to connect with, relate to, and influence members of the Republican Party to support our cause. This will not be easy and there are many layers to the tensions between the District and the conservative movement but it must be done.

I’m proud of the foundation of support for statehood we’re building on the Hill. I’m proud of the foundation of support for statehood we’re building across the District as each day our work is gaining the interest of fellow District of Columbians who want to join our movement and speak up for themselves and our right to be treated equally. As our support grows on the Hill and our supporters grow throughout the District our next challenge will be to generate interest, support, and advocates for this cause across the country. We’re in a good place but we have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of us. I invite you to join our efforts in the District, on the Hill, and around the country. We’ve laid the foundation now it’s time to build a movement.

Josh Burch
Brookland, DC




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