I walked out of the Statehood Commission’s meeting to amend the draft constitution on June 28th in a state of dismay, despair, and outright anger. Those are three feelings to which I am not prone and I work hard to steer clear, yet after bearing witness to Town Halls, a faux constitutional convention, an intellectually lazy exercise, and power hungry selfishness in amending our draft constitution, I found those feelings overcoming my mind, body, and spirit. Thus, for my own mental and emotional well-being, I walked out. I could not take sitting there anymore as members of the commission argued about how to preserve or enhance their own individual or institutional power rather than debating what should be in our Bill of Rights.
I take the pursuit of statehood seriously (maybe too seriously), but I believe it’s our democratic right and destiny to be treated fairly and equally within our union. I believe the voice and the vote of the people matter, have value, and are what hold our country and city-state together despite all of its imperfections. This is why the process facilitated by the Statehood Commission has left me dismayed, despairing, and angered.
In early April, the Mayor’s office brought together a team of lawyers to craft a draft constitution, and in mid-April, the draft constitution was unveiled along with a schedule that laid out the process for soliciting input to the constitution through online comments, in-person testimonies at Town Halls, and a “constitutional convention.” For those who were not able to attend the Town Halls or the Constitutional Convention, there was no difference between them other than the fact that the Constitutional Convention had bands present for pep-music, had panel discussions about why statehood matters (as if we need to know that at a *constitutional convention*), and gave us “delegate” badges so we could replicate Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in being non-voting delegates to a faux constitutional convention.
While there may not be constitutionally defined parameters for what makes up a constitutional convention, I do not believe what we have just gone through comes close to what a constitutional convention means in the hearts and minds of most Americans. Do we need a constitutional convention where every citizen can vote and amend the document? No, I don’t think so. Do we need a constitutional convention where all power to create a draft constitution lies with only 5 people in elective office? I don’t think so either. There has to be a better way to do this with elected delegates given we live in a representative democracy. The people of the District, long-denied a full voice and full vote in our national and local democracy, should surely have more of a role in creating the document that will define the structures of our state government and in enshrining within it values and principles we hold dear.
This process has not been about democracy; it has been about expediency, and that’s a shame. I walked out of the Commission meeting after hearing one of their lawyers and then the Council Chairman himself dismiss the idea that the people pf the District of Columbia should have more of a say in amending our constitution and/or creating a new one after we achieve statehood. Why are they so afraid of what the people think and believe? Why do they think that our voice and vote matter less than theirs?
I walked out of that room because I wanted to scream “this is about democracy! This is about my voice, my vote, and that of my neighbors too! Why don’t you think we matter and should have power in this process?” This Commission is simply acting like Congress by claiming to act out of duty-bound benevolence, while disregarding the voice of the people and failing to give us a true vote until the very end, and then only as a take it or leave it scenario.
When I reached home after walking out, I saw that our Council will review, hold hearings, and possibly amend the draft constitution before we hold a vote on it in November. That’s a good thing, as the participation of 13 people is better than 5, but that still has problems. Will the legislature act out of its own self-interest and consolidate its power when they consider amendments, especially since they are the last stop before the citizens vote on it? Having ONLY people in elective office with the power to change a constitution is deeply troublesome because they are prone to self-preservation and/or expansion of powers. This is why I hope that, at the very least, the Council adds an amendment to our constitution that calls for a true constitutional convention-with elected delegates-so that our process avoids real or perceived self-preservation by our elected officials and includes the voice of the people.
Finally, another reason I left feeling dismayed, despairing, and angry is because I asked myself the simple question: Will you still vote for statehood in November, despite this horribly undemocratic process and its resultant intellectually lazy and morally deficient constitution? And the answer in my head was “yes.” Despite all of my fervent objections to this top down, elitist process, I’d still rather live in a state with a crappy constitution and a dumb name than in the disenfranchised District, where we are still subject to a Congress in which we have no representation. It makes me sick that I might have to swallow this charade of a process to gain statehood, and there’s some self-loathing going on because of it.
I am dismayed, despairing, and angry at those who espouse the virtues of democracy and demand our right to be equal partners in it, yet have so little faith in “we the people.” We are better than this, we must be better than this. Now it’s in the Council’s hands to make this document better and to lead a process where issues can be debated openly and publicly about our Bill of Rights, our structure of government, and our values as a people.
I believe in statehood because I believe in the promise of America, but more importantly, I believe in statehood because I love, value, and respect the people of the District of Columbia. Any process to create our constitution should do the same. I was dismayed, despairing, and angry, but none of these feelings will gain us what we need and deserve: statehood. I know we’re better than the process imposed on us, and I’m ready to get back to work so that together we can and will create the 51st state in the union.