The Portland Phoenix

The Universal Notebook: New Columbia or Douglass Commonwealth?

There are so many problems in this country that resist solution – racism, gun violence, sedition, Coronavirus – primarily because Republicans refuse to act, that it would be refreshing to find some simple problem like, say, statehood for Washington, D.C., that we could solve with a bipartisan vote. 

No, wait. Republicans won’t let that happen either. 

Back in 1993, the only time D.C. statehood has come to a vote in the House of Representatives, it was defeated 277-153 with 151 Democrats, one Republican (Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland) and one Independent (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) voting for it and 172 Republicans (including Maine’s Olympia Snowe) and 105 Democrats voting against it.

OK, it wasn’t all Republicans to blame in ’93, but it likely would be this time, if HR 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, ever comes to a vote.

In April, the House voted 216-208 along party lines to make D.C. the 51st state. But the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass anything important in the Senate probably dooms the measure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has called D.C. statehood “full-bore socialism.” Of course, anything that isn’t totally self-serving looks like socialism to Republicans.

My first reaction to D.C. statehood was that a city-state doesn’t make much sense in the 21st century. And if you were going to turn a city into a state wouldn’t you start with New York, Chicago, or LA? And if you’re concerned about D.C. residents not having representation in Congress, wouldn’t it make more sense to have folks in Washington vote in Maryland or Virginia? In fact, that’s exactly what they did until 1801.

From 1801-1961, however, D.C. residents couldn’t vote in federal elections at all. Since 1961, they have had three Electoral College votes and since 1970 they have had a non-voting member of the House.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established that a district or territory needed a population of at least 60,000 to apply for statehood. The District of Columbia is home to some 714,000 citizens, more than live in Vermont and Wyoming and half as many as here in Maine.

In terms of physical size, D.C. strikes me as too small to be considered for statehood. Little states like Rhode Island (1,045 square miles) and Delaware (1,954 square miles) at least have a thousand square miles. 

The city that was to be called New Columbia in 1993 and now would be known as the State of Washington, D.C., in which D.C. would stand for Douglass Commonwealth to honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass, is a tad smaller (68.34 square miles) than Portland (69.44 square miles). 

Personally, I kind of like the idea that members of the U.S. Supreme Court who live in D.C. don’t get to vote for the senators who confirm them. And statehood for D.C. could open a Pandora’s Box of statehood for Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Island, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not sure there’s enough room for all those stars on Old Glory.

When Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a vehement opponent of Critical Race Theory (the idea that systemic racism exists in America), objected that the proposed State of Washington, D.C. would not be a “well-rounded working-class state,” Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-New York, who is Black, replied, “I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word ‘white.’” 

Yep, systemic racism exists in America. It is a core value of the Republican Party.

The reason Republicans oppose D.C. statehood is that the nation’s capital is 50 percent African-American and 77 percent Democrat. That’s good enough for me.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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