In the mid-1970s, D.C. voting rights activists pushed for a D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which called for treating the district “as though it were a state” to allow for voting representation in Congress. It won support from staunch conservative senators like Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (under pressure from his Black constituents). “Human rights begins at home, here in the nation’s capital,” Thurmond intoned as the Senate passed the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment in 1978.
But in the past 40 years the Republican Party has become unalterably opposed to D.C. statehood. “New Right” activists targeted the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment as it moved to the states for ratification, with Pat Buchanan attacking it as an “affirmative action program to guarantee two Blacks in the U.S. Senate” and Phyllis Schlafly claiming that it would give “special privileges and power to Washington bureaucrats” (even though a majority of federal workers lived in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs). With support from President Ronald Reagan, these conservatives helped defeat the amendment by 1985. Since then, Republicans have opposed all efforts to expand voting rights in the district.
Democrats, meanwhile, have wavered. Though many supported statehood in principle, they were unwilling to spend political capital to make it happen. They had their best opportunity in 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The district’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and “shadow senator” Jesse Jackson, lobbied hard for a statehood bill.
Republicans mounted a spirited opposition, with Tom DeLay of Texas arguing that the district was a “liberal bastion of corruption and crime” that should be stripped of the franchise altogether. Before this barrage, many Democrats scattered. President Clinton, who had endorsed statehood on the campaign trail, made clear that he had other priorities. The House Democratic leadership considered statehood a symbolic issue and neglected to broker the deals necessary to pass it. Left free to vote as they wished, some Democrats opposed the legislation for all manner of parochial reasons. All but one Democrat from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs voted against statehood fearing that a new state could impose a commuter tax on their residents, for instance. The bill died, 277-153. It was, an angry Mr. Jackson declared, “a lost opportunity for Democrats and democracy.”
Today’s Democrats have promised a robust agenda that includes restoring the Voting Rights Act, fighting voter suppression, fixing gerrymandering and fighting hard for D.C. statehood.
For the more than 700,000 voteless residents of the District of Columbia, for their own self-interest and for the sake of American democracy, they must make good on this promise if they secure the Senate and the White House in November.
Chris Myers Asch teaches history at Colby College. George Derek Musgrove is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They are the co-authors of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
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