Local officials in D.C. recently convened a convention to draft a constitution that would put the city on the path to statehood. Under the plan, the District would adopt a new name: "New Columbia." But some of those who've been on the front lines of the fight for statehood aren't thrilled about how the process has worked so far - and where it might be going.
Democrats from around the country are coming to Charlotte, N.C., this week to map out strategies for this year’s election. But advocates for the District of Columbia are hoping to force them to consider strategies to give D.C. voting representation in Congress. We chat with two D.C. delegates to the convention about what’s at stake for the District this week.
- Anita Bonds Chairman, D.C. Democratic State Committee
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Delegate, U.S. House of Representatives (D-DC)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDemocrats, gathered here in Charlotte this week, are focused like a laser beam on maintaining power in the White House and on Capitol Hill. But whether they're focused at all on providing residents of the District more political power remains to be seen. The push for full congressional representation for D.C. stalled during the Obama administration. And since then, the city's Democratic allies on the Hill have expressed little interest in picking the matter back up to try a different strategy, or in making the issue part of this convention itself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us this hour to explore whether the movement is likely to go from here or where it's likely to go from here and whether there's a Democrat or a Republican on the White House come January is Eleanor Holmes Norton. She's a member of the United States House of Representatives. She's a Democrat who represents Washington, D.C. Congressman Norton, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONOf course, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Anita Bonds. She's the chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Anita Bonds, welcome.
MS. ANITA BONDSThank you very much.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, D.C. has been able to find allies in the Democratic Party before. Congressional representation has been part of the Democratic Party's official platform in recent cycles, but not this year. What are your plans for raising the issue for D.C. voting rights here in Charlotte?
NORTONWell, we're in a platform with -- the word statehood isn't in the platform, but we have, for the first time, every element of statehood in the platform. We are pleased about that much because the platform calls for full and equal voting rights, for budget autonomy and no interference with the local government. In a nutshell, that's statehood. We would like to have had the word statehood in there. We couldn't get that correction in. But I don't...
NNAMDIWhy do you think that is? Why was the word statehood not included? What was the nature of the objection to the word?
NORTONWell, I think that -- I hope that's anomalous because, remember, we got the word. In fact, we got...
NNAMDIStatehood up until 2000, right?
NORTON...statehood until 2000. And I think what happened was, beginning in 2000, when we were trying to get voting rights -- remember, we almost got a House vote -- the platform wanted to stick with what was the major business before the House. And when they looked at the precedence, the most recent precedence, and we wanted to go back to statehood, we had some back-and-forth.
NORTONPerhaps most -- more seriously, for 20 years we've always gotten the opportunity to say our few sentences to rally the crowd because we don't get to talk to people under one roof who are our allies. And we had every reason to believe that that would be the case. We were on the list of the chairman of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But as we speak, as of now, I have received no notice, for the first time in 20 years, that the District of Columbia will be heard at the convention.
NORTONNow, there are some people still working on it. That's almost unbelievable because we are this far along, but I do know that to be the case because they know that we are not mollified by having this break with 20-year history.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, Anita Bonds, that both you and Mayor Gray pushed for Congresswoman Norton to be given a chance to speak to convention delegates this week. What kind of responses did you get?
BONDSWell, we did not receive a formal response. Indirectly and through the political system of the DNC, we were told that it possibly was not going to happen. In fact, as late as last evening, we were told that there are at least 88 people of great importance in the Democratic Party that were advised that they also would not be able to speak. And one of the excuses that we're hearing mostly is that it's about the change in the kind of convention we're having.
BONDSThis is a convention -- it will not be five days as -- obviously. It's going to be a three-day convention. And so when you cut out days, you cut out time, and then therefore some of our most important people, you know, tend not to have an opportunity. And we have to remember that the Democratic Party is a party of many, many different kinds of people, many important constituencies, and so sometimes it happens this way. And so we're hoping, though, that they will remember the District of Columbia because we feel we're unique.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, if you could speak to the convention here or you do end up having a speaking role, what do you plan on saying?
NORTONWell, I would try my best to make the Democrats understand that statehood is our priority, and that if we have to get there step by step -- and the step we're trying to take this year with some Republican support is budget autonomy -- then we need every Democrat in the United States who already has a senator or two and has a representative to be there and to be with us so that we can make it happen because we can't make it happen from the inside.
NORTONWe need others to make it happen. In terms of -- I do want to say in terms of the three-day convention so you will understand that we should not be mollified, we understand that. What we were looking for was some signal that the District of Columbia was still a priority, as it has been for 20 years. So when you look down your list of things you have to get rid of, we do not appreciate it that the District of Columbia was one of those things you have to get rid of.
NORTONAnd I want to say that for the record. We don't have a lot of opportunity for this party to embrace us. They have not always delivered for us when we have the House and the Senate and the presidency. Did we get statehood? Did we get voting rights? Did we get budget autonomy? No. So, at the very least, it seems to me this party ought to be going out of its way to do whatever it can for the District of Columbia, one of the strongholds of the Democratic Party in the country.
NNAMDINinety-two percent of voters in the District of Columbia voted for President Obama in the last election. The District is majority Democratic. It is reliably Democratic. But Washington City Paper columnist Alan Suderman wrote last week that when it comes to voting rights, it's hard for outsiders to take D.C.'s second-class status seriously when D.C.'s own elected officials are not being serious themselves.
NNAMDIQuoting here, "The city's often haphazard, halfhearted attempts at advocacy too frequently come off as little more than political self-promotion, and the results -- little to no significant progress on statehood, voting rights or budget autonomy -- speak for themselves." And last week we had Ben Jealous of the NAACP on The Politics Hour. He said that the District and its supporters need to be more militant in their approach. First, Anita Bonds, what would you say?
BONDSWell, you know, it's hard to get people, in general, to fight for what they want when they're fighting for jobs and they're fighting for their livelihood. And that tends to be the case still in the District of Columbia and many of the communities where you have individuals who are aware and understand and want to be engaged in the issues of fighting for statehood for the District of Columbia.
BONDSThe -- what I see is a situation where we sometimes don't know what to do. And when I say we don't know what to do, is it an attack on Congress? Is it an attack at a particular state level? Because we've tried so many strategies, and the strategies just seem to not work because we're fighting more than just something we want. We're fighting a way of life. We're endangering other species, so to speak.
BONDSOther states feel that we're going to take something from them. Even when we talk about commuter tax or talk about a right that some other parts of the country have, it seems to go sour. And so I just think we tried so many ways and so much that people become weary, you know, they're all lawyers, you know, they keep at it, and it's just not something on the tip of a person's tongue because we also enjoy a good life in the District of Columbia. I think if Mayor Gray were here, he would talk about how unemployment is down.
NNAMDIHe gets here tomorrow, right?
BONDSOK. Yes, he does. He would talk about that.
NORTONYou know, none of that has anything to do with your rights. And it does seem to me that that kind of criticism has to be accepted. It also has to be understood that when you've been fighting for your rights for 200 years, you can't keep a movement in full boom and fire for 200 years. I do think that you have to accept the criticism that we need to have a more consistent kind of movement.
NORTONThanks to D.C. Vote, which is the first, I think, stable organization we've had, and we've had it for 10 years, we have had an organization that has been responsive when things have gone wrong. But I don't accept the notion about militants because I can't think of nothing more militant than for the entire government to engage in civil disobedience, sitting down in the streets, in front of the Senate, as the mayor, city council and many citizens did, and then going over and doing the same thing at the White House.
NORTONAnd if I may say so, after that was done, there was some response from this administration. They sent their top people to see me. And the president since then has done every single thing we've asked him to do. So it does matter to stand up for yourself, to say I'm not going to take if people begin to notice it, whether they're your foes or whether they are your friends.
NNAMDII suspect, and I don't know why, that there is going to be some dramatic action taken at this convention whether by delegates or by D.C. voters or some other organization to demonstrate how angry D.C. voters and D.C. delegates may feel about this. But it has been suggested that among other things, a possible walkout by the D.C. delegation from this convention might be effective. What say you?
NORTONWell, for -- why will we walk out of the convention? Probably it would be little notice. We're up somewhere in the stratosphere.
NNAMDIYes. You guys got nosebleed seats, is my understanding, also.
NORTONYeah. I think that's not visible enough and I suppose we don't so much want to demonstrate against the convention. We want to get our rights. There is going to be a rally tomorrow. I'm not sure people have come down here to engage in civil disobedience, but I certainly think they ought to be outspoken. I don't think -- I think we ought to make it clear that while we appreciate all the Democrats have done -- they've been in our corner -- we hold them to a higher standard, and they need to meet that higher standard.
NNAMDIOur producers, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, ran into a group of D.C. statehood supporters last night here in Charlotte when they stopped for a bite to eat at the local barbecue joint Mac's Speed Shop. That group included Nate Bennett-Fleming, the Democratic nominee in this fall's election to be the District shadow representative on Capitol Hill. Here is what he had to say about what the city should be aiming to accomplish this week.
MR. NATE BENNETT-FLEMINGWe can't take anyone's support as a given. Politics is a very fluid thing. There's no permanent friends. There's no permanent enemies. They're just permanents interests. So what we have to do is make sure that we don't take the Democrats for granted. And that's why we're here, getting our message out to all other delegations on the grassroots level.
MR. NATE BENNETT-FLEMINGSo hopefully the delegations can send that message to the elected officials, and we can have stronger support even within the Democratic Party for D.C. equal rights and D.C. statehood. But at the end of the day, democracy is a fundamental right. It shouldn't matter if our government is not producing as efficiently as it should. We still should have democracy as something that we're willing to fight for.
NNAMDIThat was Nate Bennett-Fleming, the Democratic nominee in this fall's election to be the District's shadow representative on Capitol Hill. What kind of face do you think that we should be presenting this week, D.C. delegates, that is? And what hopes do you have for the rally that's being planned for tomorrow, Anita Bonds?
BONDSThe rally -- you'll find that there will be not just the District of Columbia delegates participating but they'll be others that are participating. I mentioned this morning at our morning breakfast meeting that even the state of North Carolina yesterday tagged on to their line when we were doing the mic check in the arena. And I support statehood for the District of Columbia. So there are some delegations that understand and feel very strongly, and they are with us. And that's a good thing.
BONDSBut as Nate said in his comments, I must add that it is important that we reach the grassroots because that's where the influence will be in the states and that we hope move up to and ooze up into Congress so that when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is there and she is fighting every day for us that she will get the respect that she certainly deserves as all of our elected officials deserve.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, who would you say are the most important people you'd like to be hearing your message this week at this convention?
NORTONWell, if -- starting with the president, I would -- and we're talking only about Democrats. Starting with the president, I would then go all the way to the bottom and say, as Anita says the grassroots, we have to rally people to our cause. For the first time, I think we have more people even knowing that we don't have our full rights. And what has been the saddest thing is to hear people say, I never knew you didn't have the same rights as everyone else, some basic information not out there.
NORTONThat's why the opportunity to talk to anybody even delegation by delegation but certainly the opportunity we've had for 20 years, this speaks that the entire convention was important to us not because of any hubris of wanting to speak but because we have a very special disempowerment and a very special position in the Democratic Party.
NNAMDICouncil members -- you mentioned strategies earlier. Council members tried it different with this year by targeting state governments for support, but they were slapped back pretty hard in New Hampshire. Any furthers plans to talking about -- for talking to state level officials gathered here at the convention this week?
BONDSWe actually have begun that process. You know, traditionally, the delegation from the District of Columbia fans out from hotel to hotel, talking to the different state delegations. It's a little more difficult here in Charlotte because they're in five different -- the state locations and the -- it's just really -- transportation is a problem, et cetera. But the convention center is a rallying point.
BONDSAnd as it is today, there are many delegates down for the caucuses and the council meetings, and that's where a lot of the lobbying is going. Also, I just want to add, at the state level as a state chair, every time I am in a meeting -- and that's four times a year -- I use the opportunity to say, and -- the District of Columbia that wants to be a state. And with your help, we can be a state, and they all know that. And I must say, even the great state of Montana, the great state of Wyoming, they are all -- it's saying they're in support of statehood for the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see...
BONDSNow, we have to get it at the real level where it goes.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see what is set here at this convention. I hate to tell you this, but did you know that the D.C. delegation at the Republican National Convention had great seats right next to the podium? We asked the chairman of the Republican National Committee in D.C., Bob Kabel, and he said, that's because a member of the D.C. delegation is a senior person within the Republican National Committee handling seating. So does the D.C. GOP have more access to the leavers of power than the D.C. Democratic Party?
NORTONOh, they did this time. They got a very hostile platform, but they got good seats.
NNAMDIThey did get good seats, which the D.C. delegation right now does not have.
NORTONBut could I just say this for the record?
NORTONWe don't think we should have the best seats in the House. We have seats near Maryland. We would like those seats to go to the swing states, so they could bring us a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate under a Democratic president.
NNAMDIWhat they would like is a greater voice in this convention.
NNAMDIWe'll see whether that happens. Eleanor Holmes Norton is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She's a Democrat representing the District of Columbia. Anita Bonds is the chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Thank you both for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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