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WAMU is debuting the newest season of its What’s With Washington podcast, called “51st.” This miniseries details the District’s fight to become the 51st state. The District has over 700,000 residents. They pay federal taxes. Yet they don’t have voting representation in Congress.
In many Washingtonian’s eyes, the federal government has treated the District unfairly and denied it self-rule. Earlier this year, the federal government gave the District $500 million for coronavirus relief, compared to the $1.25 billion given to the other states. The president also called the National Guard into Lafayette Square to forcefully remove protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, all without District permission.
Over the summer, The House of Representatives passed H.R. 51 to make the District the 51st state. It awaits a Senate vote.
How close are we to D.C. statehood, and what might it look like?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. WAMU announced this week that the podcast What's With Washington is debuting its newest season, called "51st," detailing the District's fight to become the 51st state. The District has over 700,000 residents who all pay federal taxes, but has no voting representation in Congress.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're talking about the latest What's With Washington podcast on statehood. Joining us now is Mikaela Lefrak, WAMU arts and culture reporter and a host of the What's With Washington podcast. Mikaela, welcome.
MIKAELA LEFRAKThanks, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIGood to have you here. Mikaela, tell us a little bit about this new season, about the What's With Washington podcast. What's it all about?
LEFRAKSure. So, "51st" is a six-episode season of What's With Washington, and it's all about D.C.'s fight for representation. So, it came about because I've been a District resident for about 10 years now, and I grew up nearby in northern Virginia. And my producer Poncie Rutsch and I realized this year that we don't really, really understand why D.C. is in the situation it's in, where we have no voting representation in Congress and Congress can nullify the city's laws. And fixing it has sort of become this really loaded partisan battle.
LEFRAKSo, the podcast really sets out to answer those questions. So, we look at the present day and how D.C.'s current status as a district affects residents. And then we also travel back in time and talk about the origins of D.C. and how, for example, racism has always, always affected Washingtonians' voting rights. So, the goal is to use that whole past to understand a way forward today.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Poncie Rutsch. I don't see you guys anymore. How is Poncie doing? Like all of our listeners need to know.
LEFRAKShe's doing great. I know, we miss seeing your face.
NNAMDIYes. All of our listeners need to know this. Mikaela, why are you choosing to cover this issue now?
LEFRAKYeah, it's a good question, because, of course, you know, D.C. has lacked full representation for basically the entirety of the last 230 years. But there are a couple of things that happened just this summer that made it really, really important in a lot of people's minds. For one, the coronavirus pandemic. So, D.C. got about half the amount of federal coronavirus relief funding than the states, even though it has more residents than two states.
LEFRAKThen there were the protesting and police brutality. This is a big one. National guardsmen and other federal law enforcement were in D.C. and using, you know, rubber bullets and pepper balls against peaceful protestors without the approval of local officials. And that really got a lot of people thinking about D.C.’s autonomy.
LEFRAKAnd then, of course, in late July, the House of Representatives passed this statehood bill, HR51. And that was the first time that the House has passed a bill supporting statehood, ever, in its history. And so, we have this major election coming up in November. And, you know, if by some chance Democrats end up with control of the House and the Senate and the White House, like, who knows? This could actually be a real possibility for the first time in a very, very long time.
NNAMDIMikaela, how did we get here? Why don't D.C. residents have the same rights as, say, Maryland residents or Virginia residents?
LEFRAKSo, bear with me, but I'm going to quickly bring you way back in time (laugh) to this attempted mutiny that happened in 1783. And I just learned about this, and I’m fascinated by it. So, basically, there were these soldiers in Pennsylvania, and they hadn't gotten paid yet for fighting in the Revolutionary War.
LEFRAKSo, they marched to Philly, which is where Congress was meeting at the time. And Alexander Hamilton and all these other Founding Fathers were, like, you know, we need support for the Pennsylvania government to keep these protestors away, which, you know, may sound familiar. And the Pennsylvania leaders were like, no, there's really not a threat here. Like, please calm down.
LEFRAKSo, Congress is mad. They run away to Princeton, and that's basically when they decide that the land around the new capital needs to be exclusively controlled by Congress, so they don’t have to rely on states to keep it safe. And so that's what they put into the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8. They say that, you know, Congress has this exclusive jurisdiction over the seat of the government.
LEFRAKAnd then they just kind of never really figure out what to do about D.C. voters. Congress changes the rules a bunch of times over the next 100 years. And then, you know, around the 1870s, they completely take away residents' right to self-govern. And that's basically the last time D.C. residents get to vote for local officials until the civil rights era. So, it's been a really long battle.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you'd like to join this conversation. What does D.C. statehood look like for you? Joining us now is Jamal Holtz, who is an organizer for 51for51 Statehood Campaign. Jamal, thank you for joining us.
JAMAL HOLTZThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIJamal, what do you see in your life as some of the consequences of D.C. not having statehood?
HOLTZYeah, I mean, Kojo, I think there's a huge fight happening right now and has been happening for years, right. And I think that the fight for D.C. statehood is a fight for equity, equality and justice. It's a fight to grant residents the full rights of their democracy. And, like Mikaela mentioned, like, there should not be a political conundrum. It should be treated as a human rights issue.
HOLTZSo, like, the fight for statehood over the years has always been about granting D.C. residents the rights that they deserve and having access to the seat of government that they live in, in the Senate. So, when there's votes and things happening on things that affect D.C. residents like affordable healthcare, the women's reproductive rights, gun control, all of the things that affect local residents in D.C., as well, we don't have a vote on those things. So, it makes me feel like I'm a second-class citizen, not being able to vouch or protest or to speak out for the issues that I care about, right.
HOLTZI grew up in a neighborhood where gun violence is pretty prevalent, in Ward 8, where young black and brown kids are always where they fall short of opportunities in our city. And a lot of that -- there's no federal direction or federal funds really supporting those local needs. So, when there's things happening in our city, it's very unfortunate that a Senator from Florida or a Senator from Wyoming has the say of what happens in D.C.
HOLTZWhen we talk about the overturn of D.C. gun laws and overturning some of the laws we've seen happening in D.C. over the years, those are things that we, as D.C. residents, care about. Not things that a Florida resident or a Florida senator should tell us how to mandate or to govern our own city.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, can you talk about home rule? What kind of autonomy does the District now have?
LEFRAKAh, yes, home rule. So, now, we're basically in the ‘60s, and the 23rd Amendment passes, which means D.C. residents can finally vote for the president of the United States again. And then a couple years later, in the early ‘70s, we get home rule. So, we can elect a mayor and city council. But there are some things that don't change.
LEFRAKSo, D.C. doesn't have any senators in Congress, and our delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, she can't vote on any final bills. Congress can also still invalidate any D.C. law that a local government passes, and it can basically refuse to fund certain initiatives they don't agree with, which they've, you know, done many, many times before. So, like, one of the big examples was in 1998, when this Republican-led Congress banned local funding for D.C.'s needle exchange program during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. And there's been a lot more examples, you know, in the past, you know, two decades of that happening, of D.C.'s local officials and voters getting stymied by Congress.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have a question or comment for us. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll get to your calls. Joining us now is Demi Stratmon, who is also an organizer for 51for51 Statehood Campaign. Demi, thank you for joining us.
DEMI STRATMONIt's so nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIDemi, when and how did you become aware and involved in the D.C. statehood issue?
STRATMONWell, growing up in D.C., you are always surrounded by subtle hints that you are different from other American citizens. For example, when we drive around, we see our driver's tags that say: “Taxation Without Representation.” And then when you're applying for colleges and they ask about instate tuition, this is just not an opportunity for you to be a part of. So, growing up, you're always aware that D.C. is not a state. That you, as Jamal said, are a second-class citizen within your country.
STRATMONAnd when I connected with Jamal, and we were discussing the presidential campaign in the trail last summer, we decided that it would be great for D.C. residents to go to these elected officials where they have the privilege to meet constituents and actually discuss why D.C. deserved that same model, why we deserve to have people to voice our opinions, too, and our feelings about where the country should be headed in the future. So, that's how I got involved with 51for51, and it's been a great journey from then on.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones, and you will not be surprised to hear what several of our callers are saying. I'll start with Joanna, who lives in D.C. in Ward 3. Joanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANNAOkay. Well, last night, I was watching the “PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff,” and she was interviewing Senator Barrasso from Wyoming. And he claimed that among all the terrible things he thinks the Democrats will do if they get elected is to make D.C. a state, just so there can be two more Democratic senators. He didn't mention, and Judy didn't mention, that Wyoming has a smaller population than D.C. And I thought it was highly questionable that he made that statement.
JOANNAI've lived in D.C. for a very long time, and I've been outraged about this, because I used to live in New York. And I could write to my congressman. I could write to my senators. My congressman even wrote back once and said, “It's always a pleasure hearing from you.” And not to have senators when there are appointments like to the Supreme Court or any federal court or ambassadors and Cabinet members, it's just an outrage that we who pay more federal taxes than any other jurisdiction in the country and more actual money into the treasury than 22 states, that we have no represent -- voting representation in Congress.
NNAMDIJoanna, thank you very much for your call. I think Julie in Washington has a slightly different sentiment. Julie, your turn. Go ahead, please.
JULIEOh, hi. Good afternoon, Kojo. I just wanted to make the point that I think Washington, D.C. being the capital is unique and makes Washington a very interesting place to live and work. And I'm not in favor of it becoming the 51st state. I think that would take away some of this unique power and prestige. And...
NNAMDI(overlapping) What's the unique power that you see in -- what's the unique power you see in D.C. not being a state?
JULIEOh, my God, the federal buildings, the green spaces, all the things that are preserved as, you know, federal land with federal funding that, you know, might not be maintained under a state jurisdiction. And, also, there's 50 states you could move to, including Maryland and Virginia if, for whatever reason, you know, the situation in Washington, D.C. doesn't suit you. I've lived here 25 years, and I've never seen any disadvantage to the current structure.
NNAMDIDemi Stratmon, how would you respond to Julie?
STRATMONFor sure. So, I would say, first of all, it takes away the point that we are very real American citizens here, you know. I had to grow up going to D.C. Public Schools. And just being involved in different communities and environments where we have no say in what goes on regarding gun violence, like Jamal said, regarding when our city is hit by a pandemic, and now we're shorted. We are -- I would like to just highlight what happened this summer, like Mikaela stated.
STRATMONWhen we were hit by this pandemic, we were not different from other Americans. It was a housing crisis that we were affected by. We had communities and hospitals that were ravaged. And for us to not be able to even have the same opportunities and funding as other Americans in places where, like I said before, they have less residents, and we are distinctly black and brown so there's different racial consequences, as well.
STRATMONWhen you put that into perspective, federal buildings are nice, yes, and it's lovely to be able to see so much of your country's history when you walk out your door. However, we still are living in this country, and we are still impacted by the different social movements and, just in general, political institutions and circumstances going on.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is...
LEFRAKKojo, do you mind if I jump in really quick? I just wanted to give a...
LEFRAK...response to the caller. I just want to say that the statement that she made about people being able to move if they're not happy with the District, I do think that statements like that can come from a place of privilege. You know, it's not so easy to pick up your entire roots and your family history. I hear that said a lot towards people who live in disaster zones, for example. Why don't they just move? And I think, you know, it's not as easy as that, and that's something important to remember.
NNAMDIThank you for making that point. Here's Marty, in Bethesda. Marty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTYWell, thank you very much. I enjoy listening to your show, and I've listened to it for many years. The idea of D.C. getting statehood is just problematic for a number of important reasons. I mean, the fact that the residents of the District of Columbia, as they currently are, they're just not capable of handling the responsibility of full management. In my view, while maybe unsatisfactory to your people -- you know, to many of your listenership, is shared by most members of Congress.
MARTYIn fact, many congressman, when asked why, has specifically said that the citizens living in the District of Columbia are not responsible enough. And when you...
NNAMDIWell, explain to me, Marty, and you seem to be about to do that, explain to me what you mean by that, that the citizens of the District of Columbia are not responsible.
MARTYSo, when you're talking about statehood, what you're talking about is the ability to handle all the responsibilities of being a state, which is -- think of it as managing...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Allow me to interrupt for a second. You do understand that the District of Columbia has, among its residents, the highest level of education of just about any place in the country. Do you understand that?
MARTYI look and see how the government has run. You've bankrupted the city. You've had a mayor that was a drug addict. You've had history of...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, Marty. Marty, Chicago had several governors who went to jail. I mean, Illinois had several governors who went to jail.
MARTYI agree with you. Chicago should not be a state...
NNAMDINo, Illinois. Illinois had several governors who went to jail. So, Illinois should not be a state?
MARTYThe (laugh) -- I think the last eight governors -- you're right. There certainly is examples of people performing poorly and doing things they shouldn't do. However, the state still operates, and it still operates as a well-run managed organization, even though we've had governors who've gone to jail and have done things they shouldn't have done. But the state still operates...
NNAMDISo, why wouldn't the District of Columbia, which has had a balanced budget and has been doing extremely well for the last 20 years, from an economic standpoint, why would the District of Columbia not qualify?
MARTYWell, if you stop and look at what other senators and members of Congress have said about the District of Columbia, they have all said, even the most stringent resistor, if you will, to the concept of statehood has said, given the opportunity to show good governance and given that opportunity to show it over a period of time. But 20 years, you know...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Okay. Allow me to interrupt because we're running out of time, and have Jamal Holtz respond to what you've been saying, Marty. Jamal.
HOLTZYeah, Kojo and Marty, what I think, the comments you're making, there's a huge educational gap that's happening here. And there's also a gap of (unintelligible) where Washington, D.C. is. Those Congress members you're referencing, I think, they don't know...
NNAMDIOh, oh, I think Jamal dropped for a second, there, but I'd like to get to three quick callers in a row, because this sentiment is being expressed a lot by people. Here's Max in St. Mary's County, Maryland. Max, your turn.
MAXHey, thanks for taking my call. So, everybody's missing the big elephant in the room. D.C., if you look at the map, it used to be a diamond. And the Virginia side was taken back by Virginia. If it's going to be a state, it'll be given back to Maryland. The land that D.C. has been given was from Maryland. If you want to be a state, you would have to fight to succeed back to Maryland. I mean, that's the history of...
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you...
MAX...that's the history.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Here's Howard, expressing a similar sentiment in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Howard, your turn.
HOWARDYeah, I agree with the previous caller completely. And the gentleman before him, I'm sorry, sir, but your sentiments are racist, and I am a person of European descent, and I totally reject what you have to say. But I think it's much more practical to take the nonfederal property -- the lady who said, oh, the federal property will go to Maryland, that's crazy. No. (unintelligible) federal property -- nonfederal property should be receded to the state of Maryland. The people in D.C. will get two senators and probably a representative of their own. And this is much more -- much easier to gain, I am convinced, than statehood. Thank you.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for your call. And finally, here's Rich in Fairfax County. Rich, your turn.
RICHThanks for having me on, Kojo. I love your show. I'll try and make this quick. So, I agree with the previous caller that D.C. should go back to Maryland for its representation. My problem with having D.C. as a state is then you would have two senators who are almost 100 percent fiscally invested in the size (sounds like) with the federal government.
RICHSo -- and I'll concede that I don't know a lot about all of the revenue of the state of D.C., but it seems to me that if D.C. were a state, its revenue would ebb and flow a lot based on the size of the federal government. And then one last quick comment. If there's going to be a 51st state, I think it should be Puerto Rico. Maybe D.C. could be 52nd.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for your call. Mikaela Lefrak, tell us how the What's With Washington podcast will deal with this, because it's a sentiment that you hear often, D.C. should just succeed to Maryland.
LEFRAKYes. That is something that we hear a lot. And we are definitely going to be getting into that, especially in the later episodes. One thing I will say right now, though, is that I think one of the main problems is that that doesn't have support of Maryland, and it doesn't have support in the District. They have two very different cultures, two completely different sets of laws and governments. And it's not so easy to just combine the two of them.
LEFRAKAnd I think there are also a lot of people who argue that, you know, just because land came from Maryland doesn't mean that, legally, that's the only way to fix this problem. There are a number of other ways to do it. But in the podcast, oh, my gosh, we talk to so many people, so we are -- I promise, we're going to get to all of these issues, both liberals and conservatives, as well.
LEFRAKOne of the most interesting conversations I had was with a very conservative constitutional scholar from the Cato Institute who goes through the constitutional arguments against D.C. statehood. And we had a really interesting back and forth. So, I'm very excited for those listeners who have called in who have a lot of skepticism about D.C.'s fight for representation to take a listen and kind of hear how we go through all of these issues.
NNAMDISuzanne tweets: My family lived in the District for 100 years. Too often federal government would assert control over their homes and businesses. The Great Depression was the last straw after the other financial setbacks. They moved to Maryland. D.C. needs representation. It is overdue. Demi Stratmon, how are you involving young people in the fight for statehood?
STRATMONFor sure. So, I am a huge advocate for believing that young people are the future of our country. And we will be hosting a virtual lobby day tomorrow, on where we have secured a 100 young advocates from around the nation, not just in D.C., I want to emphasize this, from around the country. And have secured them from 23 different states, where we will be meeting with senators, speaking to this issue of why D.C. statehood is a national issue, but also intersects with things such as gun violence, reform in the criminal justice system, and so on and so on. So, young people are fighting this fight. Young people feel and know that every American citizen deserves representation within their country, and they are leading.
NNAMDIWe heard from Skip by email, who expresses the similar sentiment to others: Why does retrocession back to Maryland not get any support as a compromise option that would grant D.C. residents representation? (unintelligible), same thing, D.C. should recede back to Maryland as Arlington did to Virginia. Then D.C. would elect Maryland senators, full representation. As I said, we only have a few seconds left, but, Mikaela, what else can listeners expect to hear on this podcast?
LEFRAKWell, I do want to say, too, that retrocession back to Virginia happened in the mid 1850s, so D.C.'s situation is entirely different than it was today. You can hear more about that and also about the history of Washington, race and racism and so much more.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, Demi Stratmon and Jamal Holtz, thank you all for joining us. Coming up tomorrow, what can local birds and books tell us about climate change? We'll hear from entomologist Mike Raupp and birder Orietta Estrada-Chaconas. Plus, Washingtonians have been turning to the outdoors for recreation and solitude. Author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley joins us to discuss how she's found solace in nature during a time of turmoil. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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