On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
As the results of the 2020 elections continue to trickle in, the journey toward D.C. statehood may be in jeopardy. In June, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 51, a bill that would admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state in the union. However, chances of the bill passing in the Senate in the next Congress seem slim, as Senate Democrats will not likely win a majority.
We talk with the host of 51st, a podcast from WAMU that covers the history of the District’s fight for statehood, what statehood might mean for D.C. and how advocates are fighting for that future. But — in this electoral limbo — how realistic is that future?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast the pandemic has left many of us missing family and friends. Some are turning to furry companions to fill the void. We'll talk about the rise in pet adoptions in the region. But first, in June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make the District of Columbia the 51st state in the union. Many hoped that this week's election would turn the Senate blue and democrats might push D.C. statehood forward. That did not happen. And in any case, the road to adding another state to the union likely still wouldn't be easy.
KOJO NNAMDIWAMU's podcast 51st tackled all of the issues around D.C. statehood. It's last episode recently dropped. And joining us now is Mikaela Lefrak who is a Reporter at WAMU and host of the aforementioned podcast 51st about D.C.'s fight for representation. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.
MIKAELA LEFRAKHi, Kojo. It's always great to be here.
NNAMDIAlways good to have you on. You've just aired the last episode of 51st. What has creating this podcast exploring statehood been like? And why was now the right moment for this discussion?
LEFRAKYou know, it's been such an interesting learning experience for me, Kojo, because even though I grew up in Northern Virginia, very close to D.C.'s fight for representation and the push for statehood, they just were not part of my school curriculum. And, you know, talking to a lot of D.C. residents, they felt the same way. This is such a huge issue for many folks here, but there's not a lot of education about it.
LEFRAKSo one of the things that was most fascinating for me was hearing how the statehood movement has grown over the years and kind of come to a hilt right now in 2020. So we, you know, looked at how the COVID epidemic and the funding that Congress was doling out, how that was affected by D.C.'s lack of statehood. We looked at the social justice protests that occurred in D.C. and across the country this summer and how the response -- particularly how President Trump deployed the National Guard in D.C. in reaction to the protests, how that tied in to D.C. statehood.
LEFRAKAnd then, of course, we looked at big House bill, HR-51, it was the first time this summer that that House of Representatives passed a bill supporting D.C. statehood. So it felt like a really, really important time to dive into this issue. And the response has been great. We've even heard from some local high school teachers, who say that they have been using the podcast in their local history classes, which is just the best feeling ever.
NNAMDIMikaela, what would statehood mean for the residents of Washington D.C.?
LEFRAKWell, it would mean some pretty big changes. Of course, we would get two senators and voting representatives in Congress, which we don't have right now. Right now the District has a delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she can't vote on any final versions of bills. We would also get local autonomy. So complete control over our budget and our local laws. Right now Congress can step in and essentially block D.C. from spending money on local issues, which it has done. For example, we can't spend money on creating a tax and regulate system for recreational marijuana, which we haven't voted to legalize here.
LEFRAKCongress can also block local laws. One example of that is that it tried, but failed to block D.C. from passing Death with Dignity legislation, also known as physician assisted dying. And then lastly, the other big changes that statehood would mean D.C. has to assume a bunch of costs over things the federal government currently pays for such as its prison system and its court system.
LEFRAKSo it would lead to a lot of changes. And then lastly, you know, we would probably have a new flag or a new star on the American flag.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Bo Shuff, Executive Director of D.C. Vote. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about D.C. Vote and what statehood in your view would mean for the District?
BO SHUFFAbsolutely. D.C. Vote is a 20 something year old organization working to ensure equality for the residents of the District of Columbia. We've worked over the years on things like budget autonomy and legislative autonomy. And then for the last four years have laser focused on the issue of D.C. statehood. And I think Mikaela really sort of summed it up pretty well on what the changes would mean, but the most important one is that it means equality. It means that the D.C. residents -- the folks who live here and call this place home are treated just like everyone across the country. And that can't really be understated.
NNAMDIBo, statehood for D.C. was part of the Democrat Party platform this time around. What has that meant and is there more awareness now than there was in the past about statehood around the nation?
SHUFFThere is. D.C. statehood has been off and on in the Democratic Party platform for a number of years. It was there in 2016 as well, but awareness has absolutely increased, and some of those -- the things that increased it were the key moments that Mikaela was mentioning, the protests and such. But also it's been a sustained education campaign that D.C. Vote and other organizations, Neighbors United and Stand Up for D.C., etcetera, have been engaged in over the last really -- some of the organizations for 20, 30 years, some of them for just the last four since the ballot initiative, and expanding awareness of the issue across the country by utilizing relationships with organizations and coalitions that are working in the voting rights and in the equal justice basis.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Walter Smith, the Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed. Walter Smith, thank you for joining us.
WALTER SMITHThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWalter, for our listeners who may not be familiar with D.C. Appleseed, tell us a little bit about the kind of work D.C. Appleseed does especially pertaining to D.C. statehood.
SMITHAll right. Well, D.C. Appleseed like D.C. Vote has been around for over 20 years. And we work on nearly every issue facing the city and greater democracy for D.C. has been a focus of ours for a long time. We were involved in the effort to get an elected attorney general. We helped defend the Budget Autonomy law. We brought a commuter tax lawsuit. We brought a lawsuit to get us voting rights back in the 90s. And currently we have another voting rights lawsuit for D.C. as to which we're filing an appeal to the Supreme Court next week.
NNAMDIWe'll talk a little bit more about that shortly. But can you remind our listeners what the process would look like to admit D.C. to the union as a state.
SMITHWell, it can be admitted as a state just through simple legislation. The Congress of the United States doesn't have to amend the constitution. It can just pass a law giving us statehood. That's how all of the states have come in. And D.C. to its credit has done a lot of preparation to be ready for that drafting a constitution, passing a referendum locally showing that people are supportive of this and the city has been preparing in other ways for when the statehood bill passed in Congress to be ready to transition into full statehood.
NNAMDIWell, you said D.C. has already prepared a constitution, but despite the fact that if it passes both houses of Congress, is it as simple as that? What are the constitutional and maybe some legal issues that can still be raised?
SMITHWell, people may raise some, Kojo. And the people who have opposed statehood have tried to raise constitutional objections. But I think that there are no serious arguments to be made constitutionally against the Congress passing a law giving us statehood. I mean, one thing that people often say is, well, how can the nation's capital be a state? Well, the fact is that what is being proposed is that only part of what is now the District of Columbia would become a state. But the federal city, the seed of the government would still remain intact. It's only the part of the District now that is an urban area like others that would become a state. So I don't really think there are serious constitutional objection. The objection is for those who don't want to see us get full voting representation.
NNAMDIHere's Leah in Arlington, Virginia. Leah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEAHHi, thank you, Kojo. It's an honor to speak with you. First I want to thank Mikaela for producing this amazing podcast -- she and her team. I am 60 years old, a native Northern Virginian and I did not know the history of the city of D.C. wanting its statehood. So it was fascinating. I've shared it with a lot of people. I think D.C. deserves statehood. And I hope that in my lifetime that we do see that happen. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Mikaela, as you see, you have influenced at least one 60 year old in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Was one of the intentions of this podcast to really educate people around the region, who may not be familiar with exactly what statehood means for the District?
LEFRAKOh, definitely. And I just want to say thank you to the caller for saying that and for sharing the podcast. That means a lot to us. I think one of the things that I kept hearing time and again as I talked about the show with friends and family across the country was how little people outside the District and outside the D.C. region know about this push for statehood or know about what D.C.'s situation actually is.
LEFRAKYou know, even friends who were very politically involved, very interested in the news, they had no idea that say D.C. has 700,000 residents, but doesn't have any representation in Congress. And they were really interested to learn, not just about statehood but about the different ways that D.C. has fought to change its situation over the past, you know, 230 years. So it's been really important to me to kind of provide a way that people can learn about this issue in a way that's also engaging and fun and interesting and hopefully sometimes even makes you laugh.
NNAMDIHere's Benjamin in Northeast Washington. Benjamin, we only have about a minute left in this segment. But go ahead, please.
BENJAMINYeah. Well, I truly believe that within my lifetime -- I'm only 26, that I'll see the District of Columbia transition to the Douglas Commonwealth. A lot of young people I know in D.C. are extremely confident that this will happen and super motivated to make it happen. So hopefully we can get some proper representation in the next couple decades hopefully. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing the optimism of youth with us about statehood in the District of Columbia, Benjamin. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the chances for statehood for the District of Columbia in the wake of what's going on in this week's election. We're talking with Mikaela Lefrak who is the host of WAMU's podcast 51st about D.C.'s fight for representation. She's a Reporter at WAMU. Bo Shuff is Executive Director of D.C. Vote. And Walter Smith is Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed. Walter Smith, you were mentioning earlier D.C. Appleseed is currently involved in a lawsuit that you believe could be an avenue for getting voting representation. Can you tell us a few details about the case?
SMITHYes. This is a lawsuit that D.C. Appleseed helped to bring on behalf of a number of residents in the District, working with our pro bono lawyers at Harris Wiltshire and Grannis. The lawsuit argues that it's unconstitutional that District residents don't have full voting representation in the Congress of the United States. A three judge federal court ruled against us, but we believe it's a case that need to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. We will be filing our notice of appeal with the court next week.
SMITHI'm hopeful that the court will hear the case on the merits and it will be briefed and argued sometime next spring and decided next June. And one of the great virtues of the lawsuit I think is it will help do something that Mikaela was talking about. I think one of the reasons why we don't have full democracy here in the District is that the country doesn't know we don't have democracy.
SMITHAnd I think having this case in the Supreme Court of the United States will let the country know that people who live in the capital don't have full democracy. And I also think there's a reasonable chance we will win this in the Supreme Court, because the court has said many, many times that the right to vote is fundamental under our constitution. In fact, it's the right upon which all other rights turn. I just say one other thing, Kojo, I think having the lawsuit pending works hand in hand with the statehood movement because both the lawsuit and the statehood bill, I think, help together to bring visibility to our lack of democracy and gives us two ways to get there.
NNAMDIAnd you think that despite the obvious conservative tilt of the Supreme Court at this point, the chances are still good for this lawsuit to succeed?
SMITHI do, Kojo, because I believe that the right to vote and the right to autonomy has never been and should not been at least in the courts a part of an issue. Whether you're Democrat or Republican or Independent the right to vote has been declared fundamental by lots and lots of conservative justices. And I think that we have a reasonable chance of persuading a majority of this court that that is so.
NNAMDIHere now is Daniel in Alexandria, Maryland with an issue that comes up every time we have this conversation. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELThank you so much. I just have a simple question really. I'm hoping to find out the answer why we can't just give that portion of D.C. back to the State of Maryland and let the people vote through that state rather than needing a whole new state? And with that I'll hang up and listen. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you, Daniel. In addition to Daniel's call, Bo Shuff, Phil in Logan Circle emails, "Both Arlington and Alexandria also did not have a vote for about 50 years. The solution was retrocession. Arlington and Alexandria went back to Virginia and now have full representation in Congress and full vote. Regardless of solution, a much, much smaller federal enclave must be carved out and defined. The rest of the city retrocedes to Maryland and problem solved." To which, Bo Shuff, you say what?
SMITHOh, I say a number of things. This does come up pretty frequently. And I will give credit to the folks who are in favor of retrocession for being persistent if not numerous. We hear this quite a few times. But it's just not a solution that's workable for a number of reasons. First of all the most important is that neither of the folks in D.C., those of us who live here nor the folks in Maryland who live across the border are interested in this solution in a popular way. It doesn't win in public opinion polls. It doesn't win at the ballot box.
SMITHThat D.C. statehood was favored by D.C. residents by 86 percent. In fact, the leading retrocession individual was on the ballot just two days ago and received less than two percent of the vote here in the District. So it's just not a popular one. Secondarily, the retrocession to Virginia ignores the actual facts of the case, like, they did not go back to Virginia to seek increased freedom. It was the opposite. It was to maintain slavery.
SMITHAnd so to base an idea of representation on the roots of slavery is just so problematic in a number of ways. And finally I'll just add that D.C. was part of the State of Maryland for just two years. And there's absolutely no reason that 705,000 people should have to erase or modify their identity in order to gain equality. That's not just how we do things in this country. We expand equality and we expand representation and we expand constantly what equal rights means to include more and more populations and more and more identities. And that trend should continue.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, this is one of the issues you explored in your podcast 51st. Why does it elicit such strong reactions in your view?
LEFRAKOh, boy. It really, really does. And, Kojo, I'm sure you remember on the last time I joined you on this show we had a number of callers talking with us about retrocession. I mean, part of the issue is that, you know, this has become such a partisan debate. You know, if D.C. becomes a state we'll get, again, senators and representatives in Congress. We are an overwhelmingly Democratic region, and so those representatives are going to be Democrats more likely than not. So I think one of the reasons that, you know, a lot of folks not everyone, but a lot of folks talk about retrocession as another solution is because they don't want those additional Democrats to be in Congress.
LEFRAKThe other reason -- I agree with Bo is that there's a lot of folks who I don't think know that the history of D.C. the history of Virginia's retrocession, which as he said was an effort by slave traders in Virginia to preserve slavery to preserve their businesses while D.C. was talking about getting rid of slavery. This is something that we talk a lot about in the first couple of episodes in the podcast. And I think knowing that history will hopefully help people understand why not everyone in the District and in Maryland is interested in retrocession.
NNAMDIWalter Smith, the filibuster provides another stumbling block for the statehood movement. Can you explain how that works and how that might be overcome by statehood supporters?
SMITHWell, under the filibuster, as you know, it ordinarily takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate, which means that even if the Democrats were to regain control of the Senate they're unlikely to have 60 votes. And so the only -- if Republicans are otherwise going to be across the board opposed to this the only way to pass a statehood bill in the Senate would be to override the filibuster. Either override it just for statehood if that were possible or override it completely. So it would be difficult.
SMITHBut can I just say one other thing on that issue? I mean, I was part of the effort some years ago to get a voting rights bill passed in both houses of Congress to give us at least the vote in the House. And through a lot of work and persuasion that bill passed with Republican support.
SMITHNow maybe that couldn't be done today, but I believe that even if the Democrats don't retake the Senate, the effort to persuade Republican senators will and should continue, because I believe many of them see as I said before that this should not be a partisan issue at all. Democracy and the right to vote belongs to all of us.
NNAMDIMikaela, in the minute or so we have left in the final episode of the podcast you spoke with both Tom Sherwood and yours truly. And you discussed what D.C. as a state would look like and we discussed what it's like to cover this as a journalist. How have you as a local journalist navigated your own feelings about D.C. statehood?
LEFRAKWell, yeah. We talked about it a lot, Kojo. And I really valued those conversation and your insights. You know, it's a complicated one I think. As a journalist I pride myself on objectivity around, you know, the vast majority of issues that I cover. On the same note, I am a D.C. resident and the issue of D.C.'s fight for representation directly affects my life. It's impossible to hide that fact, and it would almost be a little silly to try to hide that fact from our listeners. So yeah, in the last episode we go into how to cover an issue like statehood that's so political, that's so partisan, while also being honest about how we feel. And so I hope people take a listen. You could hear what my own personal thoughts are. I'll save them for the podcast.
NNAMDIAnd mine too.
LEFRAKAnd, Kojo, yours as well.
NNAMDIMikaela, Bo, Walter Smith, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about the rise of pet adoptions in this region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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