After Georgia's runoff elections and the Capitol insurrection, is D.C. statehood on the horizon?

After Georgia's runoff elections and the Capitol insurrection, is D.C. statehood on the horizon?

On Wednesday, Democrats won control of the Senate, as both Democratic nominees triumphed in their respective Senate races in Georgia’s runoff elections. That same day, pro-Trump extremists attacked the Capitol, disrupting Congress while it was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The insurrection has raised many questions about federal interference in D.C.’s local affairs, and the District’s lack of representation in Congress, which could have prevented the riot.

We’re speaking to Mikaela Lefrak, host of WAMU’s 51st podcast, about the latest news on D.C.’s fight for statehood and what lies ahead.

Produced by Richard Cunningham



  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, experts answer your healthcare questions as enrollment ends for some public options. But first, last week was a big one for D.C. statehood proponents. First, Democrats -- long shut out of the majority in the Senate -- won both critical runoff races in Georgia, making the Senate evenly divided and Democratic Vice-President Kamala Harris able to break tie votes. And when pro-Trump extremists attacked the Capitol last week and Capitol Police called on the District for backup, many noted that because D.C. is not a state, the mayor was limited in her options. Unlike a governor, she cannot activate the National Guard on her own. Activists say that statehood for D.C. is more important, now that ever. Could we see the 51st state soon? Joining us now is Mikaela Lefrak, WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter and Host of WAMU's What's With Washington podcast. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:01

    MIKAELA LEFRAKHey, Kojo. Always great to be here.

  • 12:01:05

    NNAMDIMikaela, last week, the Washington region was shaken to its core by that insurrection by pro-Trump extremists. A big question after the riot was where was the response from local and federal law enforcement, and why wasn't D.C.'s National Guard deployed earlier? What do we know about the response and about the District's role?

  • 12:01:24

    LEFRAKSure. And this was, honestly, you know, besides being kind of horrifying to watch play out, it was also very interesting since we've been reporting on D.C. statehood and issues with federal versus local control for months now as part of our 51st podcast. And we just released a special episode of that this week. And we dive into this question. So, why wasn't D.C.'s National Guard deployed earlier? Well, there's a lot of finger-pointing going on right now between different branches of law enforcement. D.C. is kind of unique in how many law enforcement divisions are here or near here, because the federal government is here. But it basically boils down to this: Last week, Mayor Bowser requested the assistance of the D.C. National Guard to help with crowd control during these pro-Trump protests, but the National Guard wasn't going to be armed. They were there solely to help with, again, crowd control. And it didn't have the authority to be on Capitol grounds.

  • 12:02:23

    LEFRAKThe U.S. Capitol is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Capitol Police, and they have to call in other law enforcement agencies if they want support. But then, on Wednesday, once the mob got to the Capitol, Bowser made another request. The U.S. Capitol Police were also requesting support. And because of the way that D.C. is set up as a district and not a state, there was a delay before the rest of the Guard was deployed to the Capitol to assist.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIWhat were the options available to the District's mayor?

  • 12:02:56

    LEFRAKWell, they're very different than what they would have been if the mayor were a governor. So, the National Guard technically answers to the president, because D.C. is not a state. So, in other states, the National Guard answer to the governor. And so, for D.C. the Secretary of Defense is really the one that handles all these National Guard deployment requests from the mayor. So, that means that, you know, even though Mayor Bowser was making these requests, they had to go through all these, you know, proper lines of communication with the federal government. And that's what led to the delay. Also, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has recently introduced this D.C. National Guard Home Rule Act, which would essentially hand control of the National Guard over to the mayor, so that it would function more like a state.

  • 12:03:50

    NNAMDIMikaela, many compared the District to a state, and one of the reasons that people do not like referring to the D.C. Council as the city council is because they said both the mayor and the Council have responsibilities that are more like a governor. So, they end up comparing the District to a state and the mayor to a governor. What is the reality?

  • 12:04:13

    LEFRAKWell, in some ways, you know, that is correct. We don't have, you know, a General Assembly or a State Assembly. But we do have this, you know, city council, the D.C. Council, and a mayor who has, in many ways, assumed the role of a governor. And D.C., of course, isn't the size of other states. You know, the mayor and the D.C. Council oversee around 706,000 people, which is greater than the population of Wyoming and Vermont. But, again, they don't have the same power that governors or State Assemblies do. Congress, for example, can override D.C.'s laws and budget. And we also don't have representation in Congress. There's no D.C. Senators, and we have a delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she is not allowed to vote on final bills. So, the authority there, the local authority is really quite limited.

  • 12:05:09

    NNAMDIHere now is Andrew in Potomac, Maryland. Andrew, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:05:16

    ANDREWHi, Kojo. I want to know, if D.C. was a state, how much differently do you think that these Capitol riots would have been handled?

  • 12:05:25

    NNAMDIIf D.C. was a state, as Mikaela Lefrak pointed out, the mayor would have been able, as governor of the state, to order out the D.C. National Guard. In addition, she would have presumably been able to allow the Metropolitan Police Department to have a larger role. Mikaela.

  • 12:05:44

    LEFRAKYes. That's exactly correct. The other thing that I found very interesting was that before the riots even occurred on Monday of last week, the D.C. Council kind of huddled with the D.C. Attorney General's Office to discuss the possibility of President Trump invoking the Insurrection Act, which would basically mean that the president could sort of take control of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department and kind of have greater power, even, than he does right now in the District. So, the main thing that I would say -- what it all boils down to, you know, there's so many different agencies, so many different lines of communication. But if D.C. were a state, you know, in a moment of chaos and insurrection, as we saw last week on Wednesday, the ability for our leadership, city leadership, to deploy law enforcement would have been much quicker, would have been much more straightforward. You know, even now, a week later, we're still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

  • 12:06:52

    NNAMDIWe saw a very different response from law enforcement during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Did federal intervention affect what we saw last summer, versus what we saw in the response to the Capitol insurrection?

  • 12:07:05

    LEFRAKCertainly. And this is something, you know, a lot of folks have been talking about in the past week. So, during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, and in the spring, as well, President Trump very quickly deployed National Guard and other federal agencies to counter these largely peaceful demonstrators. So, there was National Guard there. There was Secret Service. They tear-gassed people. They flew helicopters very low over the crowds. And it was -- you know, there's lots of photos going around of the National Guard standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and providing this very intensive presence here in the city. Compare that to last week, were, you know, it took hours for that same level of deployment to occur. You know, a lot of folks are pinning that either on, you know, the fact that these were Trump supporters that were here in the Capitol, and President Trump is the one ultimately in charge of deploying D.C.'s National Guard.

  • 12:08:08

    LEFRAKAnd then, you know, there's a lot of folks saying that this just some pretty blatant racism and a different way of treating black protestors versus last week's protestors, which were majority white.

  • 12:08:21

    NNAMDIAs we said last week, both Democratic nominees won their respective races for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. Democrats now effectively control the Senate, but barely, with the vice-president's tie breaking vote. What have you been hearing from local advocates about the likelihood of statehood with that new reality? And what can the obstacles still be?

  • 12:08:42

    LEFRAKWell, statehood advocates, I have to say, they are riled up right now. It's definitely put some winds in their sails. For example, I spoke to Stasha Rhodes last week. She heads up the statehood advocacy organization 51 for 51. And she said that watching Georgia turn blue has been a really motivating moment for her, particularly as a black woman and taking into account all of the years of work that black women political organizers did in Georgia. So, she sees this as this real moment for voting rights nationwide and right here in D.C. And then, of course, Mayor Bowser is calling for a statehood bill to be on President-elect Biden's desk within the first 100 days of his presidency. But the big issue standing in the way is the Senate and the filibuster. The Senate is going to have to end the filibuster in order to get a D.C. statehood bill passed and to the president's desk.

  • 12:09:40

    NNAMDIWell, here is Larry in Howard County. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:46

    LARRYHello, Kojo. Thank you very much. I guess I agree with the last statement. I do support D.C. statehood. Unfortunately, it's not going to pass just because of the filibuster. I do not support removing the filibuster. I still feel that the Senate does need that, so that there can be a sense of cooperation and discussion when it comes to passing bills into law.

  • 12:10:21

    NNAMDIMikaela, remind us of the role of the filibuster and what it could mean for that statehood vote, and what it would take to overturn it.

  • 12:10:29

    LEFRAKSure. So, for most legislation, it's not enough to get a simple majority of votes in the Senate to pass legislation. So, even though the Democrats currently control the Senate by just a hair. It's split 50-50 with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris providing that deciding vote. That's not enough. They would need 60 votes in order to pass a bill such as D.C. statehood. And the only way to -- that seems extremely unlikely right now. Not even all Democrats are on board with D.C. statehood, actually. So, they would need to change that rule. End the filibuster in order to get a statehood bill passed with a simple majority. And like the caller said, you know, there's a lot of folks who don't think that that should happen right now.

  • 12:11:19

    NNAMDIAnd we only have about a minute left. But here is Joanna in Ward 3. Joanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:25

    JOANNAHi, Kojo. Big fan of your show, and also of D.C. statehood. But I'm just wondering, even if D.C. were a state, the Capitol would still be part of the seat of government and not part of the state of --

  • 12:11:47

    NNAMDINew Columbia.

  • 12:11:47

    JOANNAYeah, New Columbia, whatever. And so, I just wonder what difference it would have made for the mayor's powers.

  • 12:11:58

    NNAMDIEither New Columbia or the Douglas Commonwealth. What difference would it have made, Mikaela? You only have about 30 seconds.

  • 12:12:03

    LEFRAKYup. That's correct. So, if D.C. were to become a state under this current bill, a tiny little federal district would be carved out that involves the Capitol and the National Mall and the White House, essentially. So, yes, there would still be those jurisdictional issues. The U.S. Capitol Police would still need to, you know, make a special request to call in the D.C. National Guard. But at the very least, the mayor could have called in the Guard to assist with the crowds who were just off, as they're marching to the Capitol, before they get to the grounds.

  • 12:12:32

    NNAMDIAfraid that's all the time we have. Mikaela Lefrak, always a pleasure. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, experts answer your healthcare questions as enrollment ends for some public options. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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