As students from across the country and globe flood the streets of Washington, D.C. in anticipation of a new academic year at one of the District’s numerous colleges and universities, they may be unaware that their West Georgetown neighbors, D.C. Public Schools elementary school tutees in Ward 7 and many more of the over 665,000 individuals who call the District home, lack many of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens.
While the D.C. statehood movement has yet to gain sustained traction on university campuses in the District, statehood activists and area students say that the movement has serious implications for all of those who call the District home.
A History of Inequity
Since 1801, the District of Columbia has been under the control of the federal government — Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution giving Congress exclusive authority over the District. It was not until 1961 and the passage of the 23rd Amendment that D.C. residents gained the right to vote in a presidential election, and only in 1973, with the D.C. Home Rule Act, did District residents gain the right to elect their own mayor and city council. Today, D.C. is the only democratic national capital in the world whose residents lack voting representation in their representative body.
The District currently appoints two nonvoting shadow senators, Michael Brown and Paul Strauss, to lobby on behalf of D.C. representation in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has represented the District for over 13 years, and while the congresswoman can introduce legislation and vote in committee, she still lacks the right to vote.
“She’s tenacious; she gets a lot done. I can only imagine what she’d get done if she had a vote and we had two senators on the other side standing there to help her out,” Georgetown University Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Scott Fleming (SFS ’72) said of Norton. Fleming’s unique role as a representative of Georgetown’s interests to Congress would likely be affected by a win for statehood.
In recent years, the District’s lack of legislative and budgetary autonomy has come to the forefront with several issues such as Congress’ refusal, until 2007, to use federal monies to fund D.C.’s needle exchange program and the addition of a volatile constitutional amendment to a D.C. statehood bill introduced in 2009 that would have effectively repealed the District’s gun control legislation.
“We’ve had women’s reproductive rights laws interfered with, we’ve had our gun laws interfered with, we had our needle exchange program overturned. We’re tired of being used as a test tube or as a wedge social issue to pump up any particular member of Congress’ reputation back in their home district,” David Meadows, spokesperson for Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At Large), said.
Coupled with the fact that the District is home to a population larger than that of either Vermont or Wyoming and a gross domestic product higher than that of 15 U.S. states, Meadows sees this political pawning of the District’s residents by members of Congress as the raison d’etre for the statehood movement.
Statehood & Georgetown
The implications of statehood are visible even here on the Hilltop. To Fleming, D.C.’s lack of representation is a daily reality that shapes the everyday work of his office as he lobbies for Georgetown’s interests on the Hill.
“I work with my counterparts at universities across the country, and when we’re working on an issue everybody else who’s not in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands has members of Congress they can go talk to,” Fleming said. “Georgetown and [George Washington University] and Howard [University] … we have a nonvoting delegate. She is an amazingly hardworking woman and where she is able to be of help she is … but we have shadow senators and Congresswoman Norton doesn’t have a vote.”
To overcome this challenge, Fleming draws on Georgetown’s extensive alumni connections in Congress, which currently include seven senators and 14 members of the House, though even these powerful networks have their limitations.
“Many of them are open to hearing about things that are important to Georgetown; however, they were not elected to represent us, they were elected to represent the district and states from which they come — I’m not foolish, I understand that’s their first priority,” Fleming said.
In 2012, the university successfully partnered with a coalition of congressmen to posthumously secure the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Jan Karski, a former Georgetown professor and Polish leader who fought tirelessly to expose the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We had a lot of members of the House and Senate, not just Georgetown alums, involved,” Fleming said. “Because [Karski] was a particular hero in Poland and to Jews, we worked with members who had heavy Polish and Jewish populations or who happened to be either Jewish or Polish to get this done.”
Yet, apart from with university administrators, the statehood movement has gained little traction on Georgetown’s campus.
“It hasn’t really become as vocal of an issue as it needs to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of students supported statehood; I think just finding venues for students to voice their support for the movement is important,” D.C. native Emmanuel Thomas (COL ’18) said.
While the university does not currently have a D.C. statehood advocacy group, statehood activists see D.C.’s student population as an untapped, and necessary, population of support.
“There are about 85,000 college students in the District. They utilize city services, they live in our neighborhoods, they deserve to have the same representation as every other citizen,” Meadows said. “College students are full-time residents just like the rest of the city, and they need to understand that when Congress impedes the rights of D.C., they are impeding the rights of Georgetown University students.”
Ward 8C Advisory Neighborhood Commissions Commissioner and GW student Markus Batchelor founded the GW Statehood Student Association in 2011 to harness this population.
“Young people are going to be at the forefront of this issue because they have the time, energy and passion to devote to causes. We want D.C. statehood to make sense for the nation — if you’re going to be taxed, you should be represented, and the fact is that people in our nation’s capital aren’t,” Batchelor said.
In April 2012, Batchelor and several members of the Statehood Association were arrested after marching from GW to the Capitol and blocking traffic on Constitution Avenue.
“It started a conversation on campus. Some people thought it was a great idea, some people thought it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of, but with an issue like this the largest detriment to the cause is for people not to know about it,” Batchelor said. “We started a campus-wide conversation. For a lot of folks it just made sense, and that was our largest goal.”
Pulse of the Movement
In August 2015, television host John Oliver dedicated a segment of his late-night HBO program “Last Week Tonight” to the issue of D.C. statehood. The segment, which has since drawn over 2.8 million views online, shed light on the key concerns of statehood activists including the District’s lack of budget autonomy, Norton’s restricted voting rights and Congress’ use of riders to block D.C. legislation.
“For the first time in 20 years we have a statehood bill in both the House and Senate. We had John Oliver, a nationally syndicated comedian, do a whole 17-minute segment and that sparked a national conversation,” Batchelor said. “We have a mayor committed to advancing the statehood cause. We’re seeing District residents realize the power of our voice even though we don’t have it on Capitol Hill.” Indeed, Mayor Bowser has consistently given her utmost support for full voting rights and statehood since her election.
President Barack Obama had previously lent his support to the movement; in a July 2014 town hall meeting at the Walker Jones Education Campus, a public school in northwest D.C., Obama said simply, “I’m in D.C., so I’m for it,” in response to a question on statehood.
All three Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential election — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — have publicly expressed their support for D.C. statehood.
Yet for all the press given to the movement in recent years, statehood activists bemoan the makeup of the current Congress as one unsuitable to the passage of legislation in favor of D.C. statehood.
“The partisan makeup of Capitol Hill doesn’t make it ideal for a statehood bill to even get out of committee right now,” Batchelor said.
Given the likelihood that the two seats in the Senate and single seat in the House that D.C. would gain with statehood would all be filled by Democrats, local politicians see it as an unlikely reality given the current Republican control of Congress.
“I think it comes and goes. We have little victories here and there, but as far as getting to a point where Congress or the administration at the moment are solidly behind it … it seems elusive at the moment,” D.C. Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said.
Brown agreed, optimistic that the movement’s longevity could withstand a few extra years of pushback on the Hill.
“The mood has increased and our activity has increased but it’s hard to judge what kind of impact were having — we’re certainly not going to get this legislation through an all-Republican House,” Brown said. “But the good news is that body changes every two years, and this is a struggle that has gone on for 214 years so hopefully when the stars align it’ll happen.”
While the university has remained mum on the current statehood movement, it has previously thrown itself behind issues related to D.C. statehood and helped to galvanize student support for the movement. In February 2007, University President John J. DeGioia sent a leader to then-House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging favorable action on the District of Columbia Fair and Equal Rights Voting Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation that would give D.C. a voting representative in the House.
“We worked with College Democrats and Republicans and had a table in Red Square where students were writing letters to their own members of Congress asking them to sign those letters [in support of the Act]. Sometimes I will encourage students to get engaged with things, and in that case I did,” Fleming said.
Though the university has yet to issue an official position on statehood, Fleming is confident that, when the timing is right, Georgetown will join the movement.
“I feel comfortable saying that statehood would be something we’d be supportive of. And if there is a real legislative push to achieve that, we would weigh in and it would become part of the things we’re pushing on the Hill,” Fleming said.
However, Fleming noted that timing is of the essence.
“I don’t think the university going out on a full-fledged push for statehood in a vacuum would make a whole lot of sense,” Fleming said. “Now, if there is movement happening and we become part of the movement. … That’s how you get stuff enacted.”
D.C. resident and student Noah Nelson (COL ’18) thinks that DeGioia lending his voice to the statehood movement could rally students behind the issue.
“President DeGioia is probably recognized around the United States and world as a leader of an important university. I think it’d be great if there was some way students could meet with him and voice their concerns and the issues that arise when D.C. is denied these fundamental rights,” Nelson said.
In the meantime, activists, area politicians and university administrators alike will continue to await D.C.’s moment in the spotlight.
“For all the progress we’ve made as a country, we’ve seen the promise of America really fall short right here in the capital,” Batchelor said. “Statehood isn’t hard — we’ve done it before; we’ve done it in the past 50 years, twice! Let’s do it again.”