The insurrection, the inauguration and the urgency of D.C. statehood

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.

The Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021 and the two weeks of intense security in the central part of Washington D.C. that followed were a vivid reflection of the true powerlessness of the city’s residents on the national stage. As I reflect on the experience of living in D.C. over the last two weeks, I struggle to put to words the stark contrast between the celebratory anticipation I felt as President Obama’s first inauguration approached in 2009 and the hunker-down mentality that dominated the local discourse after the armed insurrection at the Capitol. Even so, I feel some optimism that the spotlight on D.C. — not just federal Washington — can bring about long-overdue changes to give the people who live here a voice.

Jan. 6 was an ordinary afternoon for most D.C. residents, even as Congress undertook the important task of confirming the Electoral College votes in the presidential election. Despite warnings of possible violence, we were shocked as images of a violent and deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol building and frightening first-person accounts from journalists, Hill staffers and members of Congress who hid from attackers in barricaded offices flooded the airwaves and social media. For us, these stories weren’t from faceless government employees; they were from our friends, our colleagues and our neighbors.

My phone buzzed with emergency alerts. I responded to text messages from worried friends and family who lump together the federal Capitol with my neighborhood. Soon, the D.C. Mayor imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. From my home in southeast Washington D.C., I heard an unending parade of sirens from D.C.’s local police force as they rushed toward the Capitol.

The Capitol riot provided a stark reminder of the deep divisions within our nation. The fear of the minority contrasted sharply against the hope of the majority. And, for D.C. residents, it was a reminder that we are stuck somewhere in between, perhaps hopeful but undoubtedly exhausted from centuries of federal disenfranchisement.

For nearly two centuries, the federal government ruled D.C. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Congress authorized D.C. to elect a city council and mayor that would be allowed to draft local laws. Even so, the federal government still has tremendous power over the basic functions of D.C.’s government. Congress reviews all laws approved by the D.C. Council and has the authority to veto provisions it doesn’t like. Federal law controls the heights of buildings in D.C., the legalization of marijuana, and even innocuous issues such as the legality of collectible antique slot machines. The president appoints D.C.’s local judges, and the U.S. attorney general prosecutes all local crimes, rather than D.C.’s own elected attorney general. D.C. residents endure this federal control without any representative or senator in Congress who can vote on our behalf.

The limits on local power mean that D.C. cannot take actions that its residents want and have democratically approved. It also means that over 712,000 people, despite living so close to the nation’s center of power, have no voice in the federal government. They lack the basic human right — a right central to the principles of American democracy — to have their votes count.

Joe Biden meets a baby outside his newly opened campaign office on Gilbert Street. Wednesday, Aug 8, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Growing up in Iowa, I learned about elections and the power of voting through the lens of the Iowa caucuses. Every four years, for months on end, Iowans have access to presidential candidates in both parties. They have the power to raise their concerns directly to candidates and then, on a cold winter evening, walk into a middle school gymnasium or community center to have their votes counted. As a kid, I eagerly attended caucuses, town halls and rallies alongside my dad. I recall the near-reverence with which Iowans across the political spectrum took to the vote; the excitement that their voices could — and would — make a difference in national politics.

The voices of D.C. residents have no such power.

In recent years, the call for D.C. statehood has gained momentum. Last year, the House approved legislation to make it a reality. But progress toward statehood has stalled. Rather than viewing statehood as a basic human rights issue, many people have made it a partisan issue. In doing so, they dismiss the voices of real people — people just like you who worry about the future, but have no power to change it.

In the eight years I’ve lived in D.C., I’ve often been exhausted and disheartened by this fight and the roadblocks opponents continue to put in our way. But we will keep fighting, knowing our cause is worthy and making a difference.

Just over a year ago, my grandfather, a lifelong Iowa Republican, visited our home in D.C. He chatted with our neighbors, walked on our streets and ate in our restaurants. He saw a D.C. different than the one that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh had described for years.

When we told him that we, as D.C. residents, do not have a voting representative in Congress, he was shocked. “That isn’t right,” he said. When he asked why, we informed him that the Republican Party was blocking D.C. statehood because our city will almost certainly vote differently than they do. He repeated, this time with a little more righteous indignation in his voice, “That isn’t right.”

It’s time for America to make it right. The D.C. that I live in and love is not a faceless government bureaucracy made up of temporary workers who return to their home states with the changing of each administration. We are a diverse, talented and resilient bunch of teachers, restaurateurs, healthcare workers, artists, lawyers, veterans (our city has more veterans per capita than any other in the country) and accountants who chose to make this city our home. We are citizens begging for a way to have a say in not only how our city is run, but our nation as a whole.

At least 25,000 National Guardsmen helped secure the Capitol prior to the Presidential Inauguration in Washington D.C., Jan 20, 2021. — Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.

In the days approaching the Presidential Inauguration, many D.C. residents spent too much time looking at Secret Service maps of the different security zones and road closures, trying to determine whether they could get to work, to a doctor’s appointment or to a restaurant to pick up takeout. Bridges in and out of the city were closed. (As I write this, two days before Inauguration Day, I learned that my neighborhood will be completely cut off from the rest of D.C. for 48 hours due to bridge closures.) American soldiers and military vehicles roamed the streets.

We admit, of course, that these inconveniences are the cost of providing security for federal Washington, and cannot be solved by statehood. They are something we accept because we choose to live here. But the militarization of our city does nothing to relieve the powerlessness that D.C. residents continue to suffer. It raises, instead, the urgent feeling that something must be done. That we need not accept the continued disenfranchisement and anti-democratic practices that have long stifled the voices of the people who call D.C. home.

The failure to provide D.C. residents with basic democratic rights is not a wrong that we can right on our own. The power to uphold this nation’s founding principles, to ensure that everyone has the right to have their voices heard, lies with you. We need you to urge your representative and senators to make D.C. statehood a priority. Just like you, D.C. residents deserve to have elected officials who can effectively speak for us and represent our interests. We deserve a voice in the federal government. We deserve to have our votes count. We deserve statehood now.

The Douglass Commonwealth

Frederick Douglass, 1879

By Paul Brennan

On Jan. 27, a group of Democratic senators reintroduced a bill to make Washington D.C. a state. Reintroduced, because the House overwhelmingly passed the bill in 2020, but Mitch McConnell wouldn’t allow it to be brought up while he controlled the Senate.

D.C. has a bigger population than Wyoming and a larger GDP than 16 states, but no representation in the Senate and only a delegate with limited voting privileges in the House. Since 1980, its citizens have steadily pushed for statehood. In 2016, they formally voted for it in a referendum.

As a state, the D.C. in Washington D.C. would change from the District of Columbia to the Douglass Commonwealth, in honor of the great Frederick Douglass, who liberated himself from slavery and became a leading abolitionist, orator, writer and civic leader.

Douglass lived in D.C. for the last 18 years of his life, and in 1877, he became the first Black federal officeholder ever confirmed by the Senate, after President Hayes nominated him to be Marshall of the District of Columbia.

Statehood isn’t a sure thing, but at least now it can be discussed in the Senate.

Rosie Romano is an Iowa native and a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law. Go Hawks! This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.

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