Washington, D.C., occupies a unique place in the American mind. The seat of the federal government byword for corruption and political impunity. But there’s more to D.C than conniving politicians or ambitious pundits. D.C. is the home of Howard University and a thriving Black middle class; the city’s population is still half Black despite recent waves of gentrification. Disenfranchisement is part of D.C.’s story, too. Although the district is more populous than either Wyoming or Vermont, it isn’t a state, and therefore doesn’t have any representation in the Senate. It does, however, have a diligent champion in Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has represented D.C. in the House of Representatives since 1991.
A civil-rights activist turned First Amendment attorney, Holmes Norton is a firewall between her constituents and conservative politicians eager to overturn or alter the district’s relatively liberal laws. Because D.C. isn’t a state, there are limits on her powers as a member of Congress. She can serve on committees, sponsor legislation, and vote on amendments in the Committee of the Whole, but she can’t vote on the final passage of a bill. She’s long fought for statehood, alongside local community groups, and that goal is closer than ever
After weeks of civil-rights protests highlighted D.C.’s second-class status, the House voted on party lines to approve the admission of D.C. as a state in June. But that bill faces an ill-omened future in the Senate, where Republicans have rallied against it. “Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction, and ten times as many workers in manufacturing,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas announced at a press conference. “In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state. A new state of Washington would not be.” Holmes Norton calls this ignorant, and it is — D.C. is indeed home to the working-class, much of it Black and Latino. Those workers just don’t have anyone to speak for them in the Senate when people like Cotton pretend they don’t exist.
But Holmes Norton believes that will change, and soon. She spoke to Intelligencer by phone to explain the history of the fight for statehood — and describes what victory would mean to the people of D.C.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you feel that statehood for D.C. is gaining traction in a way that perhaps it hasn’t before now?
Oh, I’m sure of it. For example, we needed 218 votes just to pass the bill, and we actually got 218 co-sponsors. So we knew it was going to pass. Before it was all over, we had 226 co-sponsors and more than 100 national groups in support. This has been building for decades, even before I came to Congress. We were ready to get this bill through at a time when the House of Representatives is not, in fact, passing many bills because we are at home. But this was regarded as a priority and it passed handsomely.
The argument for statehood is pretty straightforward: There are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have voting representation in Congress, and they should have it. Why do you think it’s taken so long to get the statehood fight to this point?
Well, I can tell you why it’s taken so long for me to get it. I have been in the minority for most of my years in Congress. I was in the majority for once, for only two or three years. At that point, I tried to get at least the House vote, because we had a Republican who had missed getting votes for Utah. I actually got that vote in the House, but Republicans attached an amendment on final passage that would have eliminated all of the district’s gun laws. So we had to leave the House vote on the table. This is the next chance we’ve gotten. And momentum has been building, at least for those who know.
Our great task now is to take this issue to the country. Many Americans think we have the same rights. They see me on the floor of the House, and I can do anything anybody else in the House can do except vote on final bills. So there is wholesale ignorance in the country. But with this great, great boost we’ve got, we’ve got a lot of momentum now to educate the Congress and the country and get the final passage in the Senate.
Has it ever been difficult to convince other Democrats to make statehood a priority for D.C.?
Not really. In fact, it’s interesting to note that we who are Democrats got the majority because of Democrats from majority Republican states. And I was a little worried whether they would come on to the bill. But a surprising number did. Every one of them voted for the bill.
What’s it like right now to listen to Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton describe the district as a place that doesn’t have a real working class, or is out of touch with the rest of the country?
I think it shows that Tom Cotton is not only ignorant about the district, and about how states become states, and what it takes to be a state. But he’s running scared. He sees the huge vote we got. He sees that some in the House of Representatives who voted for this bill are from red states. And so he held what he thought was a free press conference. But I think it only indicated the nervousness Republicans feel. And I say nervousness, because while things could change, the forecast at the moment is for Democrats to take control of the Senate after the November elections and President Trump is in even worse trouble, and is likely not to be president after November.
Cotton’s comments also whitewashed D.C.. Can you talk a bit about why statehood for D.C. is a civil-rights issue, too?
It’s long been a civil-rights issue. While the district today is about half Black and half white, historically, it had a large African-American population. It’s interesting to note, though, that for most of its 219 years as a nation’s capital the district had a majority white population and still couldn’t get all the rudiments of self-government. The presence of African-Americans deterred even getting minimal rights, even when they were nowhere near the majority. Race has played a part, and those who suffered for it also were the majority of whites who for most of our time as a city were in fact the majority.
How would statehood protect D.C. residents from federal overreach?
Oh, it would change things. The Congress at the moment can reach in and often does try to change laws in the District of Columbia because it’s a progressive jurisdiction. Conservative Republicans disagree with some of the things the district does. Statehood would mean that you can no longer change any laws in the district any more than you can change the laws in any state.
And perhaps most importantly, statehood would mean that the district would get two senators. As it is, even when I get bills passed in the House, I have to go to the Senate without any senator from the district to work with me. And yet we have more residents than two other states over there, Wyoming and Vermont.
We’ve talked about the political significance of making D.C. a state. But what would the emotional significance be for residents of D.C.?
Oh, there has been great joy in D.C. You can’t go on the streets without people speaking about what it means to them. I mean, you feel that you are not treated as an American citizen in your own country. It matters. And that’s how D.C. residents have felt. They are outraged and they have wanted this change for ever since the city was first made.
You may recall D.C. was created out of two states. Maryland and Virginia donated territory. The people in those territories, in those states, had voted. Once those two pieces of land were joined to become the nation’s capital, they lost the vote, and they went into the streets in 1801 to try to get their vote back. In other words, D.C. had the vote, only becoming the nation’s capital lost that territory the vote. Since D.C.’s creation, residents have been trying to get back what they lost.