The Forgotten Inequality

If I asked you to name the specific inequalities D.C. suffers from, what would you say?  Well, the District doesn’t have any votes in Congress, that’s basically all there is, right?  Wrong.  Those more in tune with the movement might even toss around phrases like “budgetary and legislative autonomy,” but those are the tired words of a broken record movement.  Some have even asked if the people of D.C. can vote for President, which is, embarrassingly, a perfectly reasonable question.

The story goes that a Russian official poked fun at the fact that the citizens of the capital city of the free world were being denied even the most basic democratic rights.  In response to the embarrassingly accurate criticism launched at them from the “Commies,” of all people, the Congress proposed what would become the 23rd Amendment.  Following its ratification, residents of the capital were finally allowed to vote for President in the 1964 election and many saw it as a huge step towards equality.

But Congress made sure that the victory would be bittersweet for the citizens of D.C.  In plain language, federal lawmakers guaranteed that if the District must be allowed to vote in presidential elections, then it ought to be treated as something other than a state.

“A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.”

The text speaks for itself, but allow me to emphasize a few points.  Congress very intentionally limited the number of electors D.C. could receive to the same amount as the least populous state.  According to the 1960 census, the District’s population was greater than that of 11 states, and had it been a state (or had Congress chosen to treat it as such for the purposes of the Electoral College) it would have been entitled to four electors.  Instead, D.C. was awarded three electors, the same amount received by Alaska, whose population was less than one-third that of the District.

This issue is particularly disturbing to me because Congress had to go out of its way to make sure that District residents were treated as second-class citizens.  It was as if they said, “The District of Columbia shall always be treated as something other, and less, than a state.”  They could have saved a couple lines worth of ink, but Congress instead decided to spit in the face of both basic, common sense, democratic ideals and the 750,000 residents of D.C.

If it sounds like I’m angry, it’s because I am.  The federal government has consistently insulted the principles of basic human rights that the founders believed in when they wrote that “all men are created equal” and bloodily fought to end taxation without representation.  Almost 250 years later, their message has not been lost.  Each insult only serves to unify this great city in our struggle for pure, irrevocable equality.

Statehood matters.

Joshua Matfess

President, Students for DC Statehood

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SfDCS Presents Mike Panetta

Mike Panetta is the outgoing DC shadow representative who has just finished his second term within the office. Panetta was originally elected to the position in 2006 and has served his official capacity as a staunch advocate for DC voting rights and federal representation from 2007 to 2012. Panetta ran for office on his glowing record as a political PR consultant and was able to use his talents in several high profile campaigns in an attempt to make DC voting rights a national issue.

Panetta graduated from American University in 1993 with a B.A. in Political Science and immediately earned his M.A. in Political Science in 1994, also at American University. Panetta would go on to be an award winning public affairs campaign strategist who specialized in using the internet and social media for grassroots advocacy. His work as a political consultant earned him top honors from the American Association of Political Consultants, the Public Affairs Council, and George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet.

Panetta’s efforts to raise the profile of DC residents’ second class citizenship include several high profile campaigns. Panetta helped to start the District of Columbia Olympic Committee in 2005 which sought to bring attention to DC by lobbying the International Olympic Committee for equal Olympic representation similar to other US territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico. Panetta has also lead efforts to rename RFK stadium as the “Taxation without Representation Field.”

Originally hailing from Connecticut, Panetta views DC as his adoptive home and the deserved 51st state of America. 

What Exactly Stands in D.C.’s Way?

To state the obvious, Americans love democracy. Since the Civil War, every single war America has fought in has been in the name of either the growth or defense of republican ideals. The fourth of July is celebrated as the birth of democracy. Our soldiers fight and die in the name of it. Little elementary school kids have elections to practice it. Jack in the Box puts freedom in a commercial and people buy more burgers. Even a huge piece of our foreign policy is about spreading democracy globally so that people who live in places we can’t pronounce can vote for their leaders.

Yes, from the Halls of Montezuma to shores of Tripoli, everywhere Americans will support democracy… except somehow in the halls of Lincoln and the shores of the Potomac. How can this be? How can a people who fight for freedom so fiercely not give representation to Washington D.C.? The truth is, most Americans support D.C. statehood. A 2005 poll showed that 78% of American assumed D.C. had full congressional representation, and when told it did not, 82% of the people polled favored there getting it.

No, the problem comes from two places. Everyone knows that the Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the time of day, and that the balance of power could be tipped one way or the other if new members were to enter congress. The District of Columbia leans heavily democratic, and the Republicans don’t want to take the hit. The second problem is really on us. The American people love democracy, but in that earlier mentioned poll, 78% of the participants didn’t even know that there was a problem in the first place. People know what is right and just, but they need to know what’s broken before they can fix it.

Today D.C. statehood is one of the biggest non-issues in American politics. Americans will stand up for democracy, but they need to know what the problem is in the first place. When a corporation is doing something morally wrong, nobody acts because they don’t know what’s going on. But when a brave person blows the whistle, everyone jumps in to make sure justice prevails. If you, the reader, wants to make a difference, all you have to do is blow the whistle about D.C. When America hears you, justice will prevail.

What is a Shadow Representative?

The shadow representative is the intangible influence cast by the hundreds of thousands of DC residents without a voice in the United States government. Because DC is not a state, nor has equal voting rights, its citizens do not have any legitimate representation. Although since 1991, the people of DC have been electing a proverbial “government in waiting;” A symbolic gesture to show Congress and the rest of the country that DC is able and willing to achieve an equal level of democracy as the rest of the country.

This government in waiting consists of two shadow senators and one shadow representative. The primary role these elected ambassadors of DC serve is to lobby congress for equal voting rates and ultimately statehood. At times it can be a thankless job though; one cut out for those truly called to serve Washington, DC. The shadow representative doesn’t get an office or staff on the Hill, instead they reside in an office in the Wilson Center and receive no staff, no paycheck, and no authority to address the floor of the House of Representatives. The shadow senators and representatives have to use non-traditional channels of power to mobilize Congress, DC, and the nation towards DC Statehood.

The man currently seeking the position in hopes of raising the office and the issue of DC statehood to national prominence is Mr. Nate Bennett-Fleming. Mr. Bennett-Fleming is running unopposed for the position on this November’s ballot and has shown remarkable drive and passion for the position and for DC. Mr. Bennett-Fleming is a local DC native from Anacostia who first became involved in DC’s pursuit of statehood when he interned for DC’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, while in high school. After high school, he attended and graduated from Morehouse College, which lead him to intern at both Goldman Sachs and Blackrock. He continued his studies both at the Berkeley School of Law and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Currently, Mr. Bennett-Fleming is back in DC working to advance the rights of all its citizens.

Mr. Nate Bennett-Fleming will be speaking to American University students about his passion for the statehood cause and his experiences and motivations in pursuing office on Tuesday October 16th, at 8pm.

D.C. Statehood: A Step Forward for Minority Politics

If the District of Columbia were to become a state, over 620,000 American citizens would be granted voting representation in Congress. But D.C. statehood could potentially serve as an even larger symbol of progress for our American democracy because of the prominent role it will play in advancing the voices of minority citizens. Washington, D.C. would be the only minority-majority state in the union if it were to become a state. According to the 2010 census, just over half of the residents of the district are black. It would therefore not be unreasonable to speculate that the citizens of the newly formed state would elect two black senators.
D.C. has a long and proud history of black political leadership that continues until this day. The potential senators from the district could bring a new perspective on an immense variety of issues. But why would D.C. play such a unique role of bringing black legislators to the national stage? Because there are currently no black senators in office. Of course all of the fifty states have black and minority populations; the problem is rather that disproportionately few minority candidates make it to office. Since the end of slavery, there have only been six black senators. If D.C. were to become a state, there could potentially be a sustainable voice speaking not just on the behalf of the residents of D.C., but more extensively to the black and minority populations throughout the entire country.
It would be presumptuous and arrogant to assume that the potential senators from the district would be a symbol to all blacks throughout the country, much less all minorities. The black community obviously has members that span the entire spectrum of political beliefs and opinions. But it would not be an undue extrapolation to assume that more black senators and national politicians could inspire and speak to future generations of blacks and minorities within the country. D.C. statehood would almost certainly grant more power to the black community.
It is important to be aware of this scenario because racial politics are rarely brought up in political discussions, especially ones on the national scope. Demographically speaking, the fact is that white men make up the overwhelming majority in Congress. In effect, demanding statehood means demanding that those same men allow unfamiliar faces to join their ranks. The fact that the unknown intimidates Congress is understandable, but no amount of cultural unfamiliarity can justify denying hundreds of thousands of individuals the right to federal representation.

Why Should Students Care About D.C. Statehood

If you are not a D.C. native, then you probably just moved to the District within the last few years to study at American University. Odds are that you care more about writing essays, applying for internships, or finding the biggest party this weekend than you do about empathizing with the disenfranchisement of District residents. We get it. Statehood is no small goal and does have far reaching implications. Advocating for statehood has far more serious consequences than advocating for a smoking ban or bottled water ban on campus; if D.C. were to become a state, it would fundamentally alter the current landscape of the federal government, Congress, and democracy in general. As someone from the 50 states or any other democratic nation, it may be difficult for you to understand why statehood is so important to the people of D.C. You may not realize the importance of having a governor, senators, voting representatives, or local budgetary and legislative autonomy. So just why should you, an American University student, care about D.C. statehood?

Two reasons. One, while you may not realize it just yet, you are a resident of the District if you are a student at American. You are studying as a full time student from August to May, and because AU students tend to be wonky or career focused, you probably stayed for the summer to take more classes or get an internship. Regardless of your situation, you spend a clear majority of your year in the District, under local laws, using D.C.’s public infrastructure, which is paid for using D.C. taxpayers’ dollars, including taxes you pay while at AU. D.C. statehood would immediately grant you the full benefits of living, working, and playing in a real state. Two, regardless of your political persuasion, allowing the District to become a state is the right thing to do. Every day over 600,000 United States citizens are denied their democratic right to representation and local self-government. For example, the District of Columbia has no senators or voting representatives in Congress, so the people of D.C. had no one to speak on their behalf regarding such paramount issues as the invasion of Iraq, the bank bailouts and stimulus spending, Obamacare, or the debt ceiling debacle. The question of D.C. statehood should interest anyone who values the tenets of democracy that are the foundation of our government.

But I Already Have Representation

If you just moved to Washington, D.C. and just started classes at American you have probably heard a lot about voter registration. At least one well-meaning petitioner has probably already asked you if you are registered to vote. Some of these petitioners might even have asked, “Well now that you live in D.C., would you like to register to vote here?” To which you most likely responded, “No thanks, I am already registered to vote back home, where my vote counts.”

Odds are your vote does mean more back in your hometown. It matters more because your hometown is in one of the 50 states. The absentee ballot you cast will help you potentially win more electoral votes for your favored presidential candidate, help elect congressional representatives and senators that best represent you, help elect a strong governor, and help elect state legislators to send to your home state’s capital. If you are from a state, you are already receiving the full benefits of having lived in a state, why would DC becoming a state benefit you at all?

The fact that the District is not a full-fledged state casts many implicit disadvantages on anyone who lives in D.C. Your home state is able to raise its own tax dollars, create its own budgets, and spend its own money however and whenever it wishes to because it is an official state and the federal government has almost no oversight over budget issues. DC and its residents, however, are at the mercy of Congress and the president when it comes to passing local legislation, including the annual budget.

The District is able to collect its own tax dollars, mostly through property and income taxes, however Congress will not allow the D.C. Council to tax those who commute from Maryland or Virginia. Every time you buy something at a store, get a paycheck, or ride the Metro, D.C. is raising revenue just like any state would. Despite this, local legislators can’t decide when and how to spend that money. D.C. officials can propose a budget, but the U.S. Congress can amend any and all of it. In the past, Congress has intervened in topics ranging from publically funded abortions, medical marijuana, gay marriage, needle exchange programs, and gun regulations. If any single member of Congress disapproves of something D.C. would like to spend its own money on, he or she can delay the budget appropriations process through filibuster or other delay tactics. This can make something as essential as passing a budget extremely difficult.

But maybe you find publically funded abortions, medical marijuana, gay marriage, etc. to be morally or politically wrong. Maybe you approve of someone in Congress putting their foot down on controversial issues. Well, you are still out of luck too. When the District’s budget gets held up in Congress, D.C. can’t afford to hire new police officers or firefighters, can’t afford to fund the public schools, can’t afford programs to help the many homeless residents, can’t afford to maintain the streets and public transportation, and can’t afford to help you. Every time the D.C. budget is held up in Congressional appropriations, D.C. services are held up for you. And we all know how great Congress is at agreeing on and passing budgets, right?

If D.C. were a state, you could still vote either in your home state or in D.C., which would be free to act in the best interests of its residents, and maybe Congress get something done nationally.