The District of Columbia has a new mayor, and she is redoubling the effort to make sure D.C. becomes the 51st state.
“I said we’d forge a new path for statehood and full democracy in the District of Columbia – and today we launch an amped up federal and regional presence from the mayor’s office,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said after she took the oath of office Friday. Though Bowser has yet to release the details of her office’s statehood effort, the announcement comes after Bowser said during the campaign that she would build a regional and national coalition to support D.C. autonomy.
Some of those regional officials were present at her inauguration ceremony at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center Friday morning. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, county executives from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, Alexandria, Va., Mayor William D. Euille and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter were all at the ceremony.
Announcing the statehood push was the closest Bowser came to referencing the relationship between D.C. and Congress during the inauguration. Instead, her speech focused on a positive vision for the city while acknowledging that D.C. faces a number of challenges, including economic inequality, crime, obtaining affordable housing and ensuring a quality education.
Joining Bowser on stage were new and re-elected councilmembers, including Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents the Capitol Hill area. Allen called his district "a snapshot of our city."
Other dignitaries directly addressed D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress and the ability of federal lawmakers to wield their power over the District. New At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said she witnessed the District’s relationship with Congress first-hand as a reporter.
“I saw the real Washington, D.C., the city that thousands of residents call home,” said Silverman, a former reporter for the Washington City Paper and Washington Post. “The city in which more than 600,000 voices can be silenced by just one in Congress. That is wrong.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who kicked off the inauguration ceremony, said District residents should stay positive and not despair now that Republicans have a wider majority in the House and control of the Senate.
“For me, every election brings a term that is new and fresh and happy,” said Norton, who was elected to her 13th term in November. “And this year I have already cheered myself up as I welcome the new Republican House and Republican Senate,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
“But not to worry -- yet,” she added. “Your new mayor, Muriel Bowser, is on the case."
The District delegate pointed out that she has spent most of her career in the minority in the House and that the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over D.C. have both expressed support for Home Rule .
Norton did not acknowledge that incoming House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the likely Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have also said Congress has a role to play in the District and are both opposed to D.C. statehood.
The D.C. statehood movement made strides in the 113th Congress, with the first Senate hearing on statehood in two decades. But, with Republicans in control of both houses, Norton acknowledged that the movement would face opposition.
“Now this may not look like the best time for us to obtain statehood for the District of Columbia,” Norton said. “But, my friends, this is the moment to build a strong movement to make the District of Columbia the 51st state of the United States of America.”
Norton will also be working to obtain voting rights in the Committee of the Whole on the House floor, though she has not been granted those rights in previous Republican Congresses. She will have help from Bowser, who will join Norton at a press conference on Capitol Hill Monday morning to call on House Republicans to give Norton a vote.
Norton’s name came up again when the District’s first elected attorney general, Karl A. Racine, took the stage after he was sworn in. He cited the District delegate as one of his role models.
“While we have made substantial progress in the District, our residents still do not control their own destiny,” said Racine. “Like Congresswoman Norton, as your first elected Attorney General, I will be fierce and unyielding in defending the will of the people, including initiative 71.”
Racine’s statement was met with applause, and pointed to one of his first challenges in office: a legal standoff with Congress over marijuana legalization in the District.
In November, 70 percent of residents passed Initiative 71, legalizing possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in D.C. But Congress moved to block the initiative from taking effect by attaching a policy rider to the year-end spending package. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he still plans to send the initiative to Congress for review, and he will have the support of the District’s top lawyer.
For D.C. autonomy advocates, the conflict over the marijuana initiative is a symptom of the larger problem of a lack of self-governance. The struggle for democracy in the District rang through nearly all of the elected officials' speeches Friday morning.
“We have got to find a way to invigorate our citizenry to fight for statehood,” Mendelson said after he was sworn in. “I do not know the winning strategy, but I do know this: I will continue our fight for budget autonomy, I will send Initiative 71 to Congress as required under the Home Rule Act, and I will work with our mayor and with our congresswoman to ensure no erosion in what limited Home Rule we have.”
Despite the challenges ahead for autonomy advocates, Norton reminded District residents – and her colleagues in Congress – to stay positive, saying, “Cheer up, D.C.,” several times in her address.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing for Congress to do but also cheer,” Norton said. “Cheer our city and be grateful for its leadership.”
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