It's been nearly 50 years since a president mentioned District of Columbia autonomy in the State of the Union address, but D.C. activists and leaders are hoping 2015 will be the year President Barack Obama brings the D.C. statehood effort to the national stage.
“I think this is an opportunity for President Obama to stand up for what I think is a moral cause and bring national attention to it,” said Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood. In July, Obama voiced his support for D.C. statehood during a town hall meeting in Northwest Washington, though activists questioned whether the president would put his words into action. These activists acknowledge that one way the president could contribute to the cause is by mentioning the statehood movement in his nationally televised address Tuesday.
Past efforts to press the the president to discuss statehood in the speech have been futile, as Obama has not mentioned it in his last five addresses. Although this year, as the president gives his address before Congress, he will also look out on the new D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser, who will be attending the speech as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton's guest.
Obama endorsed Bowser in her mayoral campaign and, though Bowser's office did not return requests for comment on whether she hopes the president will address statehood in his speech, Bowser has said that she plans to ramp up the statehood lobbying effort.
Part of that effort would likely include lobbying members of Congress to support the New Columbia Admission Act, which would make D.C. the 51st state. Norton recently reintroduced the bill , which garnered a record number of co-sponsors in the 113th Congress.
Norton has also pushed for Obama to mention the statehood effort in his annual address. She told CQ Roll Call after the 2014 speech that she had written to the president, even sending him past State of the Union speeches that addressed D.C. autonomy (the most recent being President Lyndon B. Johnson's speech in 1966). According to her spokesperson, Norton has continued to ask the president to address the issue.
"The Congresswoman, of course, uses every opportunity to encourage President Obama to continue to build on what he has already said about D.C.’s disempowered position in the Union, and particularly about statehood," Norton's spokesman, Benjamin Fritsch, wrote in an email. "District residents regularly bring this issue up to be included in the President’s State of the Union address."
This year, some D.C. residents took matters into their own hands, signing a White House petition urging the president to advocate for D.C. statehood. Burch started the petition in early January and discussed the effort in a recent phone interview.
“I started the petition because it’s the third year in a row that I’ve actually written a letter to the president," Burch said. "I’ve been advocating for this for a few years but I wanted to find a better venue for more people to say that they agree with me.”
So far, the petition has garnered nearly 1,300 signatures, far short of the 100,000 necessary to warrant a response from the White House.
“I don’t think we’re going to make 100,000,” Burch admitted, but he said the petition has raised awareness about the quest for statehood. “When I look at the signatures on the petition itself, people from over 40 states have signed ... It shows that there is support from around the country."
For Burch, the statehood movement does not just affect District residents but is a national issue that goes to the very core of American values of freedom and equality. A phrase synonymous with the founding of the nation, "Taxation Without Representation," is plastered on D.C. license plates to highlight the fact that residents pay federal taxes but do not have voting representatives in Congress.
“This impacts the entire nation," Burch said. "This is 660,000 citizens who are living within a political structure that’s contrary to the principles on which this nation was founded."
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said misunderstanding about the District's political situation is another reason why the president should give the movement some national attention in his annual address. Mendelson said the president's statement in support of statehood over the summer makes the chairman hopeful Obama will give a nod to statehood on Tuesday.
When asked what he would like to see the president discuss in the speech in a recent phone interview, Mendelson said, "Absolutely a reaffirmation with regard to [Obama's] support for self-determination and equality for all district residents.”
"This is a position that cannot be stated often enough because most citizens of the United States do not understand the unique status of the District," Mendelson pointed out. "There’s a huge misunderstanding and so the more that there’s public discussion of our situation, it only helps us.”
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.