Why Eleanor Holmes Norton Is Optimistic About D.C. Statehood

Thirty years after the congresswoman’s statehood bill failed, she’s seeing a light at the end of the tunnel

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton at a hearing on the District of Columbia statehood bill. Photo: Carlos Barria/Pool/Getty Images

On Monday, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing to discuss H.R. 51, the bill to give the District of Columbia statehood. Under the legislation, the federal city would change its name to Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, keeping the same D.C. initials but now honoring famed resident and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, instead of invoking a personification of America whose name derives from Christopher Columbus’s. The town known as everything from “Chocolate City” to “this town” would finally get two U.S. senators and one representative in the House.

The bill, like so many touching on life in Washington, is the work of Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s longtime nonvoting delegate, to address the inequities suffered by residents. Among them: They pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the United States, yet lack representation at the highest levels of government. Norton has been lobbying for statehood for much of her 30-year career in Congress, and H.R. 51 was actually approved by the House last year but never reached the then-GOP-led Senate. Even now, given that the Democrats lack the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster, D.C. statehood faces long odds. Republicans have decried H.R. 51 as an unconstitutional effort to tip the electoral scales in Democrats’ favor, as D.C. residents overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

Norton spoke with GEN about seeking statehood for the city, why an earlier version of a statehood bill failed to pass the House 30 years ago, and how her own family’s history in the District affects her work in Congress.

GEN: Why is statehood such an important issue for D.C.?
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton:
Well, with H.R. 51, the District would be treated like every other state. You would have two senators, and Congress could never intervene in the District’s business, as Republicans seek now to do virtually every session by trying to override some bills or legislation passed by the District of Columbia. You can’t do that in, for example, our neighboring states, Maryland and Virginia. They can pass whatever they want. With statehood, the District of Columbia would be independent. You never see anybody in Congress trying to change anything that Wyoming, or California, or Virginia, or North Carolina does. It may try to make sure that bills are not passed, but those bills would affect all the states involved.

Proponents of statehood spoke at Monday’s hearing about how D.C. residents were “second-class citizens.” Can you elaborate on what they meant?
The District pays the highest federal taxes in the United States but doesn’t have the same citizenship rights as people who pay far less in taxes. Nobody can deny that the residents of the District of Columbia were among the first citizens — the District of Columbia was formed before most of the states. But the residents of the capital city don’t have the same rights as every other American.

How did that second-class status affect D.C. during the pandemic?
It initially manifested during the pandemic when the District was treated as a territory and denied $730 million. Of course, the District is treated as a state for federal spending, precisely because it pays federal income taxes. We were able to get that corrected in the trillion-dollar bill that just went through.

Speaking to NPR this week, you said, “We’ve gotten off of the wish list to an approach of a new reality.” What did you mean by that?
For most of my service in the Congress — and I’ve been in the Congress for 30 years — we were in the minority almost all that time. The moment we got in the majority, we were able to get D.C. statehood passed. I should mention that when I first came to Congress in 1990, the Democrats were in control. I actually got a bill on statehood to a hearing and a vote. I didn’t get the bill passed. Though we had control, many of the Democrats were Southern Democrats, and while they were good on many issues facing our country, D.C. statehood, that was a step too far. But this time, we were able to get the bill passed.

Getting the 60 votes in the Senate is going to be hard, yet in all your public appearances you’ve been optimistic about your chances.
First of all, we have 54% of the American people in support of statehood; that’s the most recent poll. In the Senate, look at what happened this year. The Senate was late in organizing because of all the opposition to the filibuster. The Senate doesn’t do anything anymore, and the reason for that is the filibuster. The filibuster is on its last legs. That puts D.C. closer to statehood than we have ever any chance of believing we would have. If you move to a talking filibuster, we’re on our way there.

Would you consider a Senate run if D.C. was granted statehood?
Oh, sure. After being the one who got them statehood and struggling all these years.

I suspect many people simply don’t understand the realities of D.C’s status.
Oh, yeah. I hate to say, but I think I may have caused some of that confusion. Because I have the same rights as every other member of the House, except the final vote on the House floor. And I suppose nobody looks at the 400-and-some people voting there. So I had chaired committees, I even vote in the committees as a whole. And most of the time, I’m speaking on the floor — although it’s often about D.C. statehood because I used whatever time I can to talk about it. I’m talking about every bill, just like every other member.

Last year’s hearings really clarified a lot for the American people. And that’s why I think you see that 54% figure in this poll. These hearings revealed what most people did not know: That the United States is the only democratic country in the world where the people living in their nation’s capital don’t have the same rights as everybody else. That does more good than all the lobbying in the world could have.

Your great-grandfather came to D.C. from Virginia. How does your family’s history and legacy shape your work in Congress?
While I do what I do for the residents of the District of Columbia, you cannot help but be from a family that has lived in this city for almost 200 years. As passed down to the Holmes family, when nobody was looking, my great-grandfather just walked away from slavery. He got as far as the District of Columbia. My own grandfather entered the D.C. Fire Department in 1902; that was an awfully good job for a Black person. You cannot have heard the story of your own family and not be moved by being the member of who gets the honor of carrying this bill.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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