Obama Fails to Mention D.C. Statehood During State of the Union

1/26/2011, 5:02 p.m.
President Says Nothing About Rights of D.C. Citizens...
President Obama tells members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate during his second State of the Union address on Tue., Jan. 25 in the House chamber that the key to turning around the economy is creating jobs. Photo by Roy Lewis

President Says Nothing About Rights of D.C. Citizens

The fight for the political rights of the District of Columbia was noticeably absent during President Obama's second State of the Union address, which took place on Tue., Jan. 25 at the U.S. Capitol's House of Representatives' chamber before a joint session of the U.S. Congress and a worldwide audience.

Obama, who said during the 2008 campaign for president that he would support statehood for the District of Columbia if elected, has yet to prove to many District residents and political officeholders that he is serious about helping the city's residents reach that goal.

The president's address focused on the dire state of the economy and how he plans to repair it; the latest on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; recognizing the heroes and sheros of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings that left six dead and 12 injured, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.); and a general pep talk about how Americans should feel proud about themselves even in these tough times. Nevertheless, Obama did not say anything about what many perceive as a gross injustice in his own backyard.

"Yes, I think he should have talked about statehood for D.C.," Michael Fauntroy, a noted political scientist who teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said. "He has talked about democracy in the Middle East and other places. He should have talked about it in D.C."

The District of Columbia has 600,000 residents, more than Wyoming and its citizens are eligible to be drafted into the military services and have to pay federal income taxes. However, the District does not have any representation in the U.S. Senate and has a delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who does not possess a vote on the floor.

The District also must submit its city budget for approval by the U.S. Congress, the only jurisdiction in the country that is required to do so. The president selects the city's local judges and its chief prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

The fight for D.C. statehood has gone on for decades. The city won the right to have three electors during presidential elections in 1961 with the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.

Limited home rule was achieved in 1973 by an act of Congress, which set up an elected mayor and elected members of the District of Columbia Council. While many argue that the next step is statehood, Norton, 73, is a proponent of incrementalism, which means that statehood is achieved in phases.

Norton's main thrust of late has been to get a full vote on the House floor. A vote on the floor looked promising in 2009 but it was thwarted by such groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA wants District residents to have easier access to firearms.

Norton pulled her bill when it was clear that the NRA had the votes in the House to amend the legislation with pro-gun language, which she found to be unacceptable.

President Obama did not get involved in the process of helping Norton pass her bill, even though he stated that he supported it. The new GOP-led House and less Democratic Senate elected in 2010 will not be interested in D.C. voting rights or statehood.

Norton made an appeal on Thu., Dec. 30 in a letter to Obama to "reiterate your support for voting rights and greater democracy for the citizens who live in the nation's capital, in keeping with your co-sponsorship of the bill when you were in the Senate."

"Mentioning voting rights ... would be particularly appropriate this year considering heartbreaking disappointment that a dangerous gun amendment blocked our voting rights bill, although we had more than enough votes to pass the bill in both houses," she said.

A mention in the State of the Union address, she wrote, would also help residents "to maintain the terrific momentum we achieved during the voting rights struggle in anticipation of regaining the House and maintaining the Senate in the 2012 elections." She added that "we believe that it is important for the nation to hear of your support as well."

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray attended the State of the Union as a guest of Norton's. Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said that Gray has never directly asked the president to mention D.C. statehood in his State of the Union address.

Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has consistently ventured into the city visiting schools, worshipping at churches, dining at restaurants and attending sporting events such as the Washington Wizards professional basketball games and George Washington and Howard University men's basketball games. He has not, however, been a vocal advocate for statehood and that has bothered some D.C. residents.

David Bositis, a senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest, said that he is not surprised that Obama did not mention D.C. statehood during his address.

"The economy is the dominant issue of the day," Bositis said. "Talking about D.C. statehood would be a distraction and it would be okay to talk about that if the economy was better, but people have their minds on the economy."

Many D.C. residents feel that Obama owes the city more attention regarding the statehood issue because he won the District in the Tue., Nov. 4 general election with a whopping 92 percent of the vote, whereas he won his home state of Illinois with 62 percent. Bositis said that Obama's strong base of support in the city is notable, but not enough for him to pay attention to the city on a national stage.

"The votes of D.C. are not sufficient enough to make somebody president," he said. "He has to get those votes from other places. John Kerry won D.C. in 2004 and Al Gore won the city in 2000, but they did not become president."

Still, Fauntroy, 44, said that actions such as Norton's letter to Obama, are necessary to keep the D.C. statehood movement on the president's mind.
"People have to lobby the president so that their cause will get mentioned," Fauntroy said.

"The president's State of the Union, though it is a lot of pomp and circumstances, sets the tone for the legislative year."