A Trumpian path to D.C. statehood
The District is facing the most hostile Congress in decades as some Republican congressional leaders are threatening to repeal or otherwise meddle with D.C. laws. In this political environment, statehood for the District appears to be a pipe dream. However, Donald Trump’s election to the presidency could make that dream a reality.
To better understand how Trump’s election could make a difference, one must first contemplate why the outlook for D.C. voting rights is bleak. Analysis of the District’s voting-representation plight must begin with a frank acknowledgment of the key reason statehood restricted to the District’s current geographic boundaries is a fantasy. The chief obstacle is simple: The District is an exceedingly partisan, Democratic jurisdiction.
The District has never supported a Republican presidential candidate in the general election and probably never will. Every Republican presidential candidate has lost the District’s general election in a landslide — Trump received only 4 percent of the vote. Even in 1984, the year that Ronald Reagan won 49 states and lost Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota by only 3,761 votes, the Great Communicator convinced only 13.73 percent of D.C. voters to support him. Similarly, aside from the two at-large council seats set aside for non-Democrats, the District has never elected any Republican to a District-wide local, partisan office.
Given the District’s voting record, the Democratic affiliation of two new D.C. senators would be a foregone conclusion. Understandably, Republicans oppose any voting representation solution that hands two U.S. Senate seats to the Democratic Party. To be successful, advocacy for congressional voting representation must account for this partisan dynamic.
More than a decade ago, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) proposed a politically neutral, pragmatic solution. Their legislation would have given Republican-leaning Utah and the District each a seat in the House. Unfortunately, many Republicans questioned the constitutionality of the measure, and the legislative effort reached an impasse in 2007.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently revived a long-standing proposal that would retrocede the residential areas of the District to Maryland. Norton responded by asking: “Has the chairman ever asked anyone from the state of Maryland how they feel about that?”
Better yet, Chaffetz should ask the Maryland Republican Party for its reaction to the proposed addition of 366,000 Democrats to the voting rolls in Maryland, a state that recently elected a Republican governor by a margin of 65,000 votes.
D.C. leaders should abandon advocacy for a conventional statehood plan that would come only at the expense of Republican political power. Instead, an unconventional solution that is mindful of political reality is required. Trump may be the right president at the right time for the District, given his willingness to embrace unconventional solutions and buck party leadership.
Consider the following unconventional “reverse retrocession” proposal, a version of which was proposed last year by Lars Hydle, then-chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee’s Policy Committee. Under this plan, the staunchly Democratic Northern Virginia jurisdictions of Fairfax County, Arlington County, Falls Church and Alexandria could be merged with the District to form a new state. As a result of the merger, Virginia’s senators (currently two Democrats), the governor’s office and presidential electoral college votes would likely swing to the Republican side, thereby offsetting the District’s two new Democratic senators and representative.
If Trump resolved the D.C. statehood conundrum, he would demonstrate his dealmaking prowess, earn some civil rights credibility and, under the reverse retrocession plan, walk away with Virginia’s electoral college votes. D.C. residents should welcome consideration of an option with better political prospects than the District-only position pushed unsuccessfully for several decades. Northern Virginia residents should consider joining a jurisdiction with which they share more cultural and political commonality than Richmond.
After more than 40 years in the political desert, a new approach to D.C. voting rights is needed. D.C. voters must demand fresh, feasible solutions to the voting representation conundrum. An unconventional deal to give District residents congressional voting representation might well be brokered by our very unconventional president.
The writer, a delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention, is a member of the D.C. Republican Committee.