1980: TEN YEARS
By Sam Smith
From the March 1980 DC Gazette
Ten years ago this fall, a small group of us gathered in a church on East Capitol Street to launch the candidacy of the unconventional Julius Hobson into the conventional waters of the city's politics -- and to make an unequivocal demand for local self-autonomy, through the medium of statehood.
By that time most took Julius Hobson seriously, even if they didn't like him. But statehood, the simple demand that DC have full equality with the rest of the country, was so far beyond even the "home rule" advocates' wildest dreams that few believed it possible.
The "practical" politicians and goo-goo groups I.ike the League of Women Voters and Common Cause ignored it, hoping the idea would go away. The press reported no more than minimal civility required, preferring the limited colonialism it thought achievable through a constitutional representation amendment. The Statehood Party itself didn't always help, going through periods of factionalism and slipping from the theoretical decentralization of power into actual disorganization of effort.
No major politicians with the exception of Walter Fauntroy actually came out against statehood. Even Walter Washington found it "interesting." But no major politician worked for it, either; no major media gave it the time of day; and much of the rest of the city's elite viewed it as another example of the flakiness that went with the territory of the times.
Given all the rhetoric about the need for "home rule," there was something quite illogical about all this. Politicians would get up and demand "full self-government" for the city but lose interest when you suggested how it might he attained.
Blacks elsewhere in the country seemed surprisingly indifferent to the colonial status of a half million of their racial compatriots in the nation's capital.
Labor and other progressive groups, which would gain politically from more liberal representation in Congress, couldn't be bothered.
The New York Times had Tom Wicker write a series on Puerto Rico's status anomoly but ignored the status of the people right under the noses of their Washington staff.
It was widely thought that statehood just wasn't practical. To those in the statehood movement not only was the idea practical but, whether it was or not, you don't give out rain checks on freedom for tactical reasons.
Outside the movement, though, no one even wanted to test the practicality. When Alaska had come up with the impractical idea of statehood, its political elite did something. It sent lobbyists to Washington. It sent seven memorials between 1945 and 1957 from the territorial legislature to Congress urging statehood. It called its own constitutional convention; sent provisional senators and a provisional congressman to Washington to aid in the effort. And it finally got statehood. When Hawaii came up with the impratical idea of statehood, its political elite did something. It established a statehood commission, a constitutional convention and funded a lobbying office in Washington. It took time, but it too eventually got statehood.
This city's elite has wasted ten years being practical. Not only has it been unable to produce even the minimal results it sought, the very premise under which it has operated -- that it is all right to barter freedom like it was just another appropriations bill -- has been an insult to the people the elite was supposedly leading.
Even when, a number of years ago, a poll showed that a majority of DC residents favored statehood, only a few in power would lift a finger to help the cause. They had not only pragmatically, but philosophically, accepted the inexorability of the city's colonial status.
In dealing with the city's power brokers, the statehooders found that they refused to help and they refused to debate. But, with the exception of Fauntroy (who at least was forthright in his non-assistance) they positioned themselves so that in the unlikely case that statehood caught on, they could reap the political benefits of it.
Like other good ideas, however, the idea of statehood refused to die. In many places, in small ways, its logic and its need was reinforced. The hapless foray of the constitutional amendment into the state legislatures undoubtedly showed some the dangers of turning one's political fate over to the "pragmatists." While statehood remained antithetical to the strategy and sen-sibilities of the political and media elite, it caught on elsewhere. Neighborhood groups, activist organizations, and college students had, unlike the press and politicians, little difficulty grasping the significance and sense of the idea. And if they had problems, Hilda Mason, the lone Statehood Party member holding citywide office, was often there to help them.
And then, serendipity raised its happy head. Many in the statehood movement had become frustrated and tired. The goal was still there but the spirit wasn't. The movement badly needed an enthusiasm and freshness that hadn't spent ten years being beaten down. It arrived in the person of Ed Guinan, who quietly but effectively organized a statehood initiative committee. Even some of the old statehooders weren't confident it would work.
But it did; between August and last month, the committee collected over 21,000 signatures to put the statehood question on the ballot, signatures achieved from all the city's wards, signatures collected by Gray Panthers and UDC students, old statehooders and the newly converted, neighborhood commissioners and citywide activists. Even Ward Eight, traditionally weak in its political response, turned in more than the required signatures, thanks in part to the enthusiasm and work of councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark.
Getting the signatures, admittedly, is only the first step. But statehood, at least, is no longer an issue that politicians can run away from. The city's status is no longer a matter to be left to national colonialists and their local collaborators. At long last, the people have been asked what they think and 21,000 of them have spoken.
There's plenty of trouble ahead -- the potential of a massive media campaign against the initiative, which will be on the ballot in September, the potential of congressional rejection of the results. But at last, we have taken the necessary first move towards achieving what we need and deserve: -we are asking for it.
And as Ed Guinan said as he filed the petitions, "The filing is, in some nice way, placing a rose on the grave of Julius Hobson."