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Presidential contenders weigh in on statehood

(Published February 14, 2000)

By SAM STRIKE and OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writers

Efforts to gain full democratic rights for D.C. residents have caught the attention of the leading presidential candidates at a time when democracy advocates are gearing up to capitalize on the movementís growing momentum.

Democratic candidate and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley issued a statement in which he said he believes citizens of the District "deserve a full voice in Congress."

He called the federal governmentís control over the District "virtual taxation without representation" and said that if elected president he would try to persuade Congress to give D.C. a full voting member of the House of Representatives and two senators.

"Washingtonians have almost no say in our national government, while the national government has great control over matters of local governance in Washington, D.C.," Bradley said.

Bradley said he supports statehood as a means for achieving full representation, which "would end a system that excludes over 500,000 United States citizens, the majority of whom are African-American, from full participation in our electoral process."

"Unfortunately when he was in the Senate he didnít have the opportunity to vote on this particular issue," a spokesman for Bradley said.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who supports Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, blasted Bradleyís statement, citing the fact that Bradley didnít co-sponsor a statehood bill when he served in the Senate.

"When the statehood bills were being considered and Bill Bradley was in a position to help us, we needed his respect and his vote. We got neither," she said. "D.C. residents should return the favor and withhold their votes from Bradley."

Goreís camp touts that in 1990 when he represented Tennessee in the Senate, Gore was one of the three original co-sponsors of the New Columbia Admission Act to declare the State of New Columbia to be the nationís 51st state. He was also an original co-sponsor when the bill was reintroduced in 1991.

Gore has not wavered on the issue of full representation, a spokesman for his campaign said.

"Like Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, I have been a long-time supporter of D.C. voting rights and statehood. I believe that the citizens of the District deserve to have voting representation in Congress and full democratic rights," Gore said in a statement issued Feb. 11. "As president, I will continue to fight for full democratic rights for the taxpaying residents of the District of Columbia," he said.

The Republican candidates for president either are opposed to statehood as an option for the District or would not take a stand on the issue. Scott McClellan, deputy press secretary for the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said simply, "Heís opposed to statehood." McClellan said Bush has not developed a position paper, although he believes the governor has spoken at greater length about D.C. statehood on the campaign trail. McClellan said he was unable to characterize his candidateís position on other citizensí rights issues for D.C. residents, such as voting representation in Congress and home rule.

A spokesman for Republican Alan Keyes said the candidate would not support statehood because he believes that "the original intent of the capital is to be a federal cityÖthat doesnít have needs of a state."

Sen. John McCainís campaign referred a reporter to his U.S. Senate office, describing the debate over citizenship rights and statehood for the District as "a Senate issue." A McCain aide on Capitol Hill referred the reporter back to campaign offices, where staff then said the Arizona Republican has no official statement on the issue at this time.

A spokesman for the campaign of Republican Pat Buchanan, who attended Gonzaga High School in the District, said he is unsure whether Buchanan has taken a stand on the D.C. statehood issue. No further statement was available from Buchananís campaign at press time.

Democracy activists in the District, meanwhile, have been eagerly awaiting the U.S. District Courtís decision on two court cases that could change the Districtís status in Congress. One of the cases, argued by city lawyers on a pro bono basis, is asking the court to order Congress to stop denying residents full voting representation. A favorable ruling on another lawsuit, known as the "20 citizens" lawsuit, would let D.C. residents vote for statehood or retrocession to Maryland.

All the briefs and documents in both cases were received by the court by the end of the first week in March 1999, and a three-judge panel heard oral arguments on April 18. Since then, lawyers and court watchers have tried to predict when the court would hand down its ruling, to no avail.

"It is anybodyís wildest guess when theyíll issue their ruling," said attorney George S. LaRoche, who argued the "20 citizens" case. "This court is a little bit slower than other courts Iíve worked in."

At least one group in town isnít waiting to hear from the court before moving forward. The Coalition for D.C. Representation in Congress is planning to hold about 50 educational sessions throughout the District beginning with a March 11 citywide forum at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

"Iím glad there is a new (democracy) movement afoot and people willing to get involved in local issues," said Joe Ruffin, director of outreach for the coalition.

Many residents became aware just how fragile the Districtís democratic rights are when Congress blocked the city from tabulating election results on Initiative 59, a November 1998 ballot issue which would have legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes. After a judge ruled that Congressí actions were unconstitutional, the vote was counted and residents learned that the measure passed with 69 percent of the vote. Congress then attached a rider to the D.C. budget -- the so-called Barr Amendment, named after Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who introduced it -- that forbids the District from reducing penalties for possession or use of marijuana for any purpose, essentially overturning the referendum.

Statehood activists Anise Jenkins and Karen Szulgit are due back in court Feb. 22 to answer charges that they disrupted Congress for an incident July 29 during the budget debates when they allegedly both stood up and shouted pro-democracy slogans as the House passed the Barr amendment. Activists are planning a rally at 8 a.m. in front of D.C. Superior Court immediately before their trial resumes.

Another D.C. resident, Ben Armfield, was arrested for the same charge Oct. 14.. Armfield was acquitted by a jury Jan. 14.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator