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Stuck in shadows, DC fighters for statehood confident victory 'inevitable'

As the Senate held confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, the proceedings offered yet another reason for locals to fight for Washington statehood.

Jackson, a Washington native, would make history as the first black woman to be appointed to the high court after serving as a federal judge in the district over the last decade. With that in mind, Eleanor Norton, the district's sole delegate in the House, argues it’s unfair her constituents won’t have a voice in whether Jackson gets the job.

The nominee's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee "reminds us of the stark reality that despite Judge Jackson’s connections to D.C., without statehood, the District has no senators and, therefore, will play no role in her confirmation,” Norton said in a statement. “The lack of voting representation in Congress for D.C. residents can be remedied by Senate passage of and the President’s signature on my D.C. statehood bill, which has passed the House twice.”


The push for statehood entered the modern-day mainstream in 1980 after decades of failed proposals to grant the district equal voting representation in Congress. District voters in 1982 decided to elect shadow members of Congress to advocate statehood and representation in federal government.

However, these two shadow senators and one representative are largely symbolic, as Congress never approved the creation of such positions. As a result, the three representatives spend the majority of their time lobbying for certain legislation but have no recognition in either chamber.

Those positions are different from Norton’s role as a delegate, as the three have no voting power, but she is recognized within Congress as a representative with limited powers. Although Norton cannot participate in floor votes, she is able to vote in committee and offer legislative amendments.

Mike Brown was elected as one of the district’s shadow senators in 2007 and has dedicated his time after retiring in 2012 to lobbying for statehood.

“This is all I do. This is all I've done for the past 10 years,” Brown told the Washington Examiner.

Despite years of no traction on legislation that would establish Washington as the 51st state, Brown said it’s only a matter of time. A bill proposing statehood passed the House in April 2021 and has since been introduced in the Senate with a record number of co-sponsors.

It’s unclear whether the legislation will survive, as no Republicans have thrown their support behind the initiative. Brown said that’s not a coincidence.

“There's pushback from the Republicans because making the District of Columbia a state will automatically give you two more Democrats in the United States Senate and a voting member in the House,” he said. “It's just about partisanship. That's all.”

Several Republicans have publicly dismissed the idea of the district gaining statehood, with some even threatening the limited autonomy Washington currently possesses.

Because the district does not have a state government, the city operates under a system called home rule that was established in 1973. Under this rule, the district is run by the mayor and the D.C. Council, consisting of 12 members who propose and pass local legislation.

However, the council is ultimately controlled by Congress, which must approve all legislation before it becomes law. Exceptions include temporary emergency legislation.

The district’s short-lived vaccine mandate implemented earlier this year irked Republican lawmakers, leading some to propose revoking Washington’s limited freedom altogether if they win majorities in the Senate or House in the midterm elections.

Some GOP lawmakers, such as Reps. Andrew Clyde of Georgia and Michael Cloud of Texas, told the Daily Caller in February they would consider stripping Washington of its local authority if they win back the majority.

“It's just an example of the reason why we need to be a state,” said Oye Owolewa, shadow representative for Washington. “There's no other mechanism in another area who could have the federal government, or at least a couple of senators, saying we're going to try and revoke the rules and laws that you've passed in your area.”


Owolewa, elected in 2020, noted he was inspired by recent efforts for statehood. He told the Washington Examiner he believes “we’ve never been closer.”

“I see D.C. becoming a state within the next 10 years,” he said.

Brown echoed those sentiments, although he acknowledged it will not be an easy take. Part of the reason it hasn’t happened yet is because voters get preoccupied with other issues they deem more important, such as COVID-19 policies or the invasion of Ukraine, the shadow senator said.

As a result, the effort gets sidetracked and progress stalled. However, he pointed to previous successful statehood efforts, such as Alaska in the 1950s, that affirm his office will succeed.

“It's going to be an uphill battle. But it's going to happen,” he said. “It's inevitable.”