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This post was updated October 14, 2016.

Do you think that our new state constitution is a serious matter, not a prop in a PR campaign?

Do you think the current draft constitution has so many problems that the Council can’t fix them all before Tuesday, October 18? [Note: That is when the Council expects to finalize the “Constitution and Boundaries for the State of New Columbia Approval Resolution of 2016″, PR21-913.]

Do you think our new state constitution should be drafted by a constitutional convention of elected delegates who reflect diverse viewpoints and have diverse skills, rather than by politicians with vested interests?

If you answer Yes to any of these questions, you need to ACT.
First, sign our petition.

Second, call and email your Councilmembers NOW to demand a more democratic constitution!
We need to act before Tuesday, October 18, so we strongly recommend emailing Councilmembers, and following up with a phone call. If you need more information, please read our earlier blog posts.

Here are some possible talking points:

    1) I want to support the Statehood referendum, but I’m very concerned about the constitution.
    2) As a DC voter, I take our new state constitution seriously, I hope the Council does, too.
    3) The Council should amend the constitution to require a mandatory constitutional convention of elected delegates one year after admission.
    4) Since statehood is not likely in the near future, the Council should also pass separate legislation for a constitutional convention next year.
    5) I want us to become a state with a constitution I can be proud of.
    6) Your vote on Tuesday will demonstrate your respect for basic principles of democracy.

Read specific provisions that DC4D and other organizations are supporting here.

Chairman Phil Mendelson is the most important target. Email and call the Chairman, and copy Evan Cash, Director of the Committee of the Whole.

Chairman Mendelson pmendelson@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8032, and Evan Cash cow@dccouncil.us.

Also email and call the At-Large Councilmembers and your ward Councilmember, as well as any other Councilmembers you know. Priority targets are indicated in bold.
At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds abonds@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8064
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso dgrosso@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8105
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman esilverman@dccouncil.us (202)-724-7772
At-Large Councilmember Robert White rwhite@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8174
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau bnadeau@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8181 PRIORITY
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans jevans@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8058
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh mcheh@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8062 PRIORITY
Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd btodd@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8052
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie kmcduffie@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8028 PRIORITY
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen callen@dccouncil.us (202)-724-8072
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander yalexander@dccouncil.us (202) 724-8068
Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May LMay@DCCOUNCIL.US (202)724-8045

Testimony of Kesh Ladduwahetty, Chair, DC for Democracy before the Committee of the Whole, Council of the District of Columbia regarding B21-826 (Constitution for the State of New Columbia Approval Amendment Act of 2016 on September 27, 2016.

My name is Kesh Ladduwahetty, and I am testifying on behalf of DC for Democracy, which has been working to advance democracy and good governance in the District of Columbia since 2005. We have also been an active member of the DC Statehood Coalition since 2009. Our members are committed to achieving statehood and making our new state a model of democracy in the Union.

We are heartened by the new momentum in the statehood movement and excited at the prospect of our leading elected officials petitioning Congress for statehood next year. We need the DC Council to be deeply invested in the statehood movement and to lend your considerable resources to this effort. At the same time, we are here to join with many others to urge the Council to set the statehood initiative on a solid democratic foundation, while preserving the essence of the Mayor’s proposal.

It is no accident that many of us who are most concerned about the lack of adherence to basic democratic principles in the drafting of this constitution are those who have devoted so much of our time and energies to statehood. We have worked so hard for statehood because we are so committed to democracy. We cannot conceive of one without the other.

We appreciate that given the constraints of the current process, the Council must act quickly to draft a constitution well before the November referendum. The voters surely need to know what they are approving. But there is no reason that the constitution cannot be further improved after the November referendum.

The constitution that is before you now has been in the process of being drafted since April. While this constitution is being written, lobbying for the New Columbia Admission Act has continued. A few weeks ago, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii signed on as a co-sponsor. Several House members have co-sponsored since April. Clearly, statehood is advancing in Congress while this constitution is being drafted.

Similarly, the DC Government can petition Congress for statehood starting next January while we further improve the constitution that the Council enacts this year, which will likely be termed the 2016 constitution. The 2016 constitution can be submitted to a Constitutional Convention of elected delegates who can adequately deliberate on the matter to an extent that the Council is unable to do, given the highly compressed timeline and competing priorities.

Even if the Council had the time and energies to fully consider this constitution, principles of good governance advise that a body other than the Council author the constitution. Councilmembers were not elected to draft a constitution and face significant conflicts of interest, including, most seriously, the question of the size of the House of Delegates. For these reasons, the quality and legitimacy of a constitution drafted by the Council will be questioned.

The Council can demonstrate its commitment to a constitution of the highest quality and legitimacy by requiring a Constitutional Convention composed of elected delegates to further improve the 2016 Constitution, and to establish the detailed procedures for this Constitutional Convention in separate legislation by early 2017. A Constitutional Convention is a multi-year process that includes the election of delegates, the drafting of the constitution, educating and obtaining input from the public, and approval through a referendum. By saving citizens the enormous effort and expense of a ballot initiative, the Council will go far towards demonstrating your commitment to democracy and good governance. Such a Constitutional Convention would serve the people of the District of Columbia well in either of the two possible scenarios before us.

The first scenario, a very optimistic one, is that admission is granted by the next Congress, in which case, the Constitutional Convention can continue its work after admission. This requires two amendments to the constitution:

    First, Article VII, Section 3, “Constitution Amendment procedure” should delete the current language and replace it with language that allows amendment by a Constitutional Convention that is in session at the time of admission.

    Second, Article VIII, Section 1, “Transfer of Offices” should include a new paragraph that allows a Constitutional Convention that is in session at the time of admission to be deemed a valid Constitutional Convention of the State of New Columbia.

The above changes would allow the Constitutional Convention to continue its work following admission, without further action by the House of Delegates.

The second scenario, which is far more likely, is that admission is not granted by the next Congress. In this case, a Constitutional Convention can begin the work of refining and improving the Constitution in 2017 or 2018, even while we press for statehood in Congress. By doing so, we avoid wasting valuable time.

By requiring a Constitutional Convention with elected delegates in separate legislation by early 2017, the Council will allow the DC Government to petition Congress for statehood, in accordance with the Mayor’s proposal, and at the same time, demonstrate to the public that you will uphold basic principles of democracy and good governance.  

Additionally, we urge the Council to do the following:

    Pledge to finalize the constitution at least two weeks prior to the November, 2016 election to allow for the public to understand what they are approving; and

    Article VII, Section 4, “Effective Date.” Amend this section to specify that the constitution and boundaries must be formally ratified by voters after admission into the Union. There has been much confusion about the legal weight of the Advisory Referendum. It is our understanding that voter approval of the Advisory Referendum does not have legal weight. Furthermore, Congress may change the Constitution and/or the boundaries during the Admission process.

Thank you for your consideration.

Read the testimony of other DC4D members:
Testimony of Andrea Rosen
Testimony of Jesse Lovell

The results of our endorsement meeting on September 14, 2016 are as follows, with endorsed candidates in bold:

US President: Hillary Clinton (Dem) 75.7%, Gary Johnson (Lib) 2.7%, Jill Stein (Green) 16.2%, Donald Trump (Rep) 0%, No Endorsement 2.7%.
PA Senate: Edward Clifford III (Lib) 0%, Katie McGinty (Dem) 89.2%, Everette Stern (Ind) 2.7%, Pat Toomey (Rep) 0%, No Endorsement 8.1%.
PA 8th Congressional District: Brian Fitzpatrick (Rep) 0%, Steve Santarsiero (Dem) 91.7%, No Endorsement 8.3%.
VA 10th Congressional District: LuAnn Bennett (Dem) 94.6%, Barbara Comstock (Rep) 0%, No Endorsement 5.4%.

STATEHOOD RESOLUTION
The following resolution was passed by a voice vote, following acceptance of friendly amendments:
***********************
Whereas, DC for Democracy is committed to statehood, democracy, and good government; and

Whereas, the DC Council is considering a proposed constitution for our future state, “Constitution for the State of New Columbia Approval Amendment Act of 2016 (B21-826)”; and

Whereas, the November Advisory Referendum does not constitute formal ratification of a constitution or boundaries, but is a means to allow the DC Government to petition Congress for statehood; and

Whereas, Congress may make changes to boundaries and the constitution during admission, and formal ratification of boundaries and the constitution must follow admission; and

Whereas, voters will be asked to approve a constitution that will not be enacted by the time the Advisory Referendum is held; and

Whereas, a legitimate constitution should be drafted by a constitutional convention of elected delegates with adequate time and resources to complete the work, and that such a constitutional convention should be initiated as soon as possible; and

Whereas, it is possible to petition Congress for statehood while an elected constitutional convention further improves the proposed constitution for our future state; and

Whereas, if admission is granted in the near term, the constitutional convention will be able to continue its work following admission;

Therefore, be it resolved, that DC for Democracy urges the DC Council to:

    1) Amend bill B21-826 to require a constitutional convention with elected delegates in the 2017-2018 timeframe that will follow a process to be established in separate legislation,
    2) Pledge to finalize the bill at least 2 weeks prior to the November, 2016 election to allow for public education, and
    3) Specify that the constitution and boundaries must be formally ratified by voters after admission into the Union.

This letter was sent on July 8, 2016 to the entire DC Council.

DC for Democracy is an active member of the DC Statehood Coalition and our members are among the most active supporters of statehood.  We are heartened that the statehood initiative proposed by the New Columbia Statehood Commission has generated interest and raised awareness of the movement.  We are pleased at the time and energy the Mayor has devoted to the statehood initiative and are committed to maintaining the momentum for statehood in the coming year.  

We are, however, very concerned that several aspects of the statehood initiative are seriously problematic, resulting in lessened support for the Advisory Referendum. Many of these problems can be avoided while retaining the essence of the Commission’s “Tennessee Plan” if the referendum is simplified as follows: “We, the voters of the District of Columbia, advise the Council to petition Congress to admit the State of New Columbia into the Union.”  The Council can still proceed to adopt a new constitution and finalize the state boundaries by early next year in order to satisfy the requirements for petitioning Congress for statehood.

Problems with the Current Approach

    The statehood initiative includes several troubling aspects, and we worry that as these problems become better known, support for the Advisory Referendum will be undermined and lasting damage done to the statehood movement.

    The process that created the draft constitution included a “constitutional convention” with no real authority, and significant amendments to the constitution were made at the June 28 meeting of the Commission with inadequate deliberation, e.g., the expansion of the Council to 21 members and the transition of the shadow delegation to the status of congressional representatives.

    Voters are currently under the misperception that the Advisory Referendum constitutes official ratification of the constitution and is a legal requirement for Congress to admit New Columbia to the Union.  In truth, the referendum has no force of law (hence “advisory”) and is simply an expression of public opinion.

    When the Advisory Referendum is put to a vote on November 8, the Council would not yet have finalized the constitution. At the most, the Council would have held a first vote on the draft. As the wider public learns that they will be voting on a constitution without knowing exactly what it will contain, support for the referendum will be undermined. The Council should not be put in the embarrassing position of modifying a document that has been approved by the public.

These aspects of the current process provide ample ammunition for those who would challenge our readiness for statehood, both inside and outside DC.  While the media coverage to date has portrayed the entire process as a public relations campaign, closer scrutiny will be paid in the ensuing months and has real potential to damage the reputation of the DC government.  The Washington Post has already published one opinion piece that is highly critical of the process.  In a city filled with lawyers and public policy experts, more negative publicity is likely to follow.

A Better Approach

We can all agree we must continue building momentum for statehood, and this can be done by following the Tennessee Plan.  Passage of the Advisory Referendum this November with an overwhelming majority, together with the Council directly petitioning Congress for admission next year, will achieve that purpose.

To ensure that the Advisory Referendum passes by an overwhelming majority, the ballot language should be made as simple and uncontroversial as possible, e.g., “We, the voters of the District of Columbia, advise the Council to petition Congress to admit the State of New Columbia into the Union.”  This would mean that the constitution and boundaries would not be approved by the people of the District of Columbia this November.  In doing so, we avoid the problem of voting on a constitution that is still in process, and the controversy of the Council amending a constitution that the people have approved.  We also avoid the meaningless exercise of the public voting on the highly technical matter of boundaries.  By avoiding these problems, we avoid negative publicity that can damage the statehood movement.

Meanwhile, the Council can proceed to adopt a new constitution and finalize the boundaries, in order to follow the Tennessee Plan and directly petition Congress for admission into the Union. The public would support the Council taking these actions if they are assured that a proper constitutional convention will be held in due time.  A convention with elected delegates that will take the time to engage in deliberation is the only approach that ensures the constitution will be fully accepted by the public.  It was the approach chosen by Alaska and Hawaii, the last states admitted into the Union.  Why would New Columbia do less?

A constitutional convention also serves the practical purpose that it assures the legitimacy of the new constitution.  Nobody will be happy with every element of the constitution; what will allow the public to support a constitution is the legitimacy of the process by which it was created.  Support for the new constitution will also be undermined if it is unduly politicized and associated with particular elected officials.  If, on the other hand, it is associated with a group of people who were elected specifically to draft the constitution, it is much less likely to be subject to passing political winds.

A constitutional convention will necessarily take time.  That is a positive feature, for it will generate national and international media attention during the time it will take to complete, providing additional momentum to the statehood movement.

Some have suggested that we should not go beyond minuscule changes to the Home Rule Charter for fear of giving ammunition to opponents of statehood.  If anything, a rushed and undemocratic process for creating a new constitution might very well provide such ammunition for opponents of statehood.   A proper constitutional convention might reconsider the name “New Columbia”, give thought to a bicameral legislature or reconsider the number of representatives, investigate a better mechanism for filling vacant seats in the legislature, and debate other reasonable improvements to the current draft constitution.  It is hard to believe that such reasonable and thoughtful reforms will cause genuine supporters of statehood in the Congress to oppose admitting us into the Union.  

A constitution drafted by a constitutional convention would still need to go through the Council, providing another layer of review.  If the Council itself initiates the constitutional convention, it will earn considerable good will from the public.

Conclusion

Among those who are paying close attention to the statehood initiative, there is agreement that the Advisory Referendum should be simplified and should not include approval of a constitution or boundaries.  It is our sense that the Council will receive broad support from the general public in making these changes to the Advisory Referendum.

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