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House To Vote On Statehood For D.C. For 1st Time In Almost 30 Years


Here in Washington, D.C., the license plates say end taxation without representation. Even though the District of Columbia has more residents than Vermont or Wyoming, people who live here don't have anyone voting for their interests on the floor of the House or the Senate. This week, a bill to change that by making D.C. the 51st state will get a vote in the House. It's the first such vote in almost 30 years, and it's likely to pass the House for the first time ever.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has been D.C.'s nonvoting delegate in Congress for almost 30 years, and she joins us now from Capitol Hill. Thank you for being here.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Pleasure to be with you.

SHAPIRO: The last time the U.S. added a state was Hawaii in 1959. So tell us why you think this long dry spell should end with the addition of Washington, D.C.

NORTON: The nation's capital would be the only American jurisdiction whose residents do not have full voting rights and where the Congress of the United States can interfere at will with their local jurisdiction. We have been in existence for 219 years but the last to get full and equal rights with other American citizens.

SHAPIRO: There are compromise proposals. I mean, there's one that would give D.C. representation as part of Maryland, and that idea has the support of some Republicans. Would you ever settle for something less than full statehood that might have a greater chance of passing, particularly in a Republican-controlled Senate?

NORTON: No, we wouldn't support that. This has been an independent jurisdiction of sorts for 219 years, and the residents have already voted to become the 51st state. So we do not wish to become part of another state. And if I may say so, there's only been one vote in Maryland, and 53% of the people in a poll said they didn't want the District to be part of Maryland. And I think the reason they said that is because Maryland has only one big city now, and that is Baltimore. Imagine what would be the case if it had two.

SHAPIRO: D.C. overwhelmingly votes Democratic, and Republicans say this is just a push to get two more Democratic votes in the Senate. What do you say to them?

NORTON: Well, I say to them that it is certainly true that, like most big cities, the city votes Democratic. But if we look at what is happening in the Congress today, the Senate itself is likely to change from Republican to Democratic in the next election. At least, that's what the polls are showing now. That could change, but it certainly...

SHAPIRO: Some people would disagree with that, but that's certainly what you're hoping for. Please go on.

NORTON: I'm now saying here in late June what the polls are showing. The polls are showing that there could be a huge change in the Senate. By the way, the polls are also showing that there could be a huge change in the presidency as well. So we've got to take where we are, do the best we can with where we are. Almost nothing is happening in the Senate now, and yet there are many bills pending there. So I'm optimistic about the Senate. When we get through the House, we'll be more than halfway there.

SHAPIRO: If I could ask you to speak personally for a moment. You're a third-generation Washingtonian. You've represented the District since 1991. The last vote on statehood was in 1993, and it failed in the House. So what does this moment represent for you personally?

NORTON: Yeah, I got the first and only vote on statehood in my very first term in the Congress, and I was very pleased to get it then. And we got more votes, by the way, than we thought we would. It failed then because the House was dominated by southern Democrats who tended to be conservative on many issues. We were pleased to have them as Democrats, but we could not pass that bill during my first term. So times change, and they have changed remarkably. And they are ready now, it seems, certainly in the House, to make the District the 51st state.

SHAPIRO: If your grandparents, who were also D.C. residents, were alive to see this, what do you think they would think of it?

NORTON: Well, I particularly think about my great-grandfather, who walked away from slavery in Virginia, got as far as the District of Columbia, got to freedom but not to equality. And so when I think of this bill, at least for my family, I dedicate it to my great-grandfather Richard Holmes.

SHAPIRO: What a beautiful ending. That was really lovely.

NORTON: Appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: That's Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She's served as the District of Columbia's non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for almost 30 years. And this week, the House will vote on D.C. statehood for the first time in a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.