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Dems Think Now’s the Time for D.C. Statehood

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - With statehood for Washington, D.C., back in the Democratic party platform for the first time since 2000, advocates think now could be the time for the movement to finally catch on.

The Democratic party added a call for the nation's capital to earn statehood to its party platform this year, returning the movement to the forefront after it fell off the platform from 2004 to 2012.

The District has a representative in congress, but she cannot vote and the city of more than 600,000 has no voice in the senate.

Cars in the city sport "Taxation Without Representation" license plates, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact the city's residents do not have a vote on Capitol Hill but still pay income tax.

Democrats embraced the D.C. statehood movement as part of what it frames as an effort to improve the democratic process.

The party's stance on statehood stands in stark contrast to the one the Republicans took last week, which affirmed Congressional supremacy over the city as a "special responsibility of the federal government."

"Restoring our democracy also means finally passing statehood for the District of Columbia, so that the American citizens who reside in the nation's capital have full and equal congressional rights as well as the right to have the laws and budget of their local government respected without congressional interference," the Democratic platform reads.

This support from a major political party, coupled with a statehood initiative that is all but guaranteed to hit the city's ballots in the November election, makes statehood seem within reach for those who have fought for it for years.

"There's sort of a storm happening and we'll see if it's a perfect storm," said Bo Shuff, director of advocacy for D.C. Vote.

The district will attempt to become the nation's 51st state by following the "Tennessee Plan," which, as the name suggests, is how Tennessee entered the union in 1796. The method allows districts seeking to become states to take affirmative steps towards becoming a state, rather than simply waiting on Congress to take action.

That path starts with a vote from citizens to show broad support for statehood in the electorate. The prospective state then adopts a constitution before going before Congress to earn full statehood with a vote on the hill.

The New Columbia Commission put forward a draft constitution for Washington in May and an initiative to call for statehood has only minor, "systematic hurdles" to clear before getting on the ballot in November.

The district faces an uphill battle once its fight reaches Congress, however, as Republicans have stated their opposition to giving Democrats one more solid blue seat in the House and two in the Senate.

Republicans, who are currently the majority in both the House and Senate, made their opposition to D.C. statehood very clear in the platform the party adopted in Cleveland last week.

"Statehood for the district can be advanced only by a constitutional amendment," the Republican party platform reads. "Any other approach would be invalid."

Even though the road to statehood still stretches far into the distance, the district's statehood advocates have renewed hope for their movement, in part because of the endorsement from the Democratic party platform and in part because of the party's nominee.

Hillary Clinton, who is preparing to accept the party's nomination official Thursday night, has made it clear she supports granting statehood to Washington.

"I think what stands out about this year is our nominee," Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents Washington in Congress, told Courthouse News.

Norton said no other nominee has had "more enthusiasm for statehood" and hoped the greater exposure from Hillary Clinton's candidacy and opportunities like Norton's speech to the Democratic National Convention Thursday would help raise awareness for the movement towards statehood.

"The power we seek is ordinary, not lofty, it is the democratic power of equal citizenship," Norton told the audience at the arena.

Norton devoted her five minutes on the stage entirely to D.C. statehood and was greeted with loud cheers from the audience. She told viewers and delegates that her city not having a vote in the Senate deprives her fellow citizens of rights equal to those of people living in other places.

After her speech, Norton said part of the push for statehood has to be fought in the minds of the public, who might not know about Washington's unique situation.

"That's what we need," Norton told Courthouse News. "It is that podium, that national podium that we haven't had. Most Americans think we have the same rights as they do. That is more frustrating to me than not having statehood at all."

To complement big moments like Norton's speech or the inclusion of statehood on the party platform, D.C. delegates to the convention are shaking hands and spreading their message to the other political junkies who pack into the Wells Fargo arena every night.

Even among the politically aware crowd that has flocked to the convention, delegates and advocates run into people who don't know that D.C. residents have no voting rights in Congress.

"I think a lot of people, it isn't on their vision screen nationally," D.C. Delegate Shelley Tomkin told Courthouse News.

John Fanning, another D.C. delegate, said he talked to two people on a Philadelphia bus about statehood and that they seemed interested in the topic.

"She asked me, 'what can I do,' and I said send an email to your congressman, tell your friends and family members in other states," Fanning told Courthouse News.

Shuff said the message he brings to people in Philadelphia when advocating for statehood is one of equality. He hopes what he described as a recent bend towards greater equality across the country, whether on LGBT rights or that a woman is preparing to accept a major party nomination, will help the statehood movement along.

That is why some in the D.C. delegation said the November election is so important. If Clinton wins in an election with significant down ballot effects, the Democrats and their calls for Washington to earn statehood could take one or even both houses of Congress.

While he wouldn't endorse a particular party, Shuff acknowledged that only one has embraced statehood and noted the city cannot achieve its goal alone once its statehood effort reaches the Capitol.

"In a body where we don't have a voice, we're going to need someone to help us," Shuff said.

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