In the second-to-last episode of Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer makes a deal with the Chinese president. Though freeing Tibet is, literally, the only admirable victory of her entire political career, Selina is willing to give Tibet back to China, on the sly, in exchange for some light election interference so she can win the presidency.
“Is it really that great,” the Chinese president asks Selina. “Being president of a democracy?”
She shrugs. “Well, it’s barely a democracy.”
Though it has become a cliche to point out the unnerving regularity with which our reality resembles the intentionally chaotic and soulless world of Veep, this offhand remark feels especially relevant as this story is being written in Washington, D.C., where approximately 700,000 Americans reside and pay taxes but have no real representation the Senate and a sole, non-voting member in the House of Representatives.
Many Washingtonians have long been enraged by this systematic disenfranchisement. In 2016, 80% of D.C. residents voted in favor of statehood. But the issue is now gaining national attention. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has introduced a statehood bill every term she’s served, but this year, H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, has a historic number of cosponsors. Two months ago, for the first time, the House of Representatives voted to endorse a plan to make D.C. the 51st state. Another first: In April, ahead of D.C.’s Emancipation Day, 20 state attorneys general announced their support of statehood, writing that “the District’s over 700,000 residents work hard, raise families, and pay the highest federal taxes per capita, and yet they are deprived of the fundamental right to participate meaningfully in our representative democracy.”
Tuesday saw the launch of a new coalition, 51 for 51, which is calling for D.C. to be added as a 51st state with only 51 votes in the Senate instead of the 60 votes necessary to break a likely filibuster by Republicans. As the group put it in its mission statement, “If the votes of 51 Senators is enough to put a Justice on the Supreme Court it ought to be enough to give 700,000 Americans representation after more than 200 years of waiting.” NBC News reports that the group “plans to launch a seven-figure public education campaign focused on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the first states to vote next year in the presidential primary, which will include paid advertising, grassroots organizing and sending D.C. residents to the states to make their case.”
All the 2020 Democratic candidates for president have spoken out in support of statehood. One of those candidates, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), was recently surprised to find himself on the receiving end of a question about D.C. statehood not in Washington but during a town hall in Des Moines, when an Iowan named Tamyra Harrison asked him why D.C.’s statehood wasn’t a “bigger deal.” Wearing a “51 now” pin, Harrison introduced herself as the founder and director of Iowans for D.C. Statehood, a group Booker appeared equally delighted and shocked to learn existed.
As Harrison told ThinkProgress, she’s making it a point to speak with as many candidates who’ll talk to her. She’s also met with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“What I said to Mayor Pete is, it’s not enough to say you support it,” Harrison said by phone. “What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to help bridge the divide between the parties on this issue and get something done for the people of D.C.? It needs to be a part of your agenda when you get into office.”
She knows all the 2020 Democrats will say they support statehood. “But I want to hear you talk about what you’re going to do about it.”
This is fitting for Harrison, a woman who, as recently as four years ago, “didn’t have a total grasp” on Washington’s fight for statehood and first learned of it when she met shadow Senator Paul Strauss in 2015. “After hearing what was going on, I just realized: You know what? This isn’t right.” She quickly founded Iowans for D.C. Statehood and has been working for the cause ever since. Her organization’s mission is to talk to both Iowans and all the presidential candidates sure to make appearances in her home state “to continue to grow awareness and passion for this issue within Iowa.”
She estimates she’s got about 1,000 supporters across Iowa and six active volunteers. High on the agenda is getting their federal delegation to support H.R. 51; to date, only two of their House representatives, Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack, have done so. Harrison’s group is also asking the Iowa state legislature to pass a resolution supporting D.C. statehood.
If it all seems a little random that Iowa, which is about 1,000 miles away from Washington, would be the right place for this movement to sprout, Harrison doesn’t see it that way. From her perspective, her home state “has a history of being on the right side of issues early on… We’re the first in the nation caucus state. We have the unique privilege and responsibility of visiting with all of these presidential candidates and having a lot of national press. So when there’s an issue that’s this important, I think we have to make this an issue.”
It shouldn’t matter where in America you live, Harrison said. “How could you not care about this? If you care about voter suppression, if you care about discrimination, if you care about the principles that our country was founded on — like taxation without representation, [to which] our founders said ‘no!’, and yet here we have over 713,000 people today who are still experiencing that. It’s mind-boggling to me that it’s not a bigger issue.”
Barbara Helmick is the program director of DC Vote, which was founded in 1998 with the goal of “strengthening democracy and securing equality for all in the District of Columbia.” About a year ago, she was scrolling through Facebook one day when she spotted Harrison’s page. “It appeared to be the best of what democracy does do,” she told ThinkProgress. “Somebody just decides that this is an issue that’s important to them, that they care about, and they start organizing.”
As far as Helmick knows, Harrison’s is the only organization of its kind outside of Washington. “Tamyra is the star right now,” she said. “We’ve told her that we’re talking about her all over the place, because we believe others will follow in her footsteps.”
Harrison “demonstrates, every day, the beauty of democracy, and that’s what we want the people of D.C. to have, is the ability of somebody to see: I can influence decisions, I can participate in this process and make a difference,” Helmick said, adding that Vote DC plans to honor Harrison and her efforts at some point in Washington this July. “I just think she’s a great role model and ambassador.”
What Iowans for D.C. Statehood proves “this is an issue that people across the country, when informed, are fired up about,” Helmick said. “Anybody who cares about democracy… and learns about the democracy suppression that we live with in D.C., gets fired up.”
D.C. statehood is inherently a national issue, Helmick said. “We all suffer when our democracy is not allowed to function in the way that it’s supposed to.”
Harrison served as the executive director of the Polk County Democratic Party for 13 years, starting in 2004. (Since 2017, she’s worked for the Salvation Army, which she said is unrelated to her statehood organizing.) She insists that she would be as fired up about D.C. obtaining statehood if the District were majority Republican. “One of our other main goals is to bridge this divide between the parties over this issue, and we bring it back to the fact that we’re Americans first. Sometimes it’s more important to do what’s right for America and not just for your party.”
In theory, D.C. statehood — and voting rights more broadly — is a non-partisan issue. Technically, it’s a pre-partisan issue; the founders were railing against taxation without representation long before the two-party system was put into place.
In practice, it is the overwhelmingly Democratic would-be states of Washington and Puerto Rico who are trapped in these sub-state statuses, and it is Republicans who, by and large, are the engineers of all the voter suppression efforts this country has seen in the last two decades: from gerrymandering to the disenfranchisement of formerly-incarcerated citizens to the advent of voter I.D. laws and the elimination of same-day registration and early voting.
“I’ve had several conversations with my Republican friends” about D.C. statehood, Harrison said. “The ones that do support it don’t want to come out and say they do, because their party as a whole is against it, in their platform. And I understand it: They’re looking at it as two more votes in the Senate and a vote in Congress, and it’s a party struggle for them, and it shouldn’t be.”
This story has been updated to correctly characterize D.C.’s representation in the Senate and the House.