Michael D. Brown, Washington D.C.’s shadow senator, discussed his campaign for civil rights, as well as his push for congressional representation for D.C., at an event hosted by the College Democrats in Gilman Hall on Wednesday.
Under Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution, D.C. citizens are not fully represented in Congress. D.C. residents elect two shadow senators, who informally represent the district, but are not officially recognized as members of Congress.
Brown, a political independent, lacks voting rights in Congress. He spends his time lobbying members of Congress to support adopting statehood for the District.
“My job is to figure out how to make the District of Columbia a state,” Brown said. “The strategy is that we need to get support outside of D.C., because we can’t bestow statehood ourselves.”
Brown highlighted some of the unconventional approaches he has taken in order to protect the interests of his constituents.
“At the Democratic National Committee convention in Charlotte, the party decided that, after 20 years, they were going to take the D.C. statehood issue out of our platform,” Brown said. “Coincidentally, I had a couple of guys come to me… to sell billboard space. I talked them into taking the $30,000 worth of billboards right outside the convention, selling them to me for $15,000, and we put up two gigantic billboards with a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware and the phrase ‘to form a more perfect union.’”
After former President Bill Clinton quoted the phrase “to form a more perfect union” at the end of the convention speech, the issue of D.C. statehood was back on the party’s agenda.
Brown, citing the results of national polls, stressed that the idea of D.C. statehood resonated with Americans in other states. When asked about the probability of attaining statehood, Brown focused on the challenges that lay ahead, and how every revolution started out with the spark of an idea.
“I think there will be a seminal moment in our movement. We did a nationwide survey that showed that 80 percent of American people surveyed believed [D.C. citizens] should have the same rights as everyone else,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, as we’re the only area that has this problem, 80 percent of Americans already believe that we have the same rights as everyone else.
Asked about the legislative viability of “re-secession,” through which parts of D.C. would be represented by senators from Virginia and Maryland, Brown highlighted the partisan nature of D.C.’s bid for statehood.
“[Re-secession] is a reasonable remedy, except Maryland or Virginia have to agree,” Brown said. “[There are] strong Republican parties in both states, and while Virginia [has a] stronger Republican presence than Maryland, Republicans in both states don’t want 500,000 Democrats.”
Brown also said that the gentrified nature of D.C. could hurt its chances of “re-seceding” from Maryland.
“Baltimore is the only urban center in Maryland, and it’s the same size as D.C.,” Brown said. “Including D.C. would double the urban population of Maryland, bringing in a lot of urban liberals, and it’s not likely that many in Maryland would tolerate that.”
When asked about the plausibility of granting D.C. voters representation without granting it statehood, Brown brought up the polarized nature of politics.
“The problem is that anything that Congress can do, it can undo; just think of Prohibition in one amendment, and its repeal in another,” Brown said.
He discussed the political status of Eleanor Norton, a Democratic delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from D.C. She has the ability to vote within committees, but this vote is merely symbolic, as it cannot break ties. However, when Republicans take power of the House, according to Brown, Norton loses this symbolic vote.
Brown also spoke about the “Civil Disobedience” movement, which aims to engender support among millennials. The movement will introduce a signature alcoholic drink to 15 bars in D.C. on April 16, a local holiday that celebrates Lincoln’s emancipation of 3,100 slaves nine months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. A portion of the proceeds will go to the D.C. statehood movement.
After describing the start of his own political career, Brown offered suggestions for those interested in pursuing politics.
“The greatest thing about politics is that anyone can do it; you just absolutely need to get involved in a campaign,” Brown said. “Campaigns are run by volunteers, so get involved in a campaign and get your feet wet; you’ll learn what you’ll need to learn, and you might get lucky and they’ll win... Just imagine, all the people that run your country would be unemployed if the person they were volunteering for didn’t win.”
Student participants enjoyed the speaker’s affable nature and anecdotes.
“I thought [the presentation] was awesome and really inspiring,” senior Carrie Resnick said. “One of my main take-aways is that politics seems really fun, even when it’s really hard. His stories of when things were really bad were still really funny, and he was laughing about them now, so it just seems like a really interesting thing to get involved in.”
The College Democrats organized this speaker series with the intent of increasing political discourse on campus through interactive discussions with political figures and movement leaders.
“We were trying to think of things in a non-election year before even really many people have announced for president,” junior co-president Ross Terry said. “We’re trying to get people interested, to get the political discourse going on campus. We thought, especially with some of the disappointing local election results in Maryland, we would want to focus more on local city and state issues.”