OROne of the most powerful prosecutions of former U.S. President Donald Trump last week came from Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the first delegate from a U.S. territory to hold the position of impeachment manager.
However, Plaskett’s status meant that he was unable to vote for Trump’s impeachment because he has no vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. The United States Virgin Islands does not have any representation in the Senate. Its residents cannot even vote for president.
The anomaly illuminates the long unaddressed colonial history of the United States that leaves five territories floating in constitutional limbo, its residents, most of them people of color, effectively treated as second-class citizens.
But with the impetus from last summer’s protests against racial injustice and the election of a Democratic president, one of those territories, Puerto Rico, aims to become the 51st state of the union. A parallel effort from Washington, District of Columbia (DC), is also closer than ever to its similar goal.
“It’s incredibly important to step back and see who really has real representation in democracy,” he said. Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager for 51 for 51, an organization that drives DC’s statehood. “If you think about all the players you mentioned, they all have a common thread: they are all people of color. Does America have a true democracy if so many people of color are on the outside looking in and unable to fully participate? “
There are five inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Outside of American Samoa, people born in the territories are US citizens and pay federal taxes like Medicare and social security, though not federal taxes on locally sourced income. Each territory sends a delegate to the House who can debate legislation and sit on committees, but cannot vote.
Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when it fell under the control of the United States as part of the terms that ended the Spanish-American War. In 1917, the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship and in 1952 it became a commonwealth of the United States, but still without voting rights in the American presidential elections.
Over the past half century, Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its state and last November voted between 52% and 47% in favor of statehood, a cause fueled by grievance over the federal government’s inadequate response to the Hurricane Maria in 2017. In an interview report last week with Axios on HBO, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said that “Congress is morally obligated to respond” and predicted that a bill will be introduced in the House next month.
George Laws García, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said: “There is a group of unelected individuals who make decisions on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico about the wishes, ideas and perspectives of local elected officials, which I believe which is basically blatant colonialism.
“We had Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes and now Covid, and in all these cases where Puerto Rico needs federal resources, federal support, federal action, we don’t have the ability to hold elected officials in Washington accountable for what they do because I never get votes from Puerto Rico, and that includes both the president and members of Congress. “
It is Congress that would have to approve the creation of any new state for the first time since Hawaii in 1959.
Republicans have called the measure an unconstitutional takeover that is likely to give Democrats an additional two seats in the Senate. Martha McSally, then a senator from Arizona, told NBC News last year that if Puerto Rico wins statehood, Republicans “will never win back the Senate.”
Although Democrats control the House, a statehood bill would face much more difficult passage in the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are required to thwart the “kill switch” of a Republican filibuster. Despite progressives pointing to the racist history of filibuster, key Democrats Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema have already indicated their unwillingness to eliminate it.
Garcia added: “The prospects for statehood are incredibly challenging, but they have been for every other territory that has ever been admitted as a state. In my life, they are certainly the best possible odds we could have. “
Almost all residents of Puerto Rico are Hispanic, while almost half of DC’s are African American. But as the nation’s capital, DC comes from a different historical, economic, and constitutional perspective.
Its more than 700,000 residents, higher than the populations of Vermont and Wyoming, pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state. They obtained the right to vote in the 1961 presidential election, but still lack a voting member in the House or a voice in the Senate.
The DC statehood movement is bigger and better organized than ever. Last June, the House passed a bill that passed it, the first time a house of Congress had proposed a statehood measure in DC. He never had a chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, but the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington gave the cause additional power.
Rhodes, 51 by 51, said: “
Our most famous civil rights leaders fought for access to democracy. If you think of John Lewis and Martin Luther King, they were all fighting for access to voting and access to representation, so here in 2021 we continue to fight in Washington DC for equitable representation and a clear opportunity to participate in democracy. ” .
A key hurdle was removed when Trump, who had promised that “DC will never be a state” because he would surely elect Democratic senators, was defeated in the presidential election by Joe Biden, who has voiced his support for the campaign.
Then came the insurrection in the United States Capitol on January 6. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters earlier this month: “If the District of Columbia could function as a state, (what) any governor can do is call the National Guard without getting permission. of the federal government. It shouldn’t have to happen that way. “
Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting member of the House, reintroduced the statehood bill last month, while Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware reintroduced his supplemental statehood bill that currently has 39 Democratic co-sponsors. .
Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Director of Democratic Policy for the Indivisible grassroots movement, said: “It is a question of basic justice. DC are not all government bureaucrats and lawyers. There are real people who live here, many of whom were tasked with cleaning up the mess of the January 6 insurrection. Those are DC residents and they don’t have a vote in Congress, so it would seem to me like it would be pretty easy for all the Democrats in the Senate to say that’s wrong.
Hatcher-Mays, a former assistant to Holmes Norton, added: “We need to remove obstructionism to make DC the 51st state. This is the closest we’ve come to getting DC statehood and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in this Congress, and it really has to happen or else the Senate is in trouble. It’s really not representative of the country as a whole and making DC a state would go a long way toward solving that problem. “
The issue has shed light on the Senate’s democratic deficit, where small predominantly white states win two seats each, weighing as much as vast and racially diverse states like California. In 2018, David Leonhardt, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, calculated that the Senate gives the average African American only 75% of representation than the average white American, and the average Hispanic American only 55%.
Also, in the 232-year history of the Senate, there have only been 11 black senators and Plaskett was the only black woman elected at impeachment. In such a context, Republican opposition to statehood has been described as an attempt to protect the government from the white minority.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “At the end of the day, you have states from Utah to Montana and others that have won statehood early on with fewer questions, less criticism than DC and Puerto Rico. It is a fundamental democratic flaw and reeks of hypocrisy. The only reason it’s a debate or even a question is who makes up the majority in both places.. “
An earlier proposal for DC statehood was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House by a margin of nearly 2-1 in 1993 with President Bill Clinton reluctant to participate. This time, with Biden making racial justice a priority, the mood is different. There is a sense that Democratic control of the White House, Senate, and House offers a historic opportunity.
Donna Brazile, former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “This is about making America a more perfect union. It is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, yet some of its citizens do not have full voting rights due to where they reside. If we are going to end racial injustice in America and talk about a new beginning for the country, we cannot get around the old issues. “