Don’t Fall for the D.C. Retrocession ‘Okey-Doke’Roundup
tags: DC Statehood
CHRIS MYERS ASCH is a historian at Colby College.
GEORGE DEREK MUSGROVE is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
They are the co-authors of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.
D.C. has never had such good friends in Congress. On April 22, the House passed a bill to grant statehood to the District, sending the legislation to the Senate, where 45 Democrats have already signed on as co-sponsors.
Some Republican lawmakers, too, have voiced their support for D.C. residents’ long-standing efforts to gain voting representation in Congress. Yet they reject statehood as a “power grab” by congressional Democrats who simply want two more safely Democratic seats in a tightly contested Senate. These Republicans advocate an alternative solution: Ask Maryland to absorb the District through a process called “retrocession.”
Retrocession would require Maryland to take back, or “retrocede,” most of the 68 square miles of territory that it gave up in 1790 to create the federal seat of government. (Virginia also provided roughly 32 acres of its territory on the western bank of the Potomac River, but that land—including the city of Alexandria and Arlington County—was retroceded back to Virginia in 1846.)
Republican retrocessionists recognize that D.C. residents endure second-class citizenship. D.C. residents’ lack of representation in Congress is “unfair,” argues Representative Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, who introduced the District of Columbia–Maryland Reunion Act in January. Johnson says that his bill would accomplish the “the goal of representation without creating a 51st state—that’s compromise.” In recent days, prominent moderate Republican Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have also picked up this message.
It sounds simple, fair, even refreshingly bipartisan. But don’t fall for the okey-doke.
You know the okey-doke. It is a move designed to distract your opponent so that you can take advantage of him. You fake right and run left to avoid a tackle in football, or pump-fake and drive past a defender in basketball. And Republicans today are using retrocession as an okey-doke to erode support for statehood legislation.
Students of D.C. history know that Washingtonians have three paths to full representation in Congress: statehood, amending the Constitution to give the city a vote, or retrocession. District residents have tried all three strategies in their 220-year quest for full citizenship rights. Only retrocession has been successful. So why not retrocession now?
The simple answer is that very few people in either D.C. or Maryland want it.
Since the early 1980s, a significant and growing majority of D.C. voters have been on the record as favoring statehood. A 1980 statehood referendum passed with 60 percent of the vote; a 2016 referendum registered 86 percent support.
By contrast, few D.C. voters want retrocession. One 1999 poll found that only a fifth of D.C. voters favored becoming part of Maryland. Last year, the city’s leading retrocession advocate, David Krucoff, earned just 1.6 percent of the vote in his bid to unseat D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a steadfast statehood supporter.
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