'New Columbia:' DC's statehood bid rings utopian
Washington — Seven blocks from the White House, in a worn building with rattling steel-cage elevators and only a hint of air conditioning, the District of Columbia Statehood Constitutional Convention has put the wraps on a 51-page charter for ''New Columbia,'' the proposed 51st state.
The three-month effort featured bitter shouting matches and late-night sessions; an attempt to name D.C. ''The State of Utopia;'' and Thelma Blackwell, a nondelegate who did her civic duty as self-appointed chef to the convention. Ms. Blackwell is now compiling the ''Official D.C. Statehood Cookbook,'' featuring each delegate's favorite recipe.
With its informal atmosphere, the convention was a sharp stylistic contrast to the protocol of the Reagan administration down the street. The ideological differences were even more marked.
District of Columbia residents, after all, are not Ronald Reagan's natural constituency. Seventy-seven percent of the registered voters are Democrats. Seventy-one percent of the population is black. In 1980, former President Jimmy Carter outpolled Mr. Reagan in the district by better than 5 to 1.
So it should come as no surprise that the proposed charter for ''New Columbia ,'' drawn up by 45 elected delegates, contains some resolutely liberal provisions.
The constitution's most controversial section guarantees that ''every person shall have the right to employment, or if unable to work, an income sufficient to meet basic human needs.''
The state would be prohibited from meddling ''in personal decisions on birth control (and) abortion.''
New Columbia's House of Delegates would be empowered to establish a ''State Economic Development Bank,'' to fund enterprises which cannot obtain credit from the private sector.
The constitution establishes the typical framework of state government: courts, legislature, and executive. One section that would gladden the heart of any fiscal conservative requires the governor to submit only balanced budgets.
But its unorthodox provisions are so far getting the most attention.
Police could be forced to disclose the names of informants. Sales taxes on groceries and medicines would be prohibited. The new state's judges would be subject to voter recall at the first general election three years after their appointment. Property tax exemptions for such private, secular groups as the National Geographic Society would be taken away.
In addition, the proposed charter contains some sweeping philosophical statements, such as the section charging the state with responsiblity to ''protect, restore, and enhance the quality of the human environment for this and future generations,'' and a provision committing New Columbia ''to the preservation of cultural integrity.''
The document ''is a repository for every liberal idea that is known to man,'' one delegate reportedly grumbled when the constitution was approved May 30.
It is ''the most progressive state constitution in the US,'' counters convention president Charles Cassell.
District of Columbia voters must approve the constitution their delegates have written. They will probably get the chance in the Nov. 2 general election.
Then, a simple majority in Congress could pass the statehood measure and make ''New Columbia'' the smallest state in the Union.
But Capitol Hill has only grudgingly given Washington more control over its own fate. District residents were not allowed to vote for President until 1964. Their school board was picked by Congress until 1968. In 1971, D.C. finally received a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. The first municipal election of mayor since the late 1800s was held in 1974.
The district, in return, has occasionally indulged in small rebellions. The City Council, for instance, has passed a resolution renaming Meridian Hill, a local park located where 16th Street rises over the Piedmont Plateau, as ''Malcolm X Park.'' The greensward, however, is under the control of the National Park Service, which maintains that D.C. has no right to rename federal property.