The case for urban statehood

By Sam Smith

This article originally appeared in the NY Press

What does New York City have more of than Rhode Island, Montana, South Dakota, Delaware, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming, all put together?


What do Rhode Island, Montana, South Dakota, Delaware, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming have that New York City doesn’t have?

Sixteen US Senators.

New York City gets to share two senators with the residue of New York state, which is also larger than all these other states put together. In fact, there are 18 states with a combined population less than New York in its entirety.

This discrimination is, of course, not unique to New York. The larger states of California and Texas have it worse. And the capital colony of Washington DC lacks even partial representation in the Senate.

The results of this constitutional but crazy apportionment of America’s upper house means, among other things, that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in a manner officially permitted hardly anywhere else in American culture. If the Senate had been a school district it would have been under court-ordered bussing for the past few decades. If it were a private club, you’d want to resign from it before running for public office.

In fact, the malapportionment of the Senate is perhaps the most important, undiscussed issue in the country today for there is hardly a matter of political importance that would not be affected if that body were to reflect 21st century rather than 19th century demographics.

Curiously, however, leaders of constituencies that would clearly benefit – with cities at the top of the list – show little interest.

One reason for this is misunderstanding. It is widely believed that admitting new states requires a constitutional amendment and that a state, once created, can’t be split. In truth, it is easier to spawn a new state than it was to give women the right to vote or to pass an income tax. A simple majority in Congress and the president’s signature – plus approval of an affected state’s legislature – and the job is permanently done.

Another reason is inertia. Politicians like the status quo because it was wise enough to put them in office. Further, there are plenty of powerful people who prefer to do politics using their Rolodex or checkbook rather than the voting booth. It is for such reasons that any reform of political process has to come from outside the traditional political system.

Then there is the argument that creating new states is a political impossibility. But it has happened 37 times since the creation of the republic and in a number of cases – Kentucky, Vermont, West Virginia, and Maine – new states were formed out of existing ones.

If you don’t care about history, think of the future. In not too many years, white Americans will cease to be in the majority. Even leaving moral questions aside, how much longer will it be politically practical to tell blacks and latinos that the rules can’t be changed to let them into the Senate in some reasonable number?

There has been some talk of dividing California into three states and even secession murmurs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But the modern idea of urban statehood really got its start exactly 30 years ago in a remarkable campaign for New York mayor and city council president by Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin. This was no Warren Beatty flirtation nor a Donald Trump fantasy but a paragon of political campaigning: colorful, uplifting, funny, and – most importantly – full of good ideas. And these ideas were not just sound bites. When Mailer and Breslin proposed a Manhattan monorail and jitney buses, they accompanied their arguments with maps, stats, as well as top, side, and interior views of the vehicles in question. They proposed monthly “Sweet Sundays” – when the city would comes to a halt “so human beings can rest and talk to each other and the air can purify itself.” Among their other planks: restoration of Mohammed Ali’s world championship, vest pocket neighborhood colleges and zoos, free bicycles in the parks, a US Grand Prix in Central Park, and weekend jousting matches for teenagers. Mailer and Breslin understood that real politics is not just a matter of management but a collective expression of a community’s soul.

Their two most important ideas, however, were that New York should become the 51st state and that, as a consequence, neighborhoods would become the self-governing equivalents of towns and villages.

One of the spin-offs of the campaign, Peter Manzo’s book, “Running Against the Machine,” inspired this then-young journalist to write an article arguing that DC should become a state, which in turn led, several months later, to the formation of the DC statehood movement. Despite our city’s small size, the fall of Marion Barry, ethnic prejudice, and all the other problems faced by weak and debilitated colonies, the movement got far enough to win editorial encouragement from the New York Times and Washington Post, hold a constitutional convention, attract the transitory enthusiasm of presidential candidate Bill Clinton, win a respectable number of votes in its one House test, and even elect Jesse Jackson to the only electoral office he ever held, albeit briefly — the position of surrogate or “statehood senator,” a popularly elected lobbyist for prospective states. The DC Statehood Party, which recently merged with the DC Greens, held a city council seat for over 25 years and currently has one of its members on the school board.

If citizens of such weak clout as those in DC can get this far, imagine what the powerful folk of New York City could do if they rose up in righteous anger against their lack of equitable representation in the US Senate. Imagine a Million Mensch March – led perhaps by Ed Koch and Al Sharpton — descending on Washington to press the cause, a cause which is not just that of New York but of every American city and every group frustrated by the undemocratic hereditary power of the landed states that got there first. Urban states are the sina qua non of a better America. Let a dozen of them bloom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.