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A Brief 20th Century Polling History of the
Fight for Home Rule in
Washington, District of Columbia
Mark Richards,
August 2000




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As public opinion research data became more widely available, a few pollsters examined the question of home rule in D.C. After a home rule bill reached the House floor in 1948, and an Arkansas representative with 50,000 constituents filibustered and killed the bill, George Gallup (1949) surveyed U.S. adults and found 65 percent thought the people of Washington should elect their own officials (20 percent said President should appoint D.C.’s officials).

The N.Y. Herald Tribune (February 3, 1952) blamed Congress for D.C. "downtown blight." In 1953, the Supreme Court sanctioned home rule: "There is no constitutional barrier to the delegation by Congress to the District of Columbia of full legislative power." Congress wasn't interested in the "full" part of the ruling. They toyed with various options, such as a gradual plan to make the existing setup look more representative to "handing back to Maryland with the government holding only a sliver of ground containing federal buildings" (The Washington Post, January 20, 1953). Commissioners that year were occupied with financial woes, and The Washington Post observed that D.C.'s "city council consists of 531 Congressmen who often give the impression they don't want to be bothered with the District, don't understand its problems, and don't have time to learn about them. But they won't let it go. City business gives Congressmen a change to plug the prejudices of their constituents. It makes for some funny business."

In 1956, D.C. citizens voted for the first time for delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and for other party offices-an election many hoped would pave the way for home rule and national representation. The Junior Chamber of Commerce held a voter registration campaign, and the attractive Miss Tippy Stringer played "Miss Get Out the Vote." For years, despite American public support, southern segregationists blocked Congressional home rule bills. District residents worked through the Washington Home Rule Committee to publicize the home rule drive. In 1964, District residents, in what was interpreted as a demonstration of their "worthiness," broke a U.S. historic voting turnout record for cities over 25,000 in their first presidential election — 90 percent voted, most for Lyndon B. Johnson. The Washington World reported, "Home rule will be a major issue in 1965 and during this administration. Whether local citizens, local officials and the local press now have sufficient strength to overcome traditional disinterest and outright resistance is still uncertain."

In 1965, Lou Harris again found a majority of Americans (66 percent) in favor of Congress granting D.C. the right to elect its own city government. Those who favored did so because "every city should determine their own destiny", and "every community has the right to self-government." The majority of Americans who opposed home rule (10 percent) said, "there are too many Negroes, they would take over."

In January 1966, Marion Barry organized a bus boycott when a private D.C. bus company raised fares five cents, gaining important knowledge about D.C. neighborhoods. That year, Barry turned to the "Free D.C. Movement." Free D.C. caused a number of businessmen and prominent members of the Board of Trade to break with the Board's opposition to home rule.

The District's chief opponent of home rule, John McMillan of South Carolina, often cited Board of Trade opposition. Yet, Barry grew in local popularity — a Washington Post poll in D.C. found Barry ranked fifth among black leaders who "had done the most for Negro people in the area."

In 1966, Lou Harris surveyed metropolitan Washington residents for The Washington Post. Harris found 69 percent of D.C. residents supported home rule-but only 45 percent of Caucasians. Support by African-Americans in the region was strong — 84 percent. Support in the region was 52 percent (51 percent of residents of Montgomery, 34 percent Prince George's, 39 percent Arlington, and 37 percent of Fairfax Counties). Harris said respondents who opposed home rule feared higher taxes, corruption, less federal aid, and African-American control of the Capital. Reasons people gave for supporting home rule were that Washington would be better governed by people who know and live with its problems, everyone should have a voice in their own government, lack of local government in the Nation's Capital was tarnishing America's image oversees, and home rule would result in better housing, better schools, and higher morale among District residents.

D.C. was granted limited home rule by Congress in December 1973 — and, according to Colbert King (The Washington Post, January 26, 1984), never did the issue of distrust of a majority black electorate openly surface in either house. In 1984, King wrote in "Home Rule Is Now 10 Years Old and It Feels Good" that of 69 Senators who voted for the home rule bill, only 14 remained, and of the 343 who supported in the House, just over 100 were still in office. He wrote, D.C. "could find itself thrown back to where it was more than 10 years ago: having to make the case anew for self government."

Ten years later (1994), The Wirthlin Group found 61 percent of D.C. and 72 percent of suburban residents describing the situation in D.C. as "a major crisis-not just some problems." They found the majority of both D.C. (77 percent) and suburban (53 percent) residents approved of increasing the federal payments to D.C., and 75 percent in D.C. and 60 percent in the suburbs supported having the federal government pay for state services. Under half in D.C. (48 percent) and the suburbs (42 percent) supported having the federal government take over state services. D.C. residents supported a 2 percent tax on non-residents (67 percent), but only 22 percent of suburban residents agreed.

Just after Congress gave an appointed Control Board authority over D.C.'s government in 1997, a national poll of U.S. adults by Mark Richards found 86 percent thought, "D.C. citizens should have the right to elect their own local officials." In the same study, 43 percent agreed that "If the locally-elected city government of Washington, D.C. is poorly managed, the federal government should take over and put different leaders in charge, because it is the nation's capital" — just over half (51 percent) disagreed. There were no race differences on these questions.

A year later, when D.C. residents were asked how the Control Board was handling its job (The Washington Post 1998 poll), 34 percent of African-Americans and 59 percent of Caucasians approved. But race differences disappeared when it came to putting the Control Board permanently in charge — just over 70 percent of both groups opposed the idea.

A Washington Post poll in February 2000 asked who had the most power in D.C. government these days — 56 percent said Congress. When asked who SHOULD have the most power, 51 percent said the Mayor, 17 percent the Council, 12 percent both Mayor and Council.

In the 1998 mayoral elections, Mayor Williams promised citizens he would stand his ground if Congress tried to move the goalposts they set for the return of D.C. home rule after four consecutive balance budgets.

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