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In the 20 little-watched contests this year for seats on the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the official local branch of the Democratic Party, one thing is as clear as the current White House is chaotic: Neither of the two principal slates on the ballot likes Donald Trump.
In fact, they have branded themselves with explicitly anti-Trump rhetoric. The larger slate, which has 42 candidates, calls itself “DumpTrump-Dems4Action,” while the smaller slate, which has 24 candidates, is called “Democrats Moving Forward #Resist.” (Yes, the hyphen and the hashtag are parts of their formal names.) The remaining candidates in the DSC races are either on ward-based slates or are not affiliated with a slate.
More than 85 people are running for positions on the committee. On primary election ballots, Democratic voters will pick who they want to serve on the DSC, including posts for national committeeman and woman and at-large committeeman and woman. (The committee has gendered seats to ensure diversity.) Three-in-four registered voters in D.C. are Democrats.
But the DumpTrumpsters and the #Resisters find themselves at odds over who should get to coordinate with the Democratic Party’s head honchos and direct party-building and get-out-the-vote efforts here in the District.
The two slates disagree over the level of experience and community connections needed to perform those tasks well, and over each other’s qualifications at a time when Democrats are looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.
In a way, the divide reflects national tensions within the Democratic Party between 2016 supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with Democrats Moving Forward representing the more established forces in D.C. politics and Dems4Action representing grassroots efforts. A common feeling among the candidates is that what may seem like petty squabbles over party ownership between political operatives matter now more than ever.
“The first difference between us is the accumulative experience with all of our slate members,” says John Lazar, who is running for re-election as the Ward 2 committeeman on the #Resist slate after he won his seat in a 2017 special election. “We bring a richness of experience and diversity, with various generations, LGBTQ members, and individuals from different strata—academic, business, political.”
Todd Brogan, a candidate for Ward 4 committeeman who is on the DumpTrump slate, views the distinctions between the two a bit differently. “I don’t think it’s old guard versus new guard,” he explains. “You might be able to argue it’s progressive versus moderate/centrist. More than anything, it’s the people who are doing the work of the Democratic Party—mobilizing around [D.C.] Council issues, organizing volunteers—versus the people who are sitting it out.”
The DSC presides over the persnickety process for sending delegates to the Democratic National Convention every four years, fills vacancies of Democratic D.C. Council seats when they occur, and encourages Democratic voter education and registration. But because its operations are largely removed from those of the Council and the mayoral administration, many residents are unaware of the committee.
Critics say the committee has been an organizational mess in recent years. More than 30 of the 2018 candidates are already involved with the DSC in various capacities. Anita Bonds, a veteran District politico and an at-large councilmember who is seeking another term on the Council, chairs the DSC.
Both the Democrats Moving Forward slate and the Dems4Action slate are hoping to convince voters that they would do a better job of opposing Trump’s agenda, improving the quality of life in the District, and pushing for D.C. statehood, which was included in the 2016 Democratic Party platform.
But the newer candidates confront a practical challenge: Many of the most consistent voters don’t appear to know much, if anything, about the committee. By Brogan’s count, 70 to 80 percent of “double prime Democrats”—people who voted in 2014 and 2016—whose doors he’s knocked on “say they have no idea” about the DSC. “That blows my mind,” he says.
Philip Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 activist running for at-large committeeman on the DumpTrump slate and a member of the DSC for 11 terms, says the committee must do more serious business and be more vocal. “So our disenfranchisement is not treated as just a simple political footnote—or an asterisk to a footnote,” Pannell says of the District. “We never get the type of national attention we deserve at these national conventions, and that’s a national shame.”