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A recurring theme within the D.C. Democratic Party is the dissatisfaction of current and former State Committee members about the way the party is run. And because she is an entrenched party chair in an election year, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds bears the brunt of the criticism.
Over the last six years, committee members have accused Bonds, whose Council seat is up for reelection, of making unilateral decisions that affect the committee as a whole and of leaving them in the dark until after she has made them. The disgruntlement starts with basic lapses such as a dysfunctional website and lack of proper meeting notices, and extends to gripes about the party’s core functions and principles.
In 2011, Bonds ended a longstanding tradition of having Democrats vote on committee members at their respective polling places for the primary, and instead decided to hold a convention in the auditorium at the University of District of Columbia, but with no opportunity to cast absentee ballots, leaving some party members disenfranchised in the selection of their leaders.
The following year, an out-of-date but still-functioning committee website misinformed party members of the location for the caucus to select delegates to the DNC convention, while a newer version failed to specify any location at all, confusing committee members and party members alike.
Just last year, the committee failed to include Sen. Bernie Sanders’ name on the primary ballot for the presidential election. Though the committee was able to scramble to get Sanders’ name on the ballot, the screwup signaled a level of dysfunction that has been apparent to anyone who has visited the D.C. Democratic Party’s website recently.
Months ago, Loose Lips was surprised when a person answered a call to the committee’s office number listed on its website and said, in English, that he did not speak English, and then abruptly hung up. Turns out the website listed the wrong number. Repeat visits to the website just last week showed an out-of-date list of committee members and links to a constitution and bylaws that have not been amended since 2014.
In an interview last week, Bonds blamed a disagreement with the former webmaster for the website dysfunction, and said that the committee has been working on a new site for a month and a half. (Since that conversation, the website has been taken down. Visitors to http://www.dcdemocraticparty.org are informed that the site is “under construction,” and that the next general membership meeting is December 7th, in Room 120 of the Wilson Building.)
Party organization and communication goes hand-in-hand with inclusiveness for committee member Walter DeLeon, president of the College Democrats, an affiliated organization that gets an automatic seat on the committee. “It’s an organizational disaster, just a mess,” says DeLeon, who was not listed on the committee’s website before it went down for construction, and was not notified when he was due to be seated. “I had to find out from the Latino Caucus about my own swearing in.”
Former 19-year committee member John Capozzi says the committee also does a bad job of informing members of meeting agendas, bylaws changes, and specific functions such as developing a plan for getting committee candidates on the June primary ballot. Indeed, last week the website contained no information related to 2018. “It’s no wonder Democrats don’t understand what the committee does, how it functions, or why they need to be involved,” Capozzi says.
Veteran committee members say Capozzi and fellow detractors are upset because they have not been successful in taking over the party with their own slate. Capozzi counters that Bonds has added affiliated organizations (and thereby new committee members) over the years to dilute potential opposition and preserve her control over the party, which dates to 2006.
More disconcerting, he says, is that the committee has become complacent and ineffective, and fails to take stands on issues facing D.C. residents. “There’s a lack of communication with anyone who cares about the Democratic Party, no transparency over the inner workings of the committee and how decisions are made, and no clear explanation of what we stand for. I can’t find evidence that we’ve taken stands on anything,” says Capozzi.
DeLeon agrees. “I think the D.C. Democrats are dropping the ball,” he says. “We are not reaching out to new people, we are not registering new voters. Members are disappointed because of lack of involvement, outreach, and engagement.”
Committee member Markus Batchelor tells LL that internal politics and structural defects are preventing the party from being a more influential force in local politics. “I believe the party has a critical role to play in the civic life of our city,” says Batchelor. “Voter registration, education, and mobilization are things the party should and must do better.” He likens city politics to the Wild West, where candidates and elected officials operate without guidance or a unified party voice. This, he says, is particularly acute as the city skews younger and upstart candidates seek to get involved. “With no party structure to hold Democratic candidates accountable to those principles that make the party a force for good, there’s no grooming of the next generation of political leadership at the community level.”
Committee member James Bubar agrees that the committee should meet more often and do more outreach in non-presidential election years and work harder to get new residents involved with the party. But the committee thrives during presidential election years, says Bubar, co-chair of the Standing Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination, and its members work hard with a common purpose. They travel on their own dime to meet with other state committees to promote Democratic causes, he says, and are successful getting Democrats elected in other states. “Our resolution in support of statehood was adopted by every caucus and region of the National Democratic Party,” he adds. “I consider that effective.”
When asked whether Bonds is an effective committee chair, however, Bubar has little to say: “Anita has been chair for a long, long time, and has taken us through three Democratic conventions, so … she’s our chair.”
In her own defense, Bonds says the party has been very active in getting Democrats engaged not just in D.C., which has 385,000 registered Democratic voters, but in Maryland and Virginia as well. “During the presidential election we did more calls and had more volunteers than any other jurisdiction in the country, including California,” she says.
As for dissension in the ranks, Bonds says once the local party has chosen candidates for the general election, the committee will get more involved. Until then, she says, “We meet the first Thursday in December, and we have a schedule of meetings through 2018. We’ll also have an executive meeting in January to present [committee] candidates to the full membership. That’s the way we have done it since I’ve been here. I didn’t create this organization. I was elected, and I’m following the bylaws.”
Meantime, Natasha McKenzie, the committee’s executive director, bristles at any suggestion that the party lacks focus or inclusiveness: “The District of Columbia Democratic Party is committed to a fair and transparent primary process. Any allegations that suggest otherwise are simply untrue. We’re focused on electing Democrats up and down the ticket across the District, and we’re more energized and motivated than ever before.”