Bluetooth and Nail: Thomas escaped from party voting with unlikely delegate slot
Bluetooth and Nail: Thomas escaped from party voting with unlikely delegate slot Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Good news for local Democrats: The tight race for their party’s presidential nomination meant that, for once in history, the infighting of the D.C. Democratic State Committee actually mattered.

Here’s how.

In February’s D.C. presidential primary, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama vanquished his competition, taking 75.3 percent of the vote and winning all 142 city precincts in an election that saw record turnout.

That electrifying victory entitled Obama to the princely total of…12 delegates.

That’s less than a third of D.C.’s 39-voting-member delegation. The rest of those were either allotted to Sen. Hillary Clinton for her 23.8-percent showing, or they belong to unpledged “superdelegates” under no obligation to vote for a particular candidate.

So snapping up as many superdelegates as possible is the imperative for city Obamans if they want the District’s delegation to reflect in any way the will of its voters. And with Obama and Clinton locked in a pyrrhic death march to the Democratic National Convention, political watchers are eyeing even the slightest changes to the delegate total the way horseplayers eye the Derby Day odds.

That meant the April 3 state committee meeting had a little more import than that group’s typical sparsely attended monthly rundown of party biz. On the agenda was voting for a pair of unpledged delegates.

Running for the two slots were 20 community political types, ranging from big-name elected officials to longtime party hacks to absolute unknowns. Most, despite the “unpledged” moniker, had open allegiances to one of the two remaining Democratic presidential contenders, making it essentially a Barack-vs.-Hillary showdown. About three-fourths of the local party’s 80-plus members showed up—a rarely seen level of attendance.

To prevent a split vote, local organizers and the national Obama campaign, through the political apparatus of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, met in mid-March and decided to steer support to two pro-Barack delegate candidates: Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, a longtime state committee member and favorite of the old guard, and lawyer Miriam Sapiro, a relative unknown and big-time Obama fundraiser.

It fell to the local, grassroots supporters to bring the Obama camp in line, both by lobbying voting state committee members to support the Chosen Ones and by convincing all the other Obama-supporting candidates to drop out.

The lobbying wasn’t entirely successful: Though a number of the 25 candidates on the ballot withdrew before the vote, seven Obama supporters ended up running, while only two Clinton supporters stood: Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., and lawyer and ex-council staffer Aimee Occhetti.

Clinton’s name never came up in Thomas’ brief remarks before the vote; he instead chose to talk up his own qualifications and big-picture issues. “The issue is, what are we going to do when we get to Denver that best represents the District of Columbia?,” he asked.

The actual candidates’ names rarely came up in others’ remarks, as well. The division within the Obama camp was briefly aired when candidate Linda Nguyen rose to say, “I only have two minutes to convince you to vote for me…not someone you promised the mayor you’d vote for.” That earned her hearty boos from the crowd. (Line of the night, though, came from Occhetti: “If you call me at 3 a.m., I will definitely try to answer the phone.”)

In the end, Alexander cruised to victory, but Sapiro came up two votes short; she got 22 to Thomas’ 24.

So which D.C. Obaman deserves the Mark Penn treatment for this screw-up?

Well, how ’bout Fenty? He is, after all, a longstanding Obama backer, head of the D.C. Obama campaign, and the most charismatic and powerful presence in local political circles. Surely he could have turned the three votes necessary for an Obama sweep.

But Hizzoner never picked up the phone, leading to some groaning about a less-than-full-throated lobbying effort. Fenty’s top political consultant, Tom Lindenfeld, has an excuse—he’s been busy doing Obama work up in Pennsylvania for weeks. Sources say Fenty’s in-house political aide, John Falcicchio, was similarly MIA when it came to whipping votes.

Says Lindenfeld: “The only thing that’s important is that the delegation represents the strength of support that Barack Obama had at the time of the election in March.” (More on that below.)

Would mayoral clout have done any good?

Maybe: Jeffrey Norman, a member of the grassroots D.C. for Obama group and a state committee member, says a little more involvement from the Fenty camp would have been welcome. “Some of us warned in advance we were split too many ways,” he says. “I would have been happy to see them take more of a role than they did. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Maybe not: No. 3 Obama-backing vote-getter, Hope Tucker Stewart, says that no appeal from Fenty or his posse would have gotten them out of the race.

“It was a privilege of all of us to run,” says Stewart, a Ward 4 businesswoman who took 16 votes. “We all had the same chance to win. I just think that would be wrong [to drop out]….I would not think that Adrian Fenty would have asked me that question.”

Stewart declined to detail the lobbying she withstood to withdraw from the race: “I just say politics will be politics….There was pressure from all over the place, and a lot of the Obama people are very, very upset that a seat was lost.”

How deep was the breakdown in party discipline? Hard to say, since the ballots—which are usually kept for public inspection—disappeared after the voting. “They got mixed up, and somebody threw them away,” says state committee spokesperson David Meadows.

But here’s a fun fact: Alexander didn’t vote for her ticketmate. She voted for Thomas.

“I didn’t personally know [Sapiro] and I know Harry Thomas,” says Alexander, who adds that besides presidential loyalties, commitment to District affairs should also be a concern. Thomas, she says, proved himself in the latter category during their service together lobbying for voting rights at the 2004 convention.

And how damaging was the D.C. Dems’ vote to the Obama cause? Maybe not that much, because it seems that Thomas’ Clinton loyalties are hanging by a thread.

Prior to the April 3 vote, rumors swirled that Thomas planned to switch to Obama; Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta reported in a comment on the DailyKos Web site that Thomas staffer Ayawna Chase had told him earlier in the week that her boss had “changed his mind after hearing from his constituents.”

Thomas knocked that theory down after the vote: “I haven’t changed,” he told LL. “I’m consistent.”

Confirming that, on Monday morning, Meadows sent out a super-handy spreadsheet listing all of the D.C. delegates along with their presidential preferences. Thomas, in keeping with his comments to LL, was marked as supporting Clinton.

Then, on Monday evening, Meadows sent out a revised spreadsheet, along with a note explaining that Thomas “was incorrectly listed as a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton should read and tallied as ‘Unpledged’.”

Thomas said on Tuesday morning that he still hasn’t “changed officially.” He explained the spreadsheet change thusly: “What I wanted to do is honor the process of being an unpledged delegate.”

Graham Packs the ABC Board

Call him the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of liquor regulation!

Last year, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham held up a pair of Fenty’s nominations to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. In February, Graham explained his power move by playing up a plan he had at the time to reduce the board’s size from seven to five members.

Last week, Fenty sent down some new ABC board nominations. Two of the names—Ward 8 engineer Herman O. Jones and Ward 6 statistician and civic leader Nicholas Alberti—are somewhat familiar: They were the two that Graham had obstructed. Two new names show up, however: Charles L. Brodsky and Donald C. Brooks.

And here’s another place they show up: Graham’s donor rolls. Brodsky, an Adams Morgan businessman, gave $100 to him in 2002; Brooks, a recently retired city health administrator and also an Adams Morgan resident, gave the same amount, along with his wife, Christine Brooks.

Currently, only four board seats are filled, and two are set to be vacated come June. The board’s current chair, Peter Feather, is a Ward 1 resident (and also a Graham donor), which means that assuming all four of the new nominees are approved, three of six occupied board seats will be occupied by Graham constituents/donors.

But Ward 1 has a lot of liquor licenses, right? Not that many: Only 16 percent of the city’s almost 1,500 active on- and off-premises liquor licenses are located in Ward 1. (If any ward were entitled to multiple members, it’s Ward 2, with 609.)

Back in February, Graham told LL that he and Fenty had worked out a deal, though he didn’t disclose the details at the time. From these developments, the dimensions of the deal look something like this: Graham stopped pressing his bill to shrink the booze board; Fenty reciprocated by nominating two Ward 1’ers.

LL called Graham to ask about the nominations early Friday afternoon and left word with his spokesperson that he was inquiring about these issues. When LL didn’t hear back, he posted the aforementioned information on the City Desk blog shortly before the close of business Friday.

On Monday, LL again called Graham for comment. When he answered the phone, the councilmember was not pleased to hear from him.

“I’m not talking to you,” he said. “You lied in your blog post.”

LL inquired as to the lie, and Graham denied ever having claimed there was any sort of deal. “I’m not some slick politician,” he said.

Allow LL to quote himself, from his Feb. 15 column:

Within three months, the board could be under its three-member quorum, and getting nominees through the D.C. Council generally takes at least 30 days.

Graham says not to worry. “There’s been no problem as of yet, and there won’t be a problem,” he says. “We’re not going to let it happen.” To that end, Graham says he’s brokered a deal with the mayor to be announced later this week.

“It’s been resolved at a very high level,” he says.

Graham never disputed those words at the time of their publication. He did concede on Monday that deducing a quid pro quo from the available facts was “not an unreasonable observation.”

In the absence of a Graham explanation of the nondeal, here’s some more available facts: On Monday night, LL phoned Brooks and asked him about how his nomination came about. Brooks, who recently retired from the city’s Department of Mental Health, says he discussed an appointment to the liquor board “about a month ago” with Graham and heard nothing else until the mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions informed him of his nomination last week.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Delegate Potpourri

Shadow rep Panetta was twice orphaned when he was denied an automatic bid for a elected-official spot and then decidedto drop out and support the Alexander/Sapiro add-on ticket. His predecessor, Ray Browne, had garnered an add-on slot in the 2004 race, but no such sinecure was in the cards for Panetta.

Panetta says he plans to run for one of two alternate pledged at-large spots set to be selected on May 3. He’s going to have some competition for that alternate add-on slot: On Sunday, Lindenfeld sent out an e-mail to a group of high-level Obama supporters: “The preferred obama slate for at large is [Ward 4 Councilmember] Muriel Bowser and [Fenty fundraiser] Jim Hudson for delegate and Tom Lindenfeld for at large alternate,” he wrote.

Lindenfeld says he sent his e-mail after a request for clarity from supporters.

Even if Panetta doesn’t win, committee chair Anita Bonds announced last Thursday that Panetta would be serving as the delegation’s Official Blogger in Denver. Says Panetta: “One way or another, I’ll be there.”

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