On Wednesday, a goodly chunk of the local governing class trekked on up to Concord, N.H., to press the case for D.C. voting rights. The District’s delegation, which included Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, and eight councilmembers, visited the governor and testified before the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Missing from the passenger manifest: At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, the city’s only elected Republican.
Why does Schwartz’s no-show matter? It’s all about politics. The trip, organized by fellow At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, was intended to shame the Republican senators of New Hampshire, who last year voted no on a bill to grant D.C. some representation in Congress. The specific purpose was to gin up support for a ceremonial resolution in the state legislature on the matter.
In other words, it was a stunt trip to support a stunt bill.
But the D.C. voting-rights movement, whose opportunities for substantive fights are few and far between, pretty much exists for stunts like this. And it would help if this particular stunt couldn’t be easily written off as a bunch of pissed-off Democrats laying the partisan smack down on GOP Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu, who are the representation-deniers at issue here. The bill that they helped to kill would have given the District a congressional vote along with a“make-up vote” for Utah.
Schwartz’s involvement might go some way toward heading off charges of partisan posturing. Catania, of course, used to be a Republican. But that’s about as close as the District folks could get to claiming a true bipartisan effort on the voting-rights bill’s behalf.
For her part, Schwartz’s decision not to head up White Mountain way is somewhat surprising considering that she’s criticized the Republican party’s lack of support for voting rights in the past. In March, back when the congressional legislation was still pending, she wrote a Washington Post op-ed about how she was “disheartened to learn that the Republican leadership is working to defeat [the voting-rights bill] and that the president is thinking about vetoing the bill.”
“As a fellow Republican, I beseech them to reconsider,” she wrote.
Asked about her decision to sit this one out, Schwartz indeed plays up her thus-far superb history on the matter. “I don’t think there’s a [voting-rights] function I’ve not attended in the past,” she says.
The problem with this trip, she says, is that taking on a pair of incumbent senators is a bad idea. “We are very close, and I think we need to continue making friends,” Schwartz says.
And, she says, it delves too deep into the dirty business of party politics. “It’s getting involved in the electoral process, which could be construed as partisan,” she says, brushing off suggestions that her involvement would ostensibly make it less partisan.
Catania says the focus on New Hampshire was not due to any animosity toward Republicans. Gregg and Sununu were the only New Englanders in the Senate to vote against the District’s interests, and he says part of the thinking is that the independent-minded denizens of the “Live Free or Die” state would be particularly sympathetic to the District’s cause.
But the partisan aspects, Catania admits, are pretty hard to ignore. “There’s no running away from the fact that partisanship has played a part in our struggle for voting rights,” he says.
“Has Mrs. Schwartz gone to visit [Kentucky Sen. Mitch] McConnell? How many times has she gone to visit the Republican leadership?” asks Catania. “I know it’s uncomfortable for her…but she has to choose. Does she want to be a citizen of this city or a partisan?”
If one was to arrange a hierarchy of all the District’s wards in order of which is likely to take offense to a perceived political slight, the order would go something like this: Ward 3 would have the thickest skin (as long as you’re not talking “density”), followed by Wards 2, 6, 4, 1, 5, 7, and 8—in that order.
Ward 8, for good reason, has long been the most sensitive constituency in the city, whether talking supermarkets, sit-down restaurants, or mayoral nominations to obscure posts. But it might have some competition for the touchiest-ward crown.
The controversy, such as it is, surrounds the slate of delegates that stands to be sent to this summer’s Democratic National Convention to select Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the party’s presidential candidate. There is absolutely no more precarious balancing act in politics than assembling a Democratic party delegate list. You’ve got to take into account gender, race, sexual orientation, geography, in addition to all the other pissant political calculations.
The No. 1 Obama honcho in the city is Fenty, who came out for the current Democratic front-runner way back in July. And the slate of delegates supported by Hizzoner, deemed “Barack Brings D.C. the Vote,” does, by most accounts, a splendid job of mixing the white and black, gay and straight, men and women, big shots and not-quite-as-big shots, east and west of the river. In fact, the slate includes no fewer than three Ward 8 residents (including Fenty’s chief of staff, Tene Dolphin)—a laudable showing.
But, apparently, bridging the east-west divide is no longer enough. The snub this time is allegedly aimed at Ward 7.
That’s right! Call it a watershed moment in District identity politics: Ward 8 is no longer the most disrespected ward in the city! Don’t tell Marion Barry!
“It’s something I find really offensive,” says Democratic activist Philip Pannell.
Lee Wilson, chair of the Ward 7 Democrats, takes a less confrontational tack, merely pointing out that there’s a trio of well-qualified Obama supporters within his group: Juan Thompson, Natalie Greene, and Denise Reed. “We want those candidates to be considered,” he says. “They’re backing Obama, and they’re good candidates.”
The slate was chosen in a combined effort between local Obama supporters, the D.C. for Democracy activist group, and the Fenty political operation (in the person of longtime political brain Tom Lindenfeld) .
The practical upshot of all this is pretty negligible. Without LL’s going too deeply into the Byzantine workings of how presidential nominating delegates actually get selected in this town, know that the number of delegates who actually stand to be selected from the slate is a fraction of the District 40-plus-person delegation, which is dominated by elected officials and assorted party hacks.
Lindenfeld stands by the selections. “I think that this is as a diverse, inclusive, and activist-oriented a slate as could possibly be assembled,” he says.
Pannell, no stranger to high-caliber rhetoric, has brought out the big guns as usual. Last week, he resigned his membership in the D.C. for Democracy group, calling the lack of Ward 7 types “both reprehensible and unconscionable” in a letter.
“For me to continue to be a member of an organization that is comfortable supporting a slate that excludes Democrats from a predominately African American ward east of the Anacostia River would be paradoxical, hypocritical and intellectually dishonest,” wrote Pannell, who actually lives in Ward 8.
If Wilson, Pannell, & Co. wanted, they could stage a coup at the party’s delegate selection caucuses scheduled for Jan. 19, where the actual delegate nominees are voted on. (The delegates are then allocated according to the results of the District’s Feb. 12 presidential primary.)
Lindenfeld says he isn’t concerned about a Ward 7 rebellion on caucus night. “We worked on making sure we had a joint mission among all of us,” he says. “I don’t really see that this is going to be much of a problem. Each of the delegates on the slate is taking an interest in making sure there’s a turnout.”
Says Pannell, “I almost feel like Don Quixote. Even if I’m the only one out there, it’s something I feel very deeply about.”
• For politics junkies, there’s nothing like schmoozing it up on the floor of a national political convention. LL, for instance, remembers fondly his stint as a DNC page way back in 1996. And for a local politician, the chance to rub up with the party’s big names in an exotic locale certainly holds allure.
Alas, it’s a perk that escaped Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans four years ago. The big-time supporter of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean put his name up at the D.C. Democrats’ delegate caucus for the spot designated for a male Dean delegate from Wards 1, 2, 6, or 8. (Told you the rules were Byzantine.)
But fellow Deanie and relative unknown Charles Allen, who coordinated the candidate’s Ward 6 campaign and is now chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, showed up with a posse of supporters and ended up grabbing the seat, 90 to 81.
Evans won’t have to round up a posse of his own for a spot in the delegation this year.
Under party rules, two delegates are reserved for “PLEOs”—that’s party leaders and elected officials. Used to be those were voted on by members of the D.C. Democrats, but under a rule change passed in the fall, those delegates are now allocated according to a succession list, starting with the council chairman. No. 2 on the list is council chairman pro tempore, a position that Evans has held since 2001.
According to Anita Bonds, chair of the local Democratic party, selection is still dependent on the results of the primary, though the officials don’t have to pledge to support a particular candidate until well after the election is held.
Evans says the change has nothing to do with the caucus-day ambush back in 2004. “Last time, they didn’t follow the order,” he says. “It’s more of a clarification thing than anything else.”
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