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Longtime D.C. politicos know not to mess with deadlines administered by the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE). The most important drop-dead date relates to filing petitions to qualify as a candidate. This year, the “instructions to the circulator” on each sheet carried this message: “The deadline to file this petition is 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 5, 2006.”
Ward 6 D.C. Council candidate Will Cobb missed that deadline. Now-ex-campaign manager Jessica Strieter had somehow misread the bold print and told Cobb that July 5 was the first day of a weeklong opportunity to turn in only one of a handful of vital candidacy papers. Cobb learned that he had missed the deadline when a Washington Post reporter called him.
On Monday, Cobb got his chance to persuade the elections board to forgive his tardiness and place his name on the Sept. 12 primary ballot. Who could deny a guy who showed up at 8:45 a.m. for a 9:30 hearing? BOEE chair Wilma Lewis was the one asking for forgiveness when she gaveled the hearing to order at 10:07. “I apologize for being late,” Lewis said. “I ran into a little traffic.”
After the snickers subsided, Cobb threw down his groundbreaking rationale for a deadline extension. He urged the panel and voters to overlook his lateness because the “error” was due to “excusable neglect.” Cobb presented Lewis with his key points on how deadline neglect might fall into the excusable realm:
•Campaign manager failed to inform candidate of issues.
A July 5 handwritten letter from Strieter to the board attributes her failure to deliver the petitions within the statutory deadline to an undisclosed “personal issue.” Cobb says he didn’t know about his campaign chief’s problems.
•Candidate is a trusting boss.
Cobb says he had no reason to doubt Strieter when she told him that July 5 was the first day to turn in petitions. “Based on the service she had provided to date, this reliance was not misplaced,” the written appeal states. Strieter was fired.
•How about some points for hustle?
Cobb didn’t drop the ball until the last minute. Most of his 500-plus signatures were in hand “by mid-June,” he says. He’s a serious candidate who’s raised about $36,000. After the Post reporter told Cobb that the submission deadline had passed, he “promptly contacted [Strieter] and directed her to go to the BOEE to file the petition(s).”
“Under these specific circumstances,” Cobb concluded, “it is clear that the failure was the result of excusable neglect within the meaning of the relevant law and regulations.” LL figures Cobb must have consulted with some kind of excusable-neglect expert to find such clarity in his position. “These facts,” he writes, “all support the conclusion that the inadvertent delay in filing was de minimis and, arguably, excusable neglect.”
Cobb tossed out a bunch of other appeals for clemency at the hearing: “Other candidates have not been as active,” since the petition debacle; keeping him off the ballot has removed a champion for “people of all races and income levels” from the contest and “left a lot of people feeling disenfranchised.” And besides, said Cobb, “no one will be harmed by me being on the Ward 6 ballot.”
In the process of bringing a new term into D.C.’s political lexicon, Cobb also inadvertently reminded voters of his tendency to overlook details. The words “excusable neglect” don’t appear in the laws or regulations governing ballot access.
Before the board began dissecting Cobb’s arguments, BOEE lawyer Kenneth McGhie cut things short by pointing out that the excusable-neglect language, “is completely in the section for [our] hearings.” In other words, the section cited by Cobb applies only to the board’s authority to excuse non-compliance with the board’s own deadlines.
“We can’t even say we have discretion to do this,” Lewis told Cobb after his sincere presentation. “Regardless of how compelling your reasons might be, there is no recourse we can offer you.” Lewis’ well-earned reputation for painful attention to detail and long delays in rendering opinions was not on display. She showed Cobb the door in about 15 minutes, delivering a quick and merciful end to an excruciating case of candidate self-flagellation.
The chair was on solid precedential ground: “I forgot” traditionally has worked about as well with election officials as it does with the Internal Revenue Service. The election board has never granted a candidate an after-the-fact deadline extension. Only one candidate before Cobb has appealed the board’s practice of giving late papers an automatic F.
But Cobb isn’t done yet. He paid close attention when BOEE Executive Director Alice Miller offered a parting consolation. “You can still run a write-in campaign,” she said at the conclusion of the hearing.
Cobb is no quitter. Most candidates who missed the petition filing deadline would have curled up in a ball for a while and hoped the whole incident would fade from D.C.’s collective political memory. Cobb will make a decision about his immediate political future, “after consulting with my inner circle.”
The braintrust apparently votes for a relaunch, most likely a write-in bid. In a July 18 e-mail to his “campaign followers,” Cobb invites the faithful to “a very special and important announcement” on July 22. The caption above a photo of Cobb pumping his fist attached to the invite reads: “Cobb Campaign Marches On.”
THE MOST POWERFUL HAT IN TOWN
Ward 3 D.C. Council candidate Eric Goulet knew the most important place for him to be on July 14. While most politicos were slapping backs and shaking hands, he showed up to witness what he hoped would be a much-needed turning point in his election effort.
In a time-honored tradition, Goulet and a few other candidates and campaign workers gathered in the BOEE hearing room to officially select how names will appear on the Sept. 12 primary ballot. Nothing high tech about how D.C. does it: Board staff cut the names of candidates for each office from a printout of the official list, the slip is wadded up, and candidates and reps in attendance pluck the names out of a hat.
The leading candidates in the top-shelf races don’t worry too much about the ballot lottery. It’s nice to be on top, but not essential. For a political newcomer such as Goulet, who’s looking for any kind of boost in a contest with eight others for the democratic nomination, a lot rides on the hat.
The hat is an old, slightly smudged Styrofoam boater most often seen these days on the heads of overweight, screaming political conventioneers. This particular political topper features those red, white, and blue “I Voted” stickers on the cylinder. It may not look like much, but after a candidate’s name is tossed in, what comes out can change political fortunes for some—at least in the minds of the candidates.
Election-board old timers are a little sketchy on when the hat came into play. Legend has it that a couple of board vets saw it sitting around the office sometime in the early ’90s and figured it would add an appropriate level of pageantry to the ballot-order draw.
Only one candidate grabbed his own name for the first slot. It was a big payday for U.S. Shadow Senator hopeful Michael Brown, who claims more than just luck for his good fortune. “I feel my candidacy is ordained by God,” jokes Brown. He also shares a name with a mayoral contender who has planted yard signs in traffic medians all over town, and now he’ll be the first name voters see if they can muster the energy to vote in the shadow races. “Let’s face it—this is a contest that doesn’t get a lot of press,” Brown says. “Being No. 1 means something.”
U.S. Shadow Representative hopeful Mike Panetta might as well put the champagne on ice. He was the only candidate to pump a fist and show some emotion when his name came out of the hat first. “I know this is the last job on the ballot,” says Panetta. “No one in the race is a well-known person. Being No. 1 should help.”
The hat did not produce a similar kind of magic for Goulet, whose late entry into a crowded race and weak name recognition made a top spot on the ballot a pressing matter. He arrived with high hopes but left cursing the hat and No. 6 on the ballot. “That ballot draw did not go exactly as I had hoped,” Goulet says.—James Jones
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