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Since the polls closed Tuesday, a lot of bold conclusions have been reached about D.C.’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. It was a joke. It was a failure. It was an easy day for poll workers.
Presidential long shot Dennis J. Kucinich, who received 8 percent of the D.C. Democratic vote with 137 of 142 precincts reporting, had a slightly different analysis when he campaigned in the city last Friday: “I think it’s an opportunity to learn who your friends are.”
Or, in the District’s case, who your adversaries are. The groundbreaking primary was supposed to educate the rest of the country about our political disenfranchisement: Leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire in the primary calendar, so went the strategic thinking, and we’d force prime-time presidential hopefuls to campaign here and talk about voting rights.
Instead, we got Al Sharpton diagnosing us as “articulate, elegant slaves” with a “grasshopper complex.”
The implosion of this clever political ploy is the handiwork of several loudmouthed individuals who would call themselves friends of the District. LL herewith chronicles their contributions to the cause:
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s congressional delegate
“I’m tired of being D.C.’s talking head on voting rights for the District of Columbia,” our voteless delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives ranted at a primary press conference Tuesday morning. “We will never get it that way, folks.”
LL couldn’t agree more.
That’s precisely why D.C. democracy activist Tim Cooper and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—with promotional assistance from WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin—conceived the first-in-the-nation gambit.
Too bad Norton didn’t see it that way.
The seven-term delegate forged her civil-rights reputation by putting principle before the oppressive ways of the Establishment. This time, though, she did the opposite. When initially pressed on the first-in-the-nation proposal, Norton fretted about breaking Democratic National Committee rules and alienating her political adviser and former chief of staff, Donna Brazile. Brazile sits on the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee and warned that if local officials went ahead with a binding contest ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, part of D.C.’s delegation wouldn’t be seated at the national convention in Boston in July.
The party of inclusion not seating the Chocolate City delegation? Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, here we come! Norton says she never saw the primary as an act of civil disobedience. “The rules are the rules,” Norton repeated on Tuesday morning.
Evans corralled the support of his legislative colleagues and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, but Norton seemed to have laryngitis on the issue. Given her self-proclaimed martyrdom on behalf of D.C. voting rights, LL thought our congressional delegate would have embraced the chance to take her wild-woman act on a national tour.
Evans could have used Norton’s civil-rights bona fides to convince spineless members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee to make the primary contest binding, allotting delegates to the convention. Instead, our brave local party leaders decided to follow the rules, and we ended up with a confusing mishmash of a nonbinding primary on Jan. 13, ward caucuses on Feb. 14, and delegate-selection caucuses on March 6. “I didn’t even know what they were doing,” the congressional delegate explained, when LL asked why Norton hadn’t taken a more active role in decision-making on the primary.
In the end, Norton explained to LL, she didn’t need to get involved with local party politics. She’s going to the convention anyway. “I’m a superdelegate,” she reminded LL.
LL hopes Norton enjoys her irrelevance in Boston.
D.C. Democratic State Committee
In a city that’s overwhelmingly Democratic, there’s not much for a party organization to do. So D.C.’s local party spends one Thursday night each month bickering and feuding over parliamentary procedure.
Last February, the group had the chance to show some muscle by putting its support behind a binding presidential primary. The challenge to national party leaders would have demonstrated a bold, independent streak in local Democratic politics.
It would have been the most earth-shaking party initiative since adding fried chicken and macaroni salad to the group’s Thursday-evening sessions.
But catered dinners and hardball politics are apparently too much to pile on to one year’s menu. The local Democratic organization narrowly defeated the proposal to hold a binding primary in January. And the wimps include several longtime local Dems, including National Committeeman Arrington Dixon, former Ward 8 Dems President Philip Pannell, Ward 6 civil-rights crusader June Johnson, and current Democratic Party Chair A. Scott Bolden, who was not chair at the time.
These voting-rights warriors listened to Brazile and the pooh-bahs from the Democratic National Committee, who convinced them that secure seats at the convention in Boston were more important than standing up for the right to have a voice in our national legislature.
Now that’s blazing your own Freedom Trail.
A. Scott Bolden, D.C. Democratic State Committee chair
The local Democratic Party chair views his post as a steppingstone eventually leading to the office of mayor.
LL will list Bolden’s accomplishments so far: He dresses well. He makes lots of promises. And he opted not to switch the nonbinding primary to a binding one. As one of the members who initially voted against the measure, Bolden had the ability to make the contest relevant when he assumed the party chairmanship. He opted not to.
On other matters, Bolden surprised many by naming lawyer/lobbyist David Wilmot as D.C. Democrat of the Year.
And to round out ’03 milestones, Bolden plastered his smiling mug on get-out-the-vote literature.
Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chair
The leader of the national Democratic party made clear that rules keeping New Hampshire and Iowa first were much more important than highlighting a voting-rights disgrace.
Donna Brazile, political consultant
The 2000 Al Gore campaign manager and former chief of staff to Norton persuaded her disenfranchised Democrats to follow party rules.
“There’s no price I would not pay for freedom,” Brazile lectured the crowd at the D.C. Democratic State Committee that night.
One exception: Secure seats at the Democratic convention.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.)
Lieberman lives here, prays here, and is desperate to lay claim to the Bill Clinton legacy. He’s touted himself as a friend to the District. He sponsored Norton’s No Taxation Without Representation bill in the Senate.
In October, Lieberman attended an event sponsored by the D.C. Democracy Fund. “There ought to be an uproar about the denial of voting rights in D.C.,” he stated at one point in the evening. “I want to be the president of the United States who finally ends this injustice.”
Hmmm…Lieberman—was he on the ballot Tuesday?
No—the former vice-presidential candidate requested that his name be removed from the D.C. primary ballot, citing party rules. “While I have always supported the District of Columbia’s fight for equal representation, a decision has been made to respect the Democratic National Committee’s rules that preserve the nature of the primary calendar,” Lieberman wrote.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Gen. Wesley Clark
These guys also opted out of the D.C. primary. That’s four fewer customers for Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Howard Dean, former Vermont governor
The presidential front-runner kept his name on the D.C. ballot.
For months it’s been clear that Dean would win the primary. Dean locked up endorsements from much of the city’s leadership, including Evans, Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, Ward 4’s Adrian M. Fenty, and Ward 5’s Vincent B. Orange Sr.
Unfortunately for Dean, he also received a late nod from At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil.
Dean cleaned up in the District without missing a beat in Iowa and New Hampshire. He skipped out on a radio debate on WTOP and didn’t spend even an hour in the District in the last two months before the primary. He got 43 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
The no-fuss win drew the ire of others campaigning for D.C.’s vote. “If you need a co-signer, that means you got bad credit yourself. I don’t need a co-signer in D.C. to tell D.C. about Al Sharpton,” Sharpton preached on Sunday to congregants at Union Temple Baptist Church. “They have no credit in the bank of public opinion.”
Mark Plotkin, WTOP political commentator
When it became clear that the D.C. primary would not turn into the voting-rights showcase he envisioned, the nasally crusader got hysterical.
Plotkin focused much of his ire on McAuliffe. On his radio program and in other commentaries, Plotkin repeatedly slammed McAuliffe for doing everything possible to poison the primary. On last Friday’s WTOP debate, Plotkin asked Carol Moseley Braun to confirm his hunch that the party chair had asked all candidates not to participate in the primary. Moseley Braun responded that she’d never had such a conversation with the DNC boss. Kucinich and Sharpton said the same.
Yet staying on the ballot didn’t automatically earn Plotkin’s praise. The esteemed commentator spent the last weeks before the primary slamming Dean for not spending enough facetime in the District—and skipping out on Plotkin’s WTOP debate.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio)
At last Friday’s debate, the Washington Post’s Colbert I. King asked the long-shot presidential candidate about whether he’d support a commuter tax for the District. Kucinich asked how such a mechanism would work.
Didn’t this guy once serve as a big-city mayor?
Carol Moseley Braun, former Illinois senator
The gentlewoman from Illinois likes to tout that she’s been a supporter of statehood for more than 20 years.
For such a solid statehood fan, Moseley Braun doesn’t seem too concerned about congressional encroachment on local affairs: She expressed her support for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) effort to repeal the handgun ban at the WTOP debate.
And she came out strongly against a local commuter tax. “It’s a job-killer,” Moseley Braun said.
There’s a candidate for the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Al Sharpton, National Action Network president
“Ain’t nobody asked you to the prom but me,” Sharpton told Sunday worshippers at Union Temple Baptist. “The one you waitin’ on is dating someone in Iowa. You can either go with me or stay home and be an old maid.”
Moments later, Sharpton intimated that Internet-savvy Dean supporters might want to check out “www.uncletom.com.”
That’s not exactly language to unite the party.
Yet the laugh lines seemed to work for the New York–based provocateur. Sharpton’s vigorous campaigning on Georgia Avenue and in churches the last days before the primary paid off: He received 34 percent of the vote on Tuesday.—Elissa Silverman
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