The Rev. Al Sharpton christened his D.C. campaign office Sunday afternoon with much pomp and circumstance, assisted by network news cameras and Bowie State University’s Symphony of Soul marching band. Yet the well-coiffed candidate didn’t rely on flashy rhetoric when asked why D.C. residents should vote for him in the city’s Jan. 13 presidential primary.
He let his record speak for itself. “I’m 3-and-0,” declared Sharpton with a smile. “I went to the [Democratic State Committee] dinner. I’m the only one who has filed papers. I’m the only one with an office.”
It’s true. Sharpton doesn’t need to show much love for the District to overshadow his rivals. Last week, five of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls wrote to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and requested that their names be removed from the primary ballot. Right now that leaves only Sharpton, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and Hail Mary contenders such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun to sock it out for D.C.’s blessing.
The opt-outs deferred to a tradition that says residents of Dixville Notch, N.H., have the right to vote before anyone else in the country. A few guilt-ridden candidates embellished their letters with qualifiers as they stiff-armed the District:
•Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) used an old crutch, the passive voice. “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.) tried to feel our pain. “I do so with great trepidation, because I firmly believe the voters of the District of Columbia live in a hobbled democracy,” noted Edwards. “It is wrong that the citizens of Washington, D.C., do not have an equal voice in our government.”
•The othersRep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)simply cited party Rules 10A and 12H, which state that no primary may take place before New Hampshire and that Democratic candidates should “take all steps possible not to participate” in nonbinding primaries.
Way to play it safe, prospective leaders of the free world.
The no-shows are hiding behind technicalities. The Jan. 13 presidential primary will be followed by Feb. 14 presidential caucuses, safely after the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, at which local Dems will formally award delegates to candidatesa setup to satisfy party rules that in turn has prompted some national Dems to dub the Jan. 13 affair a “beauty contest.”
In their letters, Jan. 13 primary deserters vowed that they would devote time and effort to D.C.’s Feb. 14 caucuses.
LL won’t be canceling our Valentine’s
Local pols expressed shock and outrage upon hearing of the en-masse pullout. “There was one angry mayor,” says mayoral press secretary Tony Bullock.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans called the move “gutless.”
“I regret us working with the Democratic National Committee in trying to come to a solutionand then they turn around and stab us in the back,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr.
Yeah, what a blindside by the national Democrats! Who ever would have expected presidential candidates to dis the District, with our mother lode of three electoral-
Actually, the Democratic hopefuls have been dropping hints about abandoning the D.C. contest for weeks. On Oct. 23, Lieberman joined Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton for a D.C. Democracy Fund event at Cada Vez on U Street NW. Sponsor of the “No Taxation Without Representation” act in the Senate, Lieberman spoke with passion about the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress. “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.”
He just doesn’t want to be the presidential candidate who ends it. As he departed Cada Vez, Lieberman suggested that he might skip out on the Jan. 13 primary.
More clues surfaced at Nov. 1’s Kennedys-King Dinner, a raucous fundraiser held annually by the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The evening’s program promised at least half the presidential hopefuls. Only Sharpton ended up coming; he delivered a rousing speech warning against treating D.C. as a “drive-by primary” that got most of the city’s Democrats on their feet.
The soiree also featured remarks by Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe, who hasn’t exactly been a cheerleader for D.C.’s primary. When McAuliffe rose to speak, several Ward 2 Democrats including D.C.-voting-rights activist Mark David Richards heckled him.
State Committee Chair A. Scott Bolden had pretty harsh words for the no-shows. “I smell a rat,” Bolden told the Washington Post. “Poor politicians make poor decisions.”
Bolden’s rhetoric seemed quite toned down when he met with councilmembers this week to discuss options for the primary. Ward 2’s Evans and Ward 5’s Orange made several suggestions, including legislation putting all candidates on the ballot without an opt-out clause and making the primary binding.
Bolden didn’t seem too eager to buck McAuliffe et al. with such actions.
When D.C.’s early primary was first proposed, national pundits considered the move a benefit to Sharpton, who would presumably poll well in a majority-black city. Those pundits, however, didn’t see Dean coming. The former New England governor has locked up endorsements from much of the city’s elected leadership, including several African-American councilmembers.
LL can see it now: Ward 8’s Sandy Allen and Ward 4’s Adrian M. Fenty sitting as honored guests at the 2005 State of the Union address.
And just why haven’t councilmembers turned out for Sharpton, the only guy who’s ranting about voting rights? That’s a simple one: The District is a marginalized polity to begin with. Hopping aboard the Sharpton train would merely reinforce the national stereotype that the city is out of step with the rest of the country. Give the District statehood, the thinking goes, and we’ll elect somebody like Marion S. Barry Jr. to the U.S. Senate.
Sharpton has responded to the local establishment’s cold shoulder by organizing. He has recruited some local political operatives for his effort: Joe Louis Ruffin is Sharpton’s campaign coordinator for D.C., and André Johnson serves as deputy campaign coordinator and D.C. press secretary. That dynamic duo last teamed up for school-board member Dwight E. Singleton’s at-large run for D.C. council. Veteran Ward 5 politico Harry Thomas Jr. is also on board.
Given their track record in local elections, Sharpton can count on finishing at least fourth.
“The reason I’m putting time and effort in D.C. is not about votes,” argues Sharpton. “I’m campaigning as much for D.C. as for Al Sharpton….I’m going to have to make everyone respond to why they’re ignoring D.C.”
Indeed, on Sunday, Sharpton made all the right gestures to D.C. voters. He spoke passionately about the District’s disenfranchisement. He said that he would campaign vigorously for our votes. He repeated that he would use his campaign to highlight the District’s voting-rights struggle.
Given the plates of KFC fried chicken at the Sharpton ribbon-cutting, he’s already conceding the city’s vegan vote to Kucinich.
The District will have to settle in for more all-Sharpton-all-the-time campaigning over the next couple of months. Even if other candidates somehow get restored to the ballot, they won’t be making many trips into town. It’s tempting to blame national Democratic operatives for the marginalization of D.C.’s primary. But it wouldn’t exactly be accurate.
The fiasco is as much the handiwork of weak-kneed locals as it is of pandering presidential candidates. Remember that D.C.’s Democratic State Committee in February voted against holding an early binding primary, even though such an event promised to bring national attention to the city’s lack of voting rights.
In turning down the binding primary, the committee bowed to national party rules and bylaws-committee member Donna Brazile. “There’s no price I would not pay for freedom,” the statehood activist told local Democrats that evening. Yet Brazile successfully convinced a slim majority that now wasn’t the right time for civil disobedience within the party.
Civil-rights champion Norton also seemed cool to the primary idea at that time.
So came the compromise: Hold a nonbinding primary in January and caucuses in February. That meant that D.C. delegates would actually be recognized by the partybut would make the early primary less of a political protest.
Democratic activists recently found out what a muted stance on the primary yields: poor turnout.
Sharpton vows to make the Jan. 13 primary a spirited contest, no matter who ends up on the ballot. “You’ll have Dean and Sharpton in here,” says Sharpton campaign manager Charles Halloran. “I’ll take that race.”
•About two months ago, Mayor Williams nominated David H. Marlin to chair the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. “I don’t think anyone who has reviewed his résumé would question his qualifications for this position,” says Williams press secretary Bullock.
Except if that anyone is Ward 5’s Orange, who chairs the council’s Committee on Government Operations. Last Friday, Orange held a confirmation hearing for the mayor’s other nomination to the elections board, Lenora Cole Alexander. “I’m not ready to schedule a hearing [on Marlin],” says the councilmember. “Based on what has been presented, it appears there is a problem in Mr. Marlin serving on the Board of Elections and Ethics.”
Here’s the problem: In 1998, Marlin was informed by elections officials that regulations barred him from wearing a “Williams for Mayor” sticker inside his polling place. Marlin sued the elections board and lost. Orange believes that Marlin will use his position on the board to change that regulation and promote a pro-Williams agenda at the independent agency.
Marlin’s patron has had his run-ins with the board as well: Last year, the elections board denied the incumbent mayor a spot on the Democratic primary ballot after determining that thousands of signatures on his nominating petitions were invalid. The board fined Williams $250,000.
“We’re going to take our time to examine Mr. Marlin,” says Orange. How much time?
The councilmember says he doesn’t plan on scheduling a hearing anytime soon.
•HBO’s K Street has highlighted a few things for its viewers: Washington lobbyists eat expensive lunches, they have really fucked-up personal lives, and they seem unhappy most of the time.
Here’s something viewers might not have known: That Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run, thinks about running for mayor of D.C.
In the episode that aired Nov. 2, Brazile and lobbyist-cum-spy Francisco Dupre, played by Roger G. Smith, sit on a park bench on the grounds of the City Museum. Brazile delivers Dupre a dose of race consciousness and assures him that she’ll watch his back. “It’s D.C.we take care of each other,” counsels Brazile. “It’s still Chocolate Citydespite all these vanillas who keep dropping in. Got some strawberries now.”
As they depart, a homeless woman asks Brazile, “You running for mayor? You the mayor?”
“I’m not the mayor yet,” Brazile responds.
In the meantime, she might work on that strawberry votewhoever that is. Elissa Silverman
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