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Every time the issue of statehood or congressional voting representation for the District of Columbia has the potential to command a national audience, LL watches the usual suspects line up to form a political cone of silence.
Clustered at the front are Republican leaders, who can rationalize denying more than a half-million residents of the nation’s capital a voice in our national legislature. They say that they’re just strict interpreters of the Constitution, but everyone knows their real motive: to keep the Democrats from securing a surefire seat in the House of Representatives.
Right behind them stand the right-wing zealots, who rest their argument on these words: “U.S. Senator Marion S. Barry Jr.”
One local figure you’d never place alongside those crowds is longtime District booster Donna Brazile, the outrage-spewing former aide to D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. For years, Brazile could match any statehood advocate word for word on the injustices of D.C.’s disenfranchisement.
In the last few weeks, though, Brazile has come off as a detractor of the District’s latest statehood plot. Specifically, she has downplayed the idea of moving up D.C.’s presidential primary to usurp New Hampshire and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status—a power play designed to draw attention to the city’s unique political plight. “Now’s the time to begin strategizing for 2008,” Brazile recently told the Washington Post. “The door’s closed for 2004.”
If that doesn’t sound like the same woman who once crusaded for D.C. voting rights, well, it really isn’t: Today, Brazile occupies a seat on the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee—a post that virtually obligates her to throw cold water on baldfaced attempts to buck party tradition and agreed-upon guidelines.
She also chairs the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, established by the party to promote the right of all Americans to participate in the political process.
Perhaps LL’s naive, but we assume that includes D.C. residents denied a vote in Congress.
“It’s an odd reversal of roles,” admits Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who introduced legislation in the D.C. Council last month that would make D.C.’s primary the first in the nation. “She’s the establishment—and I’m the radical.”
Every D.C. champion except for Brazile seems to want to take credit for the primary gamesmanship right now. Though activists say the strategy has been kicked around since 1988 or so, D.C. democracy activist Timothy Cooper brought the first-in-the-nation ploy to Evans and WTOP’s political analyst/agitator Mark Plotkin a few weeks ago. Evans went public on Plotkin’s show a few days later and introduced legislation in the D.C. Council the following week.
“I’m just merchandizing it,” Plotkin modestly explains.
Right now, Evans has the support of his council colleagues and Mayor Anthony A. Williams. If the D.C. Council holds firm and the mayor signs Evans’ bill, Congress may overturn the law. And that will create an even more interesting scenario for D.C. voting-rights activists: a majority-Republican Congress denying D.C. residents the right to vote.
Local pols then will have to decide whether to hold an election in spite of congressional objection. The mere idea makes home-rule advocates like Plotkin salivate: “What are they going to do? Federalize the National Guard?” asks Plotkin. “Great! Terrific!”
But while big-picture guys like Plotkin dream of dramatic scenarios, Brazile sticks to her bylaws. “My position is that rules are set after the preceding convention. In order to make a play, you got to put that in place early enough,” she says, noting that rules for the 2004 Democratic convention were set 13 months ago. “I don’t have the votes; we can’t violate the rules.”
Brazile also challenges the rationale behind the D.C.-first movement. Evans argues that because the District isn’t a state, it can sneak in front of real states—New Hampshire and Iowa—that have their must-be-first privileges written into the DNC bylaws. Brazile counters that the party treats the District as a state at presidential-nominating conventions, with voting delegates apportioned accordingly.
Even so, Brazile isn’t knocking her fellow statehood rabble-rousers. “If D.C. decides to violate the rules, that’s all well and good. I’ve been D.C.’s champion,” she says.
Brazile has even expressed frustration herself with D.C.’s meaningless presidential primaries. While working as D.C. field director for Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996, she organized a news conference to remind voters to come out and vote in the May primary, even though the candidates had been decided. She told reporters that she was trying to fight apathy and ignorance about the election.
Brazile knows a lot about presidential politics: She made a splash as a political operative in the 1984 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then worked in 1988 for presidential hopefuls Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis. She resigned from the Dukakis campaign after telling reporters that then-Vice President George H.
W. Bush should “‘fess up” about a rumored extramarital affair.
Then there’s her D.C. bona fides. Brazile spent more than a decade as the closest political adviser to Norton. “[W]e can’t keep this on the back burner….We have to make D.C. statehood a national issue, convince the public that it matters,” remarked Brazile in 1992, when the House of Representatives considered D.C.-statehood legislation. “We have to make people understand this is the right thing to do.”
Brazile’s resistance to the D.C.-first concept might explain Norton’s less-than-enthusiastic activism on the issue. D.C.’s wild woman has hardly been raging on and on about the primary in the halls of Congress.
“The congresswoman without Donna is like Abercrombie without Fitch, or Abbott without Costello,” explains one political observer in Norton’s recently published biography, Fire in My Soul. “The congresswoman is the intellectual and Donna is the brass knuckles political. Neither is afraid to speak her mind, sometimes in short words. And Donna will tell you herself she put the ‘B’ in bitch.”
* Last year, D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox wrote a 514-page report on how the Williams people couldn’t throw a party without violating one rule or another. Now,the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance is checking out who paid for the wheels of brie at meet-and-greet gatherings during Williams’ 2002 campaign.
Perhaps all the scrutiny explains why no one in the Williams cabinet wants to do party planning anymore. Last Friday night, someone in the Williams camp planned to throw a soiree to celebrate Williams’ November victory over Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.
D.C. campaign-finance watchdog Dorothy Brizill is still trying to figure out who was behind it all. The activist’s tip came from Williams loyalists, who telephoned her with complaints that they hadn’t been invited to the bash.
An e-mail circulated to “Team Williams,” the name Williams’ post-petition-debacle campaign manager Theodore N. Carter assigned to Williams stalwarts, invited the chosen to a dinner at the Henley Park Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue NW. RSVPs were directed to a Maryland phone number. Hopeful party-crashers eventually were referred to Williams administration staffer Peggy Armstrong, according to Brizill.
Brizill wanted to know who was paying for the party. “Peggy’s initial response was, ‘What party?’” Brizill recalls. Armstrong then informed Brizill that she would call D.C.’s shadow inspector general with details later.
“My involvement is just a figment of Dorothy’s imagination. I was just invited. I wasn’t even sure who was doing it,” Armstrong tells LL.
When LL stopped by the Henley Park in our party duds Friday night, we were informed that the event had been canceled. Apparently, Team Williams had expanded its party capacity and the new group had received an e-mail saying that the party had moved to Juste’s Lounge, around the corner from the Williams 2002 campaign office on 7th Street NW.
* Former city official Charles F. Holman made headlines a few weeks ago with a lawsuit against the Williams administration. Holman claims that he was fired as head of the city’s Office of Human Rights not over job performance, but over his unwillingness to play along.
Holman’s sin, he alleges in the suit, is that he objected to the hiring of attorney Curtis Lewis, a candidate who was popular with Washington Teachers’ Union officials Barbara A. Bullock and Gwendolyn Hemphill. Both women were favorites of the Williams administration and lobbied extensively for Lewis’ hiring.
Bullock and Hemphill are allegedly participants in a criminal conspiracy that defrauded the teachers’ union of approximately $5 million.
Administration officials insist that Holman was dismissed for poor performance. Yet according to the recently released FY 2002 Performance Accountability Report, the Office of Human Rights “exceeded expectations.” Holman supervised the office for two-thirds of the evaluated period.
“OHR significantly exceeded two targets and met three targets for the five performance measures for this goal. Overall, the agency exceeded expectations,” reads the report.
* Ward 8 Dems President Philip Pannell knows how to attract attention. A few weeks ago, Pannell called up WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour to tell a tale he’d already shared with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, concerning a cash payment of $2,500 to his Ward 8 re-election campaign. Pannell says the cash was tied to Washington Teachers’ Union Executive Assistant Hemphill.
Pannell received a note from Hemphill’s attorney last week. “Such statements are defamatory per se and we demand that you cease making such statements in the future,” wrote attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr. “If you continue to make such statements in the future, my client has authorized me to pursue legal action against you.” CP
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