Get our free newsletter
On a Tuesday night in mid-February, the Ward 2 Democrats are holding their monthly meeting at the Wilson Building. It’s not a pretty sight.
Fifteen Democratic activists are squabbling over a resolution they passed at their January meeting to oppose the mayor’s nomination of Marlene Johnson to head the D.C. Public Service Commission. Acting Chairwoman Linda Greenan is pushing for a new vote on the resolution. The last meeting, she contends, was held “just after” the blizzard, and few committee members had received notice that Johnson’s nomination would be on the agenda.
The Ward 2 Democrats proceed to debate the question for nearly an hour, rehashing every minute of the January meeting. Finally the discussion ends and the group votes. The result is the same as it was a month ago: The Ward 2 Democrats oppose the nomination. Prompt adjournment gives way to a back-slapping fest. “That was good for us—I’m glad we went through that,” exclaims one Ward 2 Dem. Everyone nods. No one seems to mind that the committee, in duplicating its January agenda, had just celebrated a full month of spinning its wheels.
And what impact, exactly, did the hotly debated resolution have on District politics? Exactly none. Three weeks later, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—a Democrat—ignored it and voted to confirm Johnson’s appointment.
After 200 years of Congressional oversight and a year of the control board, Washingtonians are accustomed to powerlessness. But the city’s leading political parties—Democratic, Republican, and Statehood—are turning impotence into an art form. While energetic citizens’ groups have scored success after success on issues ranging from economic development to trash collection, the official political parties have become all but useless. They still gather monthly in drab conference rooms to plow through agendas, argue over parliamentary procedure, and craft resolutions that are passed on to politicians. But they claim little grass-roots support and no leverage over the city’s elected leaders. The District’s party organizations may not be dead, but they’re certainly irrelevant.
Next month, the District will conduct what must be the least anticipated election in city history. Washingtonians will cast their presidential primary votes for two candidates who have already locked up their party’s nominations—and that’s the interesting part of the ballot. Voters—at least a handful of them—will also elect the 80 members of the D.C. Republican Committee and 44 (of 48) members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee (DSC), the official party organs.
Only 64 hopefuls are running for the DSC seats, down from 86 in 1992, and if past elections are a guide, most winning candidates won’t garner more than a few thousand votes. The apathy is unsurprising, given the party leaders’ woeful performance.
“They have a dinner every year and an election every four years,” says political analyst and former DSC member Mark Plotkin, “and I dare anyone to tell me what happens in between.”
In theory, the DSC should be the most powerful political organization in the city. It represents one of the most dominant local political parties in the nation: Nearly 80 percent of the District’s 340,000 voters are registered Democrats. With those numbers, DSC leaders could shove aside the District’s elected officials—who are viewed as chumps on Capitol Hill—and set the city’s agenda on the budget, tax relief, and statehood.
Instead, the DSC can barely set its own agenda or, for that matter, gather a quorum. From December 1994 until February 1996 the DSC went without a chairman—in part because it couldn’t convene the 36 members needed for a valid election. Turnout at DSC meetings is so low that candidates for committee seats are campaigning on the promise of good attendance.
Even when it does manage a quorum, the DSC sidesteps hard-charging issues like a matador. The control board is the most important change in D.C. governance in 21 years, though you’d never guess that from the DSC’s (non)response to it. When Congress began discussing the idea of a control board in February 1995, the DSC did what most do-nothing committees do when faced with a complex problem: It created a subcommittee. (Groups like the DSC love subcommittees because they short-circuit awkward discussion of controversial topics while creating more meetings.)
Two months later, in the midst of the ferocious congressional debate over D.C.’s future, the chairman of the subcommittee announced that he and his colleagues had accomplished, well, nothing. “[The subcommittee] has not developed any recommendations because of changes in the financial picture of the city and the pending legislation for a control board,” he said, according to DSC records.
In February 1996, the DSC changed its approach to the control board from laid-back to delusional. At that month’s DSC meeting, Ward 5 member Kathryn Pearson-West introduced a resolution calling for the control board’s elimination. Citing the need to circulate the resolution among the Democratic rank and file, the DSC delayed action on it until March. Then, at the March meeting, another member proposed a slightly amended version of Pearson-West’s resolution. So DSC Chairman Bill Simons appointed yet another subcommittee to marry the two resolutions into a single document.
This month, the committee finally acted, approving a utopian resolution endorsing such pipe dreams as: statehood, an end to congressional interference, and elimination of the control board. So here we are, a full year after the creation of the control board and 18 months after Congress began discussing the District’s financial crisis, and all the DSC has to show for it is a hopeless resolution.
The monthly DSC meetings, not surprisingly, don’t pop up on the radar screens of the city’s elected officials. The mayor makes annual pro forma appearances. Other than that, DSC meetings are members-only affairs. “The only one who ever shows up is [Ward 5 Councilmember] Harry Thomas, who came up through the party ranks,” says Philip Pannell, a Ward 8 DSC activist. Thomas is also a regular at Boy Scout meetings.
The mayor and councilmembers might pay more attention if the DSC could serve up the bread and water of politics: money and votes. The committee’s bankroll is currently less than $5,000, according to Jim Lawlor, the DSC’s chief fund-raiser. Lawlor says that the committee netted $1,000 from a Super Tuesday party but notes that generous donors are scarce. “The Democratic Party is the poor party,” he laments. “The Republicans write checks for $1,000.” With its paltry endowment, the DSC supports President Clinton’s 1996 campaign and congressional candidates who support D.C. statehood.
Nor can DSC deliver votes at the polls. Democratic candidates don’t need the DSC’s support in general elections: The 10-1 registration advantage over Republicans all but guarantees November victory for even the lamest Democratic candidates. (When asked what groups marshal votes for council races, Evans mentions everyone except the DSC: neighborhood groups, tenant associations, business groups, and citywide trade associations.)
And the DSC doesn’t make endorsements in primaries, the only elections that matter. The 1994 Democratic primary for Ward 5 councilmember, for example, was cluttered with 10 hopefuls spouting similar slogans about crime prevention and economic development. The DSC had neither the inclination nor the clout to narrow the field. Evans argues that the DSC could become a power broker by endorsing primary candidates. “Why wouldn’t they endorse Jack Evans or Harry Thomas or Frank Smith? We’ve been strong supporters of the party and agree with their policies,” he says. “Why not say, ‘This is the candidate of the party?’”
Chairman Simons also supports the idea of DSC primary endorsements. He says the DSC will debate the subject at a June meeting.
The DSC could learn a few lessons from cities where municipal politics is played for keeps. In Chicago, for example, party officials often swing a heavier bat than city council members. The difference with D.C.: Chicago party leaders fetch votes for candidates endorsed by the party. In the Chicago Democratic tradition, committee members present their ward voting tallies—or “report cards”—to newly elected party candidates. A good report card is redeemable for municipal jobs, handouts for needy locals, and prompt city services.
To be fair, Democrats in Chicago and other large cities thrive on the interparty conflict missing from District politics. The Statehood and Republican parties, the DSC’s would-be rivals, represent 1 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of the city’s registered voters.
Their places on the fringe of D.C. politics will be secure for years, given their woeful attempts to bring competition to local elections. The Statehood Party’s February meeting, for instance, attracted only 11 dyed-in-the-wool members. Chairman Sam Jordan led discussion on a gamut of issues that the party has championed: the split-rate tax, rent control, campaign contribution limits, and the fight against the control board. Debate on these issues segued into an assessment of the party’s standing in local politics. After declaring that the party needs to project itself more as a governing party and less as a bunch of protesters—ironic stuff from a man who the previous day had led an 80-person rally at the control board’s headquarters—Jordan asked for a show of hands from those who intend to run for office this year. Only one woman lifted a hand—to stuff some potato chips into her mouth.
The Republican Party dwarfs Statehood in sheer size, but it suffers from a serious lack of enthusiasm. Now should be a golden moment for GOP recruiters in D.C. District Republicans could sell D.C. voters on the GOP’s social/religious conservatism, trumpet the new membership of Gen. Colin Powell, and pound on the impotence of D.C.’s Democratic leaders.
But they haven’t. “From what I can see, [the Republicans have] just given up,” says Cindy Gustafson, a Ward 6 candidate for the D.C. Republican Committee. Gustafson claims that she’s been a registered Republican in the city for a full year but has never been contacted for fund drives or other party activities.
Perhaps that’s because there are no fund drives or party activities. Julie Finley, chairwoman of the D.C. Republicans, says the party has abandoned voter registration drives because they invariably swell the ranks of the Democratic Party. The Republican Committee limps along with a budget of less than $5,000 per year and struggles to convene six annual meetings.
Just how defunct are the Republicans? The 1996 ballot for the Republican committee offers a glimpse: Gustafson’s Ward 6 bid is the only contested race in town. The ballot declares the candidates for all 79 other seats officially elected before a single vote is cast.
Now that’s a vibrant democracy. CP
The District’s political parties may be terrible at leading political discourse and grooming new leaders, but they’re really good at one thing: meetings—all kinds of meetings. Enough kinds of meetings, in fact, to inspire a small dictionary:
•When you follow an agenda, debate parliamentary procedures, and gossip, you hold a meeting.
•When you hold a meeting, but invite a bunch of politicians, you have a candidate’s forum.
•When you hold a big meeting of blowhards to wax self-important on a slate of pressing topics, you have an issues convention.
•When you hold a meeting to discuss the future of your organization (which has no future), you have a strategy session.
•When you hold a meeting to discuss grooming new leaders to preside over meaningless meetings, you have a recruitment summit.
•When you hold a meeting and charge people to attend, you have a symposium.
•When you hold a meeting at which you charge for food and drink, you have a fund-raising dinner.
•When you call a meeting but absolutely no one shows up, you have a rump session.
DSC leaders don’t know how to explain the woeful attendance at their monthly meetings. Some members blame the low turnout on apathy and powerlessness. Others claim that the DSC meetings compete with equally important events in Democratic activists’ tight schedules.
They’re both wrong. The real reason attendance is so low is that all DSC meetings are the same. If you’ve attended one, you’ve attended them all.
The meetings are so similar, in fact, that the DSC secretary could save a lot of time by writing the minutes on a fill-in-the-blank form.
Here’s a draft:
Call to Order: At (Enter time here), Chairman Bill Simons called the meeting to order—approximately (Choose one: 30, 60, or 90) minutes after the scheduled start.
Moment of Silence: The committee observed a moment of silence for (Choose one: Ron Brown, Johnnie Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Boss Shepherd).
Approval of Minutes: Chairman Simons moved to approve the minutes of the (Enter last month here) meeting. (Enter name of member) asked that the minutes be amended to include the DSC resolution calling for (Choose one: Economic Prosperity in the District, A New Era of Democratic Leadership, or A Long-Term Solution to the Pothole Problem).
Roll Call: The Secretary took attendance. (Choose one: None, One, or Just a few) of the 70 members (was/were) in attendance. The meeting was (Choose one: 5, 10, 20, or innumerable) members short of a quorum.
Ward Reports: (Choose one: 5, 6, 7, or All) of the ward captains were absent. Those who did give reports said that their ward committees had held a meeting last month and would hold yet another one this month. The finance chair reported that the committee had no money and no plans to raise any.
Announcements: (Enter name of member) announced that the subcommittee on (Enter name of issue) would meet at (Enter time and place) to agree on a meeting schedule.
Resolutions: (Enter name of member) introduced a resolution on (Choose one: the control board, school vouchers, or campaign contributions). Vigorous debate ensued. Chairman Simons ruled (Enter names of members) out of order and moved to create a subcommittee to explore the issue. The motion passed overwhelmingly.
(Enter name of member) introduced a resolution on (Choose one: Asking Congress for Larger Federal Payment, Supporting the Mayor, or Educating the Republicans on Statehood). A standing ovation ensued. The resolution passed overwhelmingly. (Enter name of member) asked that the resolution be expressed in strong language and sent by courier to the White House and Congress.
Adjournment: Chairman Simons requested a motion to adjourn. —E.W.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jack Hornady.