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Put the democratic back in DC's Democratic Party

Top DC Democrats have taken drastic measures to prevent voters from disrupting their control of the party. Ironically, as a result, they have sown the seeds for a successful voter revolt to open up the party and turn it into a powerful agent for change.

Photo by wiccked on Flickr.

The party leadership was so worried about facing voters next April, they canceled the election in which 340,000 voters get to choose who will lead the party. We should elect new leadership for that reason alone.

In the local primary of every presidential election year for decades, DC's registered Democratic voters have elected who represents them on the Democratic State Committee. Of the committee's 82 members, 48 are—or at least were—elected at either the ward level or at-large, while another 34 are appointed.

The Democratic State Committee is supposed to represent Democratic voters. It could, and should, weigh in on "national" issues like DC voting rights and legislative autonomy, and local issues including the conduct of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. Thomas is under federal investigation for allegedly stealing $300,000 in taxpayer funds intended for a youth athletic organization and spending it instead on himself.

Rank-and-file Democrats could open up the party and turn it into a courageous force that engages, listens to and represents the grassroots—and demands that our elected officials honor the highest ethical standards. It's up to us to put "democratic" in the Democratic Party and voice our clear disapproval of the current chairman's recent decision to disenfranchise DC voters.

As 2008 presidential candidate Barak Obama repeatedly declared, "sí se puede."

Or, we can decide now to not complain and to accept backroom politics-as-usual.

In August, party Chairman Anita Bonds ended a decades-long tradition of Democrats voting at their nearby polling place in the local primary for the Democratic State Committee. Instead, the party will hold a convention—in just one location—probably next November. It will likely last at least a few hours and involve complicated rules.

In deciding to eliminate the right of hundreds of thousands of Democrats to vote next April on the party's leadership, Bonds didn't even allow the current members of the State Committee to vote. And according to the Washington Post, "Committee members say they were not told of the decision until it had already been made." You can't make this stuff up.

Democratic activist John Capozzi, himself a former member of the State Committee, told the Post, "This is why we need new leadership in the [D.C.] Democratic Party...Deciding to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of D.C. Democrats is just plain wrong."

It's a sure way to drastically reduce voter participation in deciding who will lead the party. A turnout of even 1% (3,402 voters) would be exceptionally high. The leadership is unlikely to plan to accommodate even half that many attendees.

But the Democratic Party can move from insular to invigorating, if we insist it do so. What do you care about? Affordable housing? Accessible health care? Improving our education or transportation system? Do you think members of the DC Council are being influenced too much by big donors whose agendas may be seen as being at odds with your vision of what the Democratic Party should stand for?

The Democratic State Committee could be a perfect vehicle for the grassroots to engage in order to press our elected officials to pursue a policy agenda that is actually consistent with the party.

The DC Democratic Party organization today is so removed from the grassroots, there isn't even a place you could go to volunteer.

That might just be because the party's leadership has its priorities wrong. Donald Dinan, general counsel for the Democrats, wrote in an August 16th letter to the DC Board of Elections and Ethics that the party was canceling the primary vote for party representatives because of the "disruption" that an election could have on the Democrats' delegate selection process for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Dinan confirmed by telephone on Friday their fear that if new party leaders were chosen in a "DC Spring" next April, they could decide to upend months-long planning on who gets to go to the convention. Regrettably, it sounds more like bunker mentality than an outreach strategy.

But Dinan's letter, along with Bonds' quotes in the Post, indicated that the Democratic National Committee had pressured the District's Democrats to select their party representatives in a convention rather than in a primary, as has been the custom for decades. On Friday, I called the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to request a copy of a letter that would have forced DC Democrats to disenfranchise approximately 339,000 voters. They had no idea what I was talking about. Then I called Dinan. He didn't have it either.

Democrats get to vote in primaries for who the leaders of their party in such states as New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and many others. It would defy belief that the DNC would force only the District of Columbia to replace the primary with a convention to select party representatives.

In fact, despite his letter, Dinan told me that ditching the primary method was indeed not the central reason for the move. "Had the DC Council picked May [after delegates are selected] for the local primary, it would have been fine."

The notion that the Democratic National Committee forced DC Democrats to make this move is malarkey.

Enough backroom politics-as-usual. Let's do something radical. Instead of accepting less democracy, let's create more. As Ward 8 activist and DC's former Youth Mayor, Markus Batchelor, recently wrote:

The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of the people, the party of inclusion and the party seeking transparency and fairness. The DC Democratic State Committee, through this decision, has single-handedly flushed all these principles down the toilet simultaneously and I believe it is our duty to call for new leadership and a new way forward for the Democratic party in this city.
Let's not allow ourselves to do nothing and then read the newspaper next November reporting that just 200 Democrats met the day before in the corner of a high school gymnasium to elect their party leaders. Instead, let's adopt President Obama's 2012 campaign slogan—"We can't wait"—and start now, talking neighbor to neighbor to open up DC's Democratic Party with a campaign that declares, "We can't wait to clean up DC politics."


Would Biddle have been better off losing in January?

Remember January? Relative unknown Sekou Biddle narrowly beat out the establishment, insider candidate, Vincent Orange in the DC Democratic State Committee voting to become interim councilmember. Last night, Orange won in a crowded field including a poorly performing insider Sekou Biddle.

Image from

Looking back, was the January victory really a good thing for Biddle's campaign?

In the lead-up to the State Committee vote, a group of people affiliated with progressive organizations in DC had begun mobilizing with the expectation that Orange would get the nod. I was among them. We planned to visibly launch an effort to seek a more progressive alternative to Orange and harness some of the frustration from a very insider process picking a very insider candidate from a decade past who brought nothing but old ideas to the debate.

Instead, that distasteful insider process picked Biddle, and Orange got to claim the outsider's mantle. A lot of the energy dissipated. Then Biddle spent most of the next few months racking up insider endorsements, challenging people's signatures, and not standing for much of anything.

Plus, the scandals around Kwame Brown's Navigators and campaign finances and around Vincent Gray's hiring then made being the insider a real liability. Back in January, those scandals hadn't broken, so it wasn't as clear that his support from Brown and Gray would be so damaging. But even at the time, I wrote that he needed to show some independence, and that never happened.

Neither did he ever find a strong message or make a clear case for his candidacy. When writing the article on the strategic voting quandary, I asked folks from his campaign to explain some ways Biddle differs on policy from Patrick Mara. Since Mara is a member of the Republican party, you'd think there would be some. They couldn't give me any.

I met with Sekou Biddle early on and liked him. I still do. He'd make a good member of the Council, but needs to learn to be a good candidate first. Successful politicians are always running as if they're about to lose their seat (exhibit A: Jim Graham.) Instead, Biddle ran as if he had a huge lead, hesitating to take bold or courageous stances that could have won him strong supporters but also risked losing some shakier voters.

He claimed to be the education candidate, but never really defined how exactly he would improve schools. This left him with a lot of soft support that quickly faded for want of a clearly articulated argument for why he's the best, instead of just okay.

What would have happened if Biddle hadn't won the State Committee? He would have been more of the outsider. On the other hand, Orange might have picked up some Council endorsements and even more unions.

Maybe he would have run the scrappy campaign that he needed to run, and taken some stands to make a group of people more enthusiastic about supporting him. Or maybe his campaign would have been the same.

Biddle needed to explain to the public why he was the best candidate, instead of just a candidate with a good resume. If he had still been the challenger trying to break the control of insider Orange, maybe he would have recognized the need to do that.

On the other hand, maybe an interim Orange would have created even more energy for a candidate other than Biddle, like Bryan Weaver. Or maybe we would have been split anyway and it would all have ended up pretty much the same after all.

Looking ahead, the method of picking interim councilmembers seems to be fairly poor, since the last two times it was employed the candidate lost, and special elections need an instant-runoff or some other method that reduces vote splitting. Might the Council now seriously consider any kind of voting reform?


Biddle is best of candidates for at-large appointment

Sekou Biddle is emerging as one of two frontrunners for the DC Democratic State Committee's nod to fill Kwame Brown's at-large Council seat. Advocates for livable streets and neighborhoods should hope that the committee chooses Biddle tomorrow night, as he would be the best interim Councilmember among those being considered.

Image from Sekou Biddle's campaign site.

I met with Biddle in December, and found him to be a very intelligent and thoughtful person with a strong grasp of issues.

He often rides the bus from his home in Shepherd Park to his job at an education nonprofit downtown, and has recently also started making the trip by bicycle on a regular basis. At Monday's Ward 6 Democrats forum, he called the S9 bus a vital link whose service should be preserved.

Biddle told me how, when he goes to his organization's headquarters in Atlanta, he rides MARTA and uses Zipcar instead of renting a car at the airport. Since their offices are near a MARTA station and there are Zipcars in the parking lot, he can readily navigate the city without having his own car.

He expressed a desire for more residents on Georgia Avenue to support the kind of retail he and his family want to be able to walk to. He fully understood the dynamic where development is necessary to attract retail.

He unequivocally supports marriage equality, while many advocates are very nervous about Vincent Orange's often-shifting position on LGBT rights issues.

We also had a long discussion about education reform. Biddle agrees with the basic thesis of Waiting for Superman, that we need to look to the charter schools that work by replicating them and/or importing their practices into DCPS schools.

As an educator, Biddle has a lot of detailed knowledge of education policy. In other areas, like any new candidate, he has some opportunities to learn the nuances of many other policy areas, though at the very least he has a lot more specifics than any of the others.

For example, on Monday, he seemed supportive of cycle tracks (like on 15th) but some reported being nervous about his comments about bicycling on other roads. He also said that his supporters should choose Stanley Mayes as their second choice, just minutes after Mayes gave some very driver-centric answers to the transportation question.

The rest of us don't get to vote until April, and I'd like to see who else runs before coming out in support of anyone for that race. Occasional contributor Dave Stroup, for example, has called for drafting Bryan Weaver, who ran unsuccessfully against Jim Graham in the 2010 Democratic primary. In his mass email last night, Stroup wrote,

This isn't so much about whether you would vote for Bryan or not, it's about bringing a fresh, independent voice to this election. This isn't a statement about the quality of the current candidates. ... I think his entry to the race could shake things up, and get more people talking, and get more people out to vote.
It wouldn't be bad to have a healthy debate among several good candidates for the final race. But whomever the DCDSC picks tomorrow will have a large advantage in the final race, and would cast votes on the budget and important legislation in the meantime.

The DCDSC should demonstrate that they aren't just an elite club of out-of-touch insiders who nominate the person whose "turn" it is instead of thinking about who's best for DC. On that score, I agree with the Young Democrats, Ward 6 Dems, Kwame Brown, five other Councilmembers and top Vince Gray advisors: on tomorrow's ballot, Sekou Biddle is the right pick.


Candidates short on details as DCDSC ponders appointment

Amid biting budget forecasts, endemic unemployment in struggling neighborhoods, bursting juvenile crime and many other burdens, DC will fill Kwame Brown's at-large seat as he becomes chair. It's a very important position, one of just 13 men and women who will steer a city of 600,000 through tough times.

Photo by samdupont on Flickr.

The city's Democratic clubhouse of about 80 people, the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC), is in charge of anointing this next at-large councilmember. They'll choose an appointee on January 6. You won't get a crack at voicing your preference for the seat until the citywide special election, open to candidates of any party stripe, on April 26.

For the most part, the candidates for the temporary appointment do not appear to know what they'll do in that seat, for this city, in these challenging days.

That's the cold but unavoidable summary of a recent evening spent with the leading candidates for the DCDSC appointment. Seven candidates presented themselves before the holiday break to a standing-room-only crowd of DCDSC members, guests from the public, and members of the media.

Bruce DePuyt of TBD valiantly attempted to tease out their views on grappling with endemic unemployment, education reform, juvenile crime, the threat of a meddlesome GOP House, the threat of a rattling piggy bank, and every other malady of governance known well to District residents.

With the exception of Sekou Biddle, a member of DC's Board of Education, the candidates presenting themselves simply stated their repeated beliefs that serious issue X or Y "should be looked at," "needed to be addressed," "must be discussed," and more.

I'm fairly certain that looking at tough issues, addressing tough issues, and discussing tough issues were the reasons Bruce DuPuyt and every other soul in the room gathered that evening. Exactly what the candidates thought should be done about any of the serious issues, however, remained a mystery by nightfall.

Most stunning is that these vague rhetorical outputs too often emitted from candidates Vincent Orange and Kelvin Robinson, a former member of Council, and a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Anthony Williams, respectively.

DC's record-setting HIV/AIDS infection rates? Not a word about the struggle to keep reforms moving forward at DC's long-troubled Office of HIV/AIDS Administration—a struggle literally of life or death for thousands of District residents, especially in the wake of the departure of the reformist Dr. Shannon Hader.

Affordable housing? Not a mention of a single policy idea or tool. Versions of "The Rent is Too Damn High" seemed to suffice, as opposed to, say, any mention of inclusionary zoning, defending percentages in new developments for affordable units, protecting displaced residents at locales such as Barry Farm, or perhaps beefing up DC's Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Juvenile crime? The candidates wish to break the news to you that it is occurring, and that troubled youth would probably benefit by way of some options in filling their recreational time. Congratulations to the candidates, however, for actually referencing an agency name in this instance: DC's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Specifics, it seems, may wait.

Biddle provided the evening's only standout policy suggestion: that earmarks from members of Council should perhaps die, having too often wallowed in a lack of programmatic accountability. Biddle also stood out for articulating the cold truths of unemployment in the District: that job growth is actually not the most serious challenge, rather it is a question of hacking away at literacy and other achievement gaps in equipping more residents for steady employment.

Council business that is finished and done, such as the bag tax or street cars, provided light piñata fare for some. Meanwhile, legislative fantasy appears on the horizon for others, like a special tax for Members of Congress, shutting down the 14th Street Bridge until we achieve a commuter's tax, erecting a massive public hospital with God-knows-what funds that simply don't exist, and doing something or other about the prices of all those new condos around town.

Through the cold fog of all this, what emerges for now: Sekou Biddle holds the greatest promise, but must demonstrate policy grasp beyond his comfort zone of education. Kelvin Robinson and Vincent Orange manage to convey the impression they haven't previously wrestled with the city's challenges, policy solutions, or even agencies.

Former ANC1B Commissioner Stanley Mayes puts forward rhetoric equal in quality to that of Orange and Robinson (take from that what you may). Civic activist Calvin Gurley is able to chew the notional fat in a somewhat engrossing manner, and School Board member Dorothy Douglas brings a big heart and the homespun flavor. Saul Solorzano's candidacy only raises the question of DC's latino population deserving a stronger place in our fabric of governance.

The one selected by the DCDSC on January 6 will have a tremendous leg up on competitors for the citywide election in April. The tragedy and the promise of the District teeter on a fulcrum right now. The DCDSC's decision, and then yours in April, could scarcely be more important.


Future at-large member will sit on important committees

The DC Council's committees have been assigned, but some important slots are still yet to be filled when the DC Democratic State Committee, and later the voters, selects an at-large member to fill Kwame Brown's seat.

Photo by dbking on Flickr.

The committee assignments announced today place five members on each committee, like last year. However, four committees only have four members. This presumably means that the at-large member will take the fifth seat on each committee.

Those committees are:

  • Public Works and Transportation, which sets transportation policy, oversees the transportation agencies and DPW, and will be helmed by Tommy Wells;
  • Economic Development, which handles public land deals and will have Harry Thomas, Jr. as chair;
  • Housing and Workforce Development, whose portfolio includes the various housing agencies and is chaired by Michael Brown; and
  • Public Services and Consumer Affairs, headed by Yvette Alexander and overseeing DCRA and the many other regulatory agencies (except ABRA, which stays with Jim Graham).
The choice from the State Committee and then in the special election was always extremely important, but for those who care about development, transportation, affordable housing and more, it's made even more important.

I've obtained a scan of the list that was handed out at the meeting of committees, members, and which agencies each oversees.


Orange objects to a fairer special election process

DCDSC National Committeeman Vincent Orange, a presumptive leader in the race to fill Kwame Brown's to-be-vacated at-large council seat, is drawing battle lines around any proposals to amend the Home Rule Act or convince the DSDSC to appoint a caretaker.

Image from Orange for Chair.

In an e-mail to committee members, Orange suggests that the Democratic party is being targeted unfairly. He suggests Greater Greater Washington's criticism of the appointment process is actually a masked effort to add an Independent or Republican to the Council.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Here's Orange's email:

There is a movement to manipulate the DCDSC out of its power granted to us by the Home Rule Act. There is a desire to weaken the DCDSC by placing an Independent or Republican on the DC Council through the Special Election process. We must stay focus[sic] on the mission granted to us by the Home Rule Act. If this was a Republican At Large vacancy or Independent At-Large vacancy, there would not be an editorial entitled "Getting a leg up on D.C. Council". We cannot let the Washington Post or Greater Greater Washington divide the DCDSC or manipulate the intent of the Home Rule Act.

See below the latest twist on the election process. Remember, no one contacted the DCDSC for comment on trying to amend the Home Rule Act.

Together we stand with the Home Rule Act, divided, we fall.

First, Orange is mistaken about the DCDSC being singled out. The argument against allowing a partisan state committee to appoint at-large councilmembers applies equally to Democrats, Republicans, DC Statehood Greens, or any other party. Any amendment to the Home Rule Act should address all parties equally.

We can't speak for the Washington Post, but we certainly would call for the same thing if this were a Republican vacancy. If it were an Independent at-large vacancy, the Home Rule Act would not give any party committee the power to appoint a successor. Instead, the full DC Council would fill the seat until the special election.

While still a flawed process, it is marginally better than an appointment by a political party. As we previously argued, however, at-large vacancies should be treated no differently than ward vacancies, and should be left vacant until filled by special election.

Second, in stating, "We must stay focused on the mission granted to us by the Home Rule Act," Orange focuses on the authority currently delegated to political parties as if it carries some moral authority. But as the history of the U.S. constitution and individual state constitutions makes clear, mere inclusion in a constitution (or Home Rule Act) is not synonymous with either justice or good governance, which is why have amendment processes. And the Home Rule Act is far from a perfect document, such as giving Congress too much authority over the District's affairs. Why revere its pecularities?

Finally, there is no effort to "weaken the DCDSC by placing an Independent or Republican on the DC Council through the special election process." To the contrary, there is only an effort to ensure a fair special election process, unencumbered by the current undemocratic process.

This is consistent with an argument Orange himself made in an October 22 e-mail to the DCDSC, in which he wrote that "[t]he beauty about democracy is that it boils down to the one person, one vote theory. The majority prevails."

There are over 440,000 registered voters in the District as of August 2010. Fifty percent plus 1 votes from an 81-member body does not represent a majority prevailing in the election of an at-large councilmember. The seat should be filled only after all registered voters have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision.

Orange himself has served as an elected ward member in the past, has run twice for at-large positions, and certainly would make a credible run at the at-large vacancy in next year's special election. If he wants to strengthen the Democratic party as he says he does, he should forgo the temporary appointment process and win the seat in a fair contest.


DC Dems should appoint a caretaker to Kwame Brown's seat

In January, DC Council Chairman-elect Kwame Brown will vacate his current at-large seat, and the DC Democratic State Committee will appoint a temporary successor. This is a terrible provision of the law. The DCDSC should select someone who doesn't plan to run permanently, and the Home Rule Act should be amended to remove this appointment power.

Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

The DC Home Rule Act calls for the party committee to fill vacancies in partisan at-large seats, but not in ward seats, until a special election can be held.

In this case, that special election will likely happen during the first week of May 2011. Since Kwame Brown was elected as a Democrat, that means the DCDSC will fill the seat. However, the DCDSC is not representative of the will of the voters, and picking any of the contenders for the seat long-term will lack legitimacy and carry the stink of insider dealing.

Oddly, the Home Rule Act does not require vacated ward seats to be filled by appointment (by a political party or otherwise) on a temporary basis, which seems backwards. If there is an urgency to fill vacated legislative seats immediately, that urgency applies most to vacated ward seats. When a ward seat is empty, that ward's residents lose representation. When at-large seats are vacated, everyone in the city loses representation equally. At-large seats, both partisan and independent, should not be treated differently.

An appointment to an elected office immediately endows the appointee with unearned incumbent status, giving that person an unfair advantage in the subsequent election. The appointee will have several months to cast votes on important issues, including the budget, give out favors and accumulate loyalties. A party committee should not have the power to grant the advantage of incumbency. Only the voters should do that.

The party committee is hardly representative of Democrats, let alone all the voters of DC. The DCDSC comprises 82 members. Of those, 48 members are elected in closed Democratic primaries in presidential election years. In 2008, 41,443 Democrats cast votes in the Democratic primary, or 10% of all registered voters in the District. Over 100,000 registered non-Democrats in the District, including Republicans, DC Statehood Greens, and Independents, could not participate in that election by law.

The remaining 34 members of the DCDSC are not elected in a primary, but rather are selected either by the DCDSC members themselves, or by members of specified affiliated organizations. Here is a list of the current members of the DCDSC and the votes they received in the 2008 primary election, where applicable.

Making the most generous assumption possible, if you assume that all 80 members were to vote unanimously for one candidate, DCDSC members elected by somewhere between 20,000 and 41,000 unique Democratic voters, or between 4% and 9% of all registered voters in the District as of August 2010, would be appointing the next at-large legislator.

But one hopeful could reach the 50% plus 1 vote with only the 38 DCDSC members who were not elected in the 2008 primary, plus the 3 lowest vote recipients, who collectively garnered 3338 Democratic votes, or less than 1% of all registered voters as of August 2010, and all of which were cast in Ward 1.

Unfortunately, there's more bad news. The list above does not accurately capture the DCDSC members who will be electing our next at-large councilmember. The DCDSC held an election on November 4 to select 12 new ex-officio members, who will take office on December 2. The results of that election are not posted publicly.

When I called the DCDSC to ask for the results, I was told that there is 1-week certification period, after which time the results would be made available. We do know that the 12 new members will be 6 men and 6 women from this list.

Were this just a private political organization, it would hardly matter. But since its members are now legally authorized to perform a fundamentally public function, we are all stakeholders and we deserve transparency.

Of course, with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls to be addressed this fiscal year and next, Council will be conducting urgent business between January and May. But that argues against allowing the DCDSC to fill the vacancy, not for it. If the vacant position must be filled, it should be by someone or some entity with a public mandate from an open and fair election. The DCDSC certainly does not qualify.

Furthermore, leaving Republicans, Independents, and others out of the selection process could be particularly pernicious in the District in the immediate wake of the recent Mayoral primary, after they unsuccessfully fought for enfranchisement in the primary.

There is also a broader point here. District residents and leaders rightly demand equal political representation in and autonomy from Congress. Our local politicians juxtapose our status as the capital of the greatest democracy in the world with the District's historical quasi-colonial status. It helps the District's cause when we demonstrate that we govern our own democracy well.

Many states have similarly poor processes, so one could argue that the District is just acting like most other states by using a fundamentally undemocratic selection method. However, we should lead by example, demonstrating that those in power locally can correct a clear flaw in our system, even when that correction is to their own detriment.

Changing the Home Rule Act requires a public referendum or an act of Congress. Council should pass a resolution requesting that Congress amend the Home Rule Act as soon as possible to treat at-large vacancies like ward vacancies and leave the seats open until a special election is conducted. Since such a change would not take effect in time for this appointment, the DCDSC should follow the "democratic" part of its own party's name and leave the choice to the voters by picking someone with no intention to serve long term.

Editor's note: This post has been in the works for a few days, but the timing turns out to be particularly appropriate given the Post's editorial this morning also questioning the bizarre logic of this appointment process.

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