Respond to this Article January/February 2004

If At First

Why Washington political operatives will be voting for Howard Dean.

By Christina Larson

Spend a few days tramping around the site of the first Democratic primary contest of the election '04 season, and you'll find it's not shaping up quite the way one might expect. The local newspapers aren't sponsoring any pre-primary debates. Front yards aren't thick with campaign signs. And instead of flocking here to press the flesh with voters, most of the major Democratic presidential aspirants are doing nothing to turn out the vote in this state--which is not actually a state, at least not yet.

Indeed, when the polls open in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, the only national Democratic candidates on the ballot will be Carol Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Howard Dean. This is a rather disconcerting fact for the legions of D.C.-based political operatives who won't be able to vote for the favorite candidates of the Democratic establishment, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), whom many inside the Beltway have been supporting and advising over the past year.

It's also frustrating to Jack Evans, a D.C. City Councilmember who represents the Georgetown neighborhood where Kerry, Lieberman, and Edwards all own homes. Like so many of the District's elected officials, Evans--a fiftyish, tow-headed lawyer dubbed "the Boy Blonde" by the local alternative newspaper--is forever looking for ways to bring attention to D.C.'s ongoing quest for voting representation in Congress. And last spring, from his office on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, Evans began to act on a moment of inspiration.

Reading through the Democratic National Committee's delegate-selection rules, Evans found a loophole in the language that, in effect, ensures that the first caucus and the first primary of each election year are held in Iowa and New Hampshire. These rules prohibit any other state from moving its presidential primary before the first Tuesday in February. But the District of Columbia, Evans reasoned, isn't a state. So he drafted a bill, passed last spring by the city council, which moved D.C.'s primary to Jan. 13, six days before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before New Hampshire's primary. By luring the candidates to campaign in Washington, Evans hoped he could "showcase D.C.'s lack of voting representation in Congress."

But his machinations have not played out quite as planned. Last September, New Hampshire's Democratic state party chair, Kathleen Sullivan, eager to preserve her state's pre-eminence in presidential selection, complained to The Washington Times that D.C. was trying to "manipulate or dodge DNC rules" and warned darkly of a backlash by Granite state voters against any candidate who campaigned in the D.C. primary. In defense of the existing primary order, DNC chair Terry McAuliffe threatened not to seat D.C. delegates at next summer's Democratic convention. Evans and his colleagues refused to budge, so McAuliffe, whose offices are also in Washington, brokered a Solomonic compromise: D.C. would be allowed to hold the nation's first primary, so long as its results were non-binding.

Not surprisingly, most of the major Democratic candidates, wary of offending voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, chose not to campaign vigorously in the District. Hoping to force their hands, Evans got another law passed in October to require that the names of all declared national candidates appear on the ballot, unless they opted out in writing. To Evans' chagrin, that's just what most did.

In early November, the letters began to arrive at the District's Board of Elections and Ethics office. "I must regretfully and formally ask you not to place my name on the ballot," read one note, signed by Edwards. Sen. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) asked that the board "withdraw my name from the D.C. presidential primary ballot," while retired Gen. Wesley Clark requested that his "name not be included." Similar entreaties--each regretfully citing DNC rules discouraging participation in non-binding primaries--were sent from the offices of Lieberman and Kerry.

For D.C. residents, this was hardly the desired result. Evans places blame primarily on the candidates who withdrew for their "collective act of gutlessness," the kind of bowing and scraping to the Democratic establishment, such as it is, that has provoked so many primary voters to abandon early favorites like Kerry and Lieberman to support the rebel Howard Dean. Ironically, it's the establishment candidates themselves who will pay the heaviest price for their caution. Since Dean was the only major candidate with the guts to keep his name on the D.C. ballot, polls show he's likely to win the primary handily. And with that victory--in the establishment's own backyard--he'll probably be headed into Iowa and New Hampshire with a modest but animating extra touch of momentum.

Christina Larson is the managing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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