The Hacks’ Moment: D.C. Democratic Party Insiders Get to Pick a Councilmember
D.C. has never been much of a machine-politics city. In other one-party towns, members of ruling party’s hierarchy snag plum patronage jobs, anoint elected officials, and do their scheming in the (formerly) smoke-filled back rooms of fancy headquarters buildings. But in the District, whose political structure dates to the reform-minded 1970s rather than Boss Tweed’s Gilded Age, the reigning Democrats lack most trappings of urban political power. The party organization has no clout when it comes to picking primary winners. The 81-member D.C. Democratic State Committee’s headquarters is in the basement of its executive director’s Near Southeast home.
In fact, the party organization reliably gets to flex its muscles at only one rare moment in the political cycle: Right now.
The back story: Kwame Brown’s election this month as D.C. Council chairman means he’ll vacate his at-large council seat, requiring a special election sometime next spring to replace him. But under the Home Rule Act, the seat will be filled on an interim basis by a candidate chosen by the DCDSC at its Jan. 6 meeting. Whoever gets the committee’s nod will head into the special election as an incumbent, and will be able to dun political donors during the spring budget season.
This quirk in the District’s political rules—party committees don’t pick interim ward councilmembers, only at-large ones—has aroused the ire of The Washington Post’s editorial board as well as the social networked wonks who run GreaterGreaterWashington.org. Both outlets lamented the process this week, wondering why a bunch of unknown party hacks should get that sort of power.
Luckily for LL, D.C. is enough of a machine town that said party hacks aren’t going to let a bunch of good-government types ruin their moment in the sun. In e-mails to a private group listserv obtained by Washington City Paper, committee members sounded distinctly touchy about having their democratic credentials questioned.
"It is very disrespectful for the Post to insinuate that WE are NOBODY," said one committee member in an e-mail. At-Large committee member Dave Donaldson got so worked up mocking the Post’s financial troubles and promising to cancel his subscription that he forgot to use spellcheck.
“The other day I found myself once again shaking my head at the poor thought and lack of trust this (going banrupt) piece of trash of a newspaper The Washington (Toast) Post is putting to its dwindling circulation," Donaldson wrote.
The cheerleading for the party organization—and the raging against its critics—was even more pronounced among the DCDSC members who have their eyes on Brown’s open seat.
Jacque Patterson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats and a current council hopeful, shared with the committee a response he wrote to the Post’s editorial, saying that committee members are not "club house politicos" but are "unpaid diehard Democrats who diligently works to raise the consciousness of local and national Democratic leaders to the concerns of the communities they represent."
Former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, who also wants the at-large seat, chimed in, testifying to the sanctity of the Home Rule Act—and warning that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives might be more eager to change the city’s gun laws, gay marriage statute, or needle exchange programs if locals started tinkering with special-election laws first. "We must be careful and overly protected [sic] of our rights provided to us by the Home Rule Act," Orange wrote. In his telling, the editorials were part of an effort by the Post and GGW to “manipulate the DCDSC out of its power."
"Together we stand with the Home Rule Act, divided, we fall," Orange warned.
Committee Chairwoman Anita Bonds is a bit more measured, saying criticism of the appointment process is premature. Bond says her members "don’t understand why there is this concern at this point."
"We don’t even have a list of candidates," says Bonds. Eleven Democrats have indicated they might run.
Bonds says that her committee—many of whose members are elected—is representative of the District. She says the group is dedicated to making the process as open and fair as possible.
But the process so far seems somewhat less than Athenian. Orange, for instance, appears to be the official frontrunner. Why? As far as LL can tell, it’s because Orange has been busily telling people he’s the frontrunner. Last month, the Post reported that Orange had informed party leaders that he’d already locked up 40 votes, practically assuring his victory.
If so, that might prove the critics’ point that the state committee is all about rewarding the politically connected. After all, regular voters are clearly not smitten with Orange, who didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment. When he ran for mayor in 2006, he got 2.9 percent of the vote. When he ran against Brown for the council’s chairmanship in this season’s primary, he lost by 16 points.
But Orange has been a long-time, loyal party member—qualities that may matter most in winning the committee’s pick. "There a lot of people on the state committee who see it as: you have to pay your dues," says one committee member, who asked not to be identified by name. "It’s very much a closed, inside network."
It’s enough to make LL wonder whether the recently released committee process for picking an appointee, which includes a candidate forum and the requirement that candidates collect 1,000 signature, city-wide, isn’t just a time-wasting charade.
For his part, Patterson says Orange has no more than 30 votes and the race is far from over. "I will gladly admit that I’m behind him, but he knows he doesn’t have 40 votes," Patterson says. "The only person who believes he has those 40 votes is himself when it’s all said and done, ‘cause they’re not there."
Other candidates are equally optimistic about their chances, saying they believe the committee will pick someone more fresh than Orange. "He’s been there, done that," says Myla Moss, a Ward 1 ANC commissioner who is running.
Bonds, too, says she still believes that the race is still wide open.
That might even be a good thing for Democratic regulars. In 1997, the last time the DCDSC got a chance to fill a seat ahead of a special election, its choice was Arrington Dixon, another former councilmember who’d been there and done that. On election day, he lost to then-Republican David Catania by 1,197 votes, which in a low-turnout election turned out to be 5 points.
NOT THE BEST TIME FOR A RAISE
By all accounts, the looming cuts to the city’s budget won’t be pretty. The mayor’s office hadn’t released its first draft of a plan by LL’s deadline, but it’s safe to assume that plenty of people aren’t going to be happy with the painful decisions that come with closing a $175 million budget gap.
In the midst of the likely carnage comes the news that Gregory O’Dell, the president and CEO of the Washington Convention Center and Sports Authority, was just given a contract extension that came with a $25,000 pay raise, bringing his total salary to $275,000 a year for the current fiscal year.
The independent agency, which oversees the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, RFK Stadium, and the D.C. Armory, has its own budget and board of directors and is partly funded through the city’s hotel tax.
O’Dell didn’t return LL’s calls, but board members say that he’s done a "superb" job and should be paid at a level equal to what his peers in other cities are being paid. The Post recently put him atop a short list of likely candidates for a major role in planning and development in Almost Mayor Vince Gray’s administration.
Emily Durso, the outgoing head of the Hotel Association of Washington D.C., who may also land a new job with the Gray administration, said the board considered that a pay raise for O’Dell might cause some heartburn at the Wilson Building. But members ultimately decided that it was worth any potential trouble.
“We want him to stay," Durso says.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery