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DC takes center stage
New Hampshire has conceded first-in-the-nation status to Washington, DC’s non-binding primary. Just what will it mean?

WHEN LONG-TIME New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner officially certified last week that the Granite State will hold its primary on January 27, 2004, he confirmed what had been on political calendars for a year. But the act represented much more than that. Gardner was also conceding that Washington, DC, will hold the nation’s first presidential-voting contest for the 2004 election.

The "non-binding" DC primary, set for January 13, will be for show only; delegates will not be selected until the district holds a caucus in February. But Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t really about the paltry number of delegates chosen; those two contests matter because everybody — media, candidates, and voters — agrees that they matter. And that’s because they are first.

Although many have dismissed the DC primary as irrelevant, signs are emerging that it may matter very much indeed. In fact, it may prove critical to the nomination, and could even do the seemingly impossible: break the Iowa–New Hampshire stranglehold on "first in the nation" status.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC), which has consistently defended that status for both states, has fought against the DC primary ever since Washington activists hatched the idea, in January, as a way to draw attention to the district’s lack of congressional representation. The DNC has pressured candidates to boycott the primary, and does not list it on its schedule of nominating events. A Washington Post editorial this month accused the DNC of "sabotaging" the primary by discouraging candidates from campaigning.

But the possibility of a pre-Iowa boost in the competitive multi-candidate nomination race is tempting several Democratic hopefuls to buck the party and go for gold in the district. In addition, the African-American community, which places special importance on DC and its fight for statehood, is exerting pressure to get them to come.

Former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun and the Reverend Al Sharpton have both made the DC primary central to their campaigns, and Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich has also begun campaigning there. But it’s not just the desperados who are getting on board; former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been actively campaigning in the district for several weeks, and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman will stop by for an appearance this Thursday. North Carolina senator John Edwards has stated that he will go to the DC Democratic Party’s Kennedys-King Dinner, an annual fundraiser attended by every deep-pocketed liberal in Washington, a week later.

Unwilling to cross the Potomac, however, are Massachusetts senator John Kerry and Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt, who are toeing the DNC’s line. "[Gephardt] believes in protecting Iowa and New Hampshire’s unique status as the first caucus and primary," says Gephardt’s press secretary, Erik Smith.

"Because he respects the unique and critical role of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process, Senator Kerry will not participate in the District of Columbia’s beauty contest," says Kelley Benander, Kerry’s deputy press secretary.

But even they have people working the district’s voters — more than one would expect were DC’s February caucus their only goal. "I was just at a Gephardt fundraiser, so clearly they’ve got an organization in place," says Scott Bolen, chair of the DC Democratic Party. "Senator Kerry’s campaign has made presentations both in Ward Eight, a black community, and Ward Three, a white one."

Sean Tenner, executive director of the DC Democracy Fund, says that all the leading candidates have expressed interest his group’s voter list for direct-mail efforts. And all nine candidates sent representatives to a Ward Two debate this Tuesday. "I think all of the candidates are taking it seriously," Bolen says.

Just a few weeks ago, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, was among those pooh-poohing the DC primary as a nonevent. Now he’s a convert. Says Sabato, "It’s right on the cusp" of becoming a critical, high-profile political event.

THE DISTRICT OF Columbia’s 600,000 or so residents are not represented in US Congress. Indeed, Congress, in addition to its day job making law for the country, also serves as the district’s legislature. So not only do Washingtonians have no say at the federal level, they don’t even get to choose their own local lawmakers. (The district elects "shadow" senators and a representative, plus a delegate to Congress, none of whom can participate in legislation; they see their primary duty as lobbying for statehood.

Quite a few organized groups in the district are dedicated to reforming this inequity; their favored solutions range from statehood to "retrocession," or blending back into Maryland and Virginia. (For a primer on the issue, see Many of the leaders of these groups met in January and groused about a new Bisconti Research poll showing that 46 percent of the American people think that DC residents have full voting rights and federal representation. That’s when they first kicked around the idea of holding an early primary to draw attention to the district’s peculiar issue.

Sometimes ideas fester; sometimes they move quickly. In this case it was the latter. Local activist Tim Cooper was at that meeting last January, held on a Sunday; early in the week he mentioned the idea to Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for Washington radio station WTOP. Plotkin in turn mentioned it to city-council chair pro tempore Jack Evans. Evans drafted a bill to move the date of the primary. "By Friday, Evans had the entire council together on the bill and announced it on the radio," Tenner says. By late January the bill was certified as law by Congress. "The day after the bill became official, I went to Ward Eight, and there was a Howard Dean staffer and a John Kerry staffer duking it out for votes," Tenner says.

Going first is not something a state just does. New Hampshire and Iowa have staked out that territory and guard it zealously. It is codified in state law that New Hampshire hold the first primary; likewise, Iowa is statutorily required to hold the first caucus (a series of precinct meetings at which party activists declare their presidential preferences). Iowa’s caucus is traditionally on a Monday, New Hampshire’s primary the following Tuesday, and voting in the rest of the states begins a week later. The national Democratic and Republican Parties help orchestrate compliance with that schedule.

When DC announced its early date, the DNC came down hard at first. In fact, Plotkin and others say that DNC chair Terry McAuliffe warned the candidates not to set foot in the district. "There’s been some criticism of the DNC that I think is unfair," says New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathleen Sullivan, who sits on the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. "We had a two-year process after the last national election, and all during that period there was never a proposal from the District of Columbia." In fact, Michigan Democrats fought during that process for an early 2004 primary, only to have the DNC rules committee rebuff them.

When the DNC announced that it wouldn’t acknowledge the results of the early primary, the DC contingent agreed to make the primary non-binding. That means no delegates will be selected in the election; the district will still hold caucuses in February to elect delegates to the nominating convention.

Plotkin thinks that backing down was a mistake — that the district could have gotten even more attention for the representation cause by forcing a confrontation at the July convention in Boston. "Donna Brazile [chair of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute] went to the council and said, ‘You won’t be seated at the convention.’ They should have said, ‘Fine, we’ll see you in Boston.’"

Some DC big shots apparently agreed. No sooner had the council made the primary non-binding than several of the district’s 28 superdelegates, including shadow US senators Paul Strauss and Florence Pendleton, declared that they would voluntarily bind themselves to the primary results. Superdelegates are not chosen by primary or caucus voters — they are elected officials and party officeholders whom the party has given a vote at the nominating convention. There was nothing the DNC could do about them — superdelegates are pre-selected and can make their own decisions. But suddenly the non-binding primary was threatening to matter even more than the later binding caucus vote.

That sent New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Sullivan into a fury, and almost forced the state to invoke its "at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election" law. That would have meant scheduling the New Hampshire primary for January 6, which in turn would have forced Iowa to hold its caucus on the untenable date of December 29 — the Monday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when few people realistically could be expected to vote, or even to pay attention to the results.

Tenner says that he and Sullivan had a series of conversations last week working out a compromise. Not coincidentally, the DC superdelegates backed down from their promise to vote for the primary winner, and New Hampshire secretary of State Gardner declared that, since no delegates were at stake in the DC primary, it was not sufficiently "similar" to move the Granite State’s primary; he thus certified January 27 as the date. So DC is cleared to go first — but New Hampshire can still claim to be the first.

WHY ARE THEY still first?" asks Bill Mayer, political-science professor at Northeastern University, of the New Hampshire primary. "They have developed a technique for blackmailing candidates." What he means is that Iowans and New Hampshirites have promised to deny votes to any candidate who breaks the commandment: "Thou shalt have no other nominating event before we do."

In 1996, when Louisiana’s Republican Party held its caucus a week before Iowa, Iowa Republican Party chair Brian Kennedy demanded that candidates sign a pledge to boycott it. He warned that "we are going to make it widely known in Iowa, and I know New Hampshire will do likewise, which candidates chose Louisiana over Iowa and New Hampshire," adding that "I don’t know how a candidate can expect Iowans to vote for him when he won’t vote for Iowa."

New Hampshire similarly insisted on pledges that year to block nascent early-primary movements in Arizona and Delaware. Senator Bob Dole, who signed the pledge and won the nomination, joked that New Hampshire should change its motto from "Live Free or Die" to "Vote First or Die."

In April 1999 then-governor Jeanne Shaheen headed off similar attempts by sending presidential candidates a "New Hampshire Primary Pledge," which they all dutifully signed.

No such harsh wording has come forth this time around, and that may speak to an important element at play. To upset the Iowa–New Hampshire supremacy, Mayer suggests, "You need some other constituency that will also try blackmail. The one constituency that could try that, it seems to me, is African-Americans. No Democratic candidate wants to upset the black voters." Washington, DC, is 60 percent black, and therefore DC representation has long been a hot issue in the black community.

Sabato agrees. "If you were going to pick the lock of Iowa and New Hampshire," he says, "DC is the key that can do it."

The NAACP and Urban League have certainly been willing to use strong tactics to convince candidates to speak at their events or support their issues. In July, when Gephardt, Kucinich, and Lieberman all missed the opening session of the NAACP national convention, the organization’s president, Kweisi Mfume, labeled the three "persona non grata" to the African-American community. "You have no legitimacy over the next nine months" — i.e., primary season — "to come into our communities expecting our support," he said in his address to the convention. All three candidates appeared by the last day of the conference and apologized for the snub.

Blackmail? You might not hear the word from DC activists, but you’ll hear something close to it. "I would say it to any of these candidates, that there will be people in the DC community who will use [a boycott of the primary] as a way to articulate to their friends in other jurisdictions that they do not take us seriously," says DC activist Kemry Hughes, who plans to endorse a candidate in mid November — one who takes the DC primary seriously, he says. "It’s not an issue of blackmailing the campaigns. How is it blackmail when we say, ‘Pay us some attention or we will hold it against you’? That’s politics."

So far, no major African-American leader or organization has explicitly suggested that the African-American community will blackball candidates who ignore the DC primary. "That’s what I’ve been waiting to see happen," says Sabato. "I’ve heard that it will happen."

The annual Kennedys-King dinner in early November might become an early litmus test. Bolen has verbal commitments from Edwards, Lieberman, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton, and hopes to get all nine candidates to attend or at least to send high-level representatives. Any absence would be a very visible snub. "They’re all nuts if they skip that event," Sabato says.


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Click here for the Talking Politics archives Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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