It’s Time to Undemocratically Select Phil's Replacement!
Once you walk out of a polling place on November 6, you can feel proud knowing that you’ve done your democratic duty. With a few strokes of a pen, you chose the men and women that will represent you, both locally and federally, for the coming years. And as with any representative democracy, you can sit back and know that election season is over, that all of those political TV ads and campaign yard signs will soon disappear.
Well, kind of. At some point next year, the D.C. Board of Elections will call a special election to fill the At-Large seat on the D.C. Council that will be vacated by Phil Mendelson, the likely victor in the race for the council’s chairmanship. The petitions will come back out, the candidate forums will be scheduled, the fundraising pitches will return, and you’ll again be asked to come out and vote.
In the meantime, though, there will be an election that you probably won’t know much about—nor will you likely be invited to participate in. As with every At-Large vacancy on the council, the D.C. Democratic State Committee—the local franchise of the Democratic Party—will be charged with selecting an interim councilmember, a seat-holder who will briefly assume the responsibilities and enjoy the perks of being an elected official in D.C.
The Battle for Biddle
The last time this happened was in January 2011, when the committee was tasked with finding someone to fill the seat vacated by Kwame Brown, who was rising to the council chairmanship. Party members gathered in a small conference room and hashed out who would succeed Brown, and after three rounds of hotly contested balloting, chose Sekou Biddle over Vincent Orange to fill Brown’s seat until a special election could be held.
The process wasn’t pretty, though. Open ballots weren’t used, as required by the party’s rules, and members refused to say whom they had voted for. When it became evident that Orange would fight Biddle to the bitter end, Brown, former Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) appeared on site to press the flesh for Biddle’s interim appointment.
The whole process ended up tainting Biddle; painted as a party insider who benefited from Brown’s endorsement, Biddle lost the April 26 special election to Orange, who had the gumption to present himself as just the type of outsider that the D.C. Council needed. (His political resume included representing Ward 5 for two terms and running for mayor and council chair.)
Selecting Mendo’s Successor
Will this January’s selection of an interim successor to Mendelson be any better? Not according to some critics. "What you're going to see play out in the Democratic State Committee selection process is exactly what's wrong with what voters are seeing in District politics today,” said Charles Allen, a member of the Ward 6 Democrats. “There's already so much talk within the committee wanting to select someone who will be beholden to the 80 or so members of the state committee. That's not an approach that will select the best Democrat—let alone the best person—to represent the District at-large."
Other critics, some who wanted to remain anonymous, say that the local Democratic Party has simply failed to remain open and engaged with the 350,000 registered D.C. Democrats it is supposed to serve and represent. To them, the party remains an insular club of people unable to adequately manage their finances or find a way to make themselves relevant in a town that’s overwhelmingly Democratic.
Philip Pannell, a Ward 8 activist and candidate for the State Board of Education who served the party in a variety of capacities over the course of 30 years, pulls no punches when speaking of the committee’s current trajectory. “I’ve seen the party in the best of times and the worst of times. This is indeed the worst of times. The Democratic State Committee is the pits. It is an absolute intellectual wasteland, and it does practically nothing for the body politic in this city,” he said.
Other critics say that the committee just doesn’t seem to want to invite competition from those outside the inner circle. As evidence, they point to a change in the way the party chooses its 48 members.
Late last year the committee announced that it was doing away with the direct election of its members, opting instead for a caucus. While committee officials said that the decision stemmed in part from consultations with the Democratic National Committee, one party critic who asked to remain anonymous said that the move was made to ensure that the party leadership didn’t change ahead of the Democratic National Convention.
Pannell said much the same, adding that a caucus—“consummate inside baseball,” he termed it—would keep outsiders from participating. Even worse, there’s no set date for a caucus, meaning that many members will be exceeding the length of their terms.
That feeling of a rigged inside game extends to the At-Large selection process, undoubtedly one of the few moments when the committee’s actions attract citywide attention. Not only does a small group of people get to elevate one of its own to the city’s legislature, but it largely gets to do so without the usual checks or balances on the process.
To that end, one person who has already put their name in the running is the ultimate insider: committee chairwoman Anita Bonds, a former aide to Barry—and a senior executive for Fort Myer Construction, one of D.C.’s biggest contractors.
Still, some committee members say they’re hoping to use the appointment process as a means to present a new, more inclusive side. “All of us want it this to be a process…that’s as broadly based as possible and have as much interaction with the public as possible and be as representative as possible. As with any public body, there’s a real struggle to find out what the best way is to do that,” explained Tania Jackson, the committee’s Director of Communication and an At-Large member elected in 2008.
Democratic Party Doldrums
Will the committee be able to pull it off? Maybe. But more importantly, will it even matter? The committee seems to be suffering from an existential crisis, awkwardly trying to define itself and its mission in a changing city. Maybe having no real competition has made the committee atrophy—D.C. voters are so consistently Democratic, after all, that the committee doesn’t have to do much to fight for their support.
But worse than being irrelevant is being ineffectual, a position the committee has found itself in in the past. Not only did Biddle lose to Orange despite being endorsed by the committee, but in 1997 Arrington Dixon, another interim councilmember chosen by the committee, lost to David Catania, who was then a Republican.
That the committee will again be able to exercise its power to appoint a councilmember should raise the question: is the process is even necessary? Ward-based seats, for one, remain empty until special elections are held. Additionally, the city can now hold special elections more quickly after vacancies are announced. Do we really need someone to keep a council seat warm for two months before someone is elected to do so on a fulltime basis?
That’s a question all D.C. voters should consider over the next few months.
Martin Austermuhle is Editor-in-Chief of DCist.com and a freelance writer. He lives in Columbia Heights.