On Friday GW played host to a little-known debate as a lead-up to this Tuesday’s D.C. presidential “primary.” Instead of a heated forum on the election’s most important issues, the debate was reduced to a meeting of the candidates who have long been written off as the unelectable fringe. At one point, D.C. political leaders envisioned this election as a platform from which D.C. could highlight its political disenfranchisement on a national stage, but the Democratic National Committee and five of the six major Democratic candidates for president have rendered it irrelevant.
Last year, D.C. officials moved its primary election from May to Jan. 13, several days before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before the New Hampshire primary. In response to this move, the DNC placed enormous pressure on the District to respect the historic roles of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests in choosing the party’s presidential nominee. The D.C. Democratic Party acceded by opting to not have the primary be responsible for choosing the District’s delegates to the national convention – reducing the election to an overblown popularity contest. As if this were not enough, every one of the six major candidates for the nomination except Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont removed his name from the ballot to dodge potential fallout in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both of these facts are unacceptable.
The reasons behind moving D.C.’s primary to be the first in the nation are both noble and valid. D.C., despite paying federal taxes, still has only symbolic representation in the U.S. Congress. This fact is even more disturbing given that Congress is charged with many D.C. issues, only in recent history allowing it to have a mayor of its own. On top of this, the District’s lack of representation is a little-known issue across the United States. This primary election could have brought the District’s plight to the national stage by affording D.C. voters the ability to be a serious force in the nomination of the Democratic presidential candidate.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Gov. Dean should be lauded for their decision to remain on the ballot, regardless of the apparent irrelevancy of this contest. The five candidates opting out of this election have marginalized a population representing one of the most solidly Democratic constituencies in the United States. Even in the landslide loss by Walter Mondale in 1984, D.C. voted overwhelmingly in Mondale’s favor. In the upcoming presidential election, widely predicted to be as close as the 2000 race, D.C’s three electoral votes could sway the entire election in favor of the Democratic nominee.
Although D.C was denied this enormous opportunity to bring its situation to a national stage, it must continue to push forward in its quest for representation. However, the District should not stonewall potential compromises on the way to full representation. The city should continue to explore congressional plans and not unilaterally condemn proposals as Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. non-voting representative in Congress, has done in the recent past.
This Tuesday will go by with little activity at the polls. The D.C. presidential primary could have afforded District residents a unique opportunity to influence the Democratic nomination process. As the first in the nation, this primary could have brought issues surrounding minorities and urban life onto the primary agenda. Instead, the nomination process will once again begin in rural states with little racial diversity. And the democratic process will suffer as a result.