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Native Intelligence
Dressing up the past as ‘new blood’
(Published February 11, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

It is just a few weeks into an election year and all over the country people are jockeying in their local communities to run for everything from sewer commissioner to mayor – except in the District.

Here, the talk is the lack of challengers in a city where political relevancy is still – after 200 years – just a distant idea.

This election year is irrelevant in this city. Mayor Anthony Williams already has raised $1.2 million, including a huge amount from businesses in Virginia and Maryland. He seems to have succeeded in scaring away any serious challenger.

Williams operatives must be pleased at the lack of candidates. For me, a native Washingtonian, it is very sad. Challengers make candidates defend their records and argue for their successes. Challengers are a barometer that we are a healthy democracy. Moscow these days looks better than the District, except for the food shortages.

Williams is not the only bad boy. The lack of serious challengers for council seats is equally as depressing. Enter former four-term mayor Marion Barry, who garners more news than any potential candidate for office and reminds us of how politically irrelevant we are in the District.

Yes, Marion – the man who for almost two decades has run successful campaigns that emphasized racial and economic divisiveness. The king of the "us" against "them" strategy. The man who made the District a laughingstock by winning re-election after serving time in prison.

The "Marion" buzz is a reminder that D.C. citizens value incumbency more than democracy. The Democratic State Committee has been littered for years with a bunch of tired, self-important people who have made protecting incumbency their mantra. They should take some of the blame for making the electoral process irrelevant, in spite of protestations from party leaders that it is the fault of Congress, because we lack voting rights.

Williams’ hand-picked party chairman, Norm Neverson, lays the blame for the lack of candidates and involvement in the political process on the statehood issue – as do other state committee members, such as John Capozzi who has run for council.

Capozzi says "the lack of voting representation means there are only 13 or 14 elected positions in the city for 600,000 people. There is no way to groom young people, who now want us to believe that they are poised to "advance democracy."

But there are some Democratic Party officials who agree with me.

Budd Lane, the current president of Ward 2 Democrats, says part of the problem is that the party is stagnant. "We have ‘Young Democrats’ [getting] older by the day, but we still call them ‘Young Democrats.’ It doesn’t make sense," Lane says.

Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty won election to the council in 2000 against an entrenched incumbent, Charlene Drew Jarvis. Fenty says, "If we can’t groom new leadership in the city, our failure to bring in new people and new leadership speaks to the vitality of the city itself. All of us, including the state Democratic Party organization, need to do a better job."

But I am told things are poised to change, even if this election year is irrelevant. The local Democratic Party has been working since last fall on a "party-building conference," which is scheduled for March 23 at Hine Junior High School.

Party officials hope to generate participation from people throughout the city. One of the themes of this day-long conference is "Advancing Democracy." And guess what "new blood" will be speaking on how to run and win elections?

You guessed it.

Marion Barry..

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The writer, a native Washingtonian with more than 25 years in the news business, spends her nights toiling as an editorial producer for a network morning news show. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com with your news tips.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator