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Native Intelligence
Political courage: Elections board withstood the pressure
(Published July 29, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

I have always wanted to write my version of "Profiles in Courage" to highlight public servants who, despite enormous pressure, rose above the political fray to do the right thing - regardless of the repercussions. Most of the people I have wanted to write about were little-known elected officials, such as the late Sen. Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire.

It was 1978 and the country was bitterly divided over President Carter's effort to return the Panama Canal to the citizens of Panama. The Senate needed to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty by a two-thirds vote. Every vote was needed and senators were heavily lobbied.

It was also an election year.

The Republican Party - and especially conservative Republicans - thought the vote on the treaty was the only campaign issue that could help them gain Senate seats. It was a nasty campaign. Television ads in key states attacked incumbents as supporting "a giveaway of the Panama Canal." They attacked supporters as anti-American.

In some states it was the only issue. Thomas McIntyre was an incumbent fighting for his political life. The polls showed that if he voted against the treaty, he would be easily re-elected.

The vote was close. At 2 a.m., during the week's long debate on the treaty, I was covering the Senate (this was before television coverage of the Senate, when reporters had to sit in the chamber and watch the debate). I saw my first "Profile in Courage." McIntyre took the floor. He had been vigorously lobbied by both sides but had not indicated how he would vote.

Treaty opponents thought they had his support, because they knew the New England Democrat would lose his seat in the fall election if he supported the President. But a visibly tired McIntyre said he was voting for the Panama Canal Treaty and laid out his reasons. He then made a farewell speech to the Senate, because he knew he would be defeated in the fall.

The treaty was ratified by one vote in the Senate. McIntyre was defeated at the polls, but he became my hero.

Fast forward to this election year. I have three new nominees for my "Profiles in Courage," though they generally are not as well known as Thomas McIntyre was in 1978.

Benjamin Wilson, Steve Callas and Jonda McFarlane are the three political appointees who make up the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Wilson, who was initially appointed 13 years ago by former mayor Marion Barry, was reappointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Both Callas and McFarlane were appointed by Williams.

They have been vilified by some of the mayor's supporters; they have been subjected to pressure and threats behind closed doors. Despite the threats and direct attacks by the mayor, they have stood up for the integrity of the political process in a city with very little democracy.

Ben Wilson is usually unflappable. He hates frivolous challenges and complaints. If minor flaws exist on petitions for office, he sides with the intent of the voter who signed the petition. He and his colleagues have erred consistently on the side of allowing a candidate to have ballot access when challenges have been raised.

On July 26, after three days of public hearings punctuated by meetings behind closed doors and after the mayor's own campaign employees took the Fifth Amendment after first resisting subpoenas to testify before the elections board, Wilson was visibly shaken as he stood to make his statement. He invoked Abraham Lincoln. He talked about home rule. His voice was often filled with emotion as he spoke about the yeoman's service performed by the elections board staff and the agonizing decision he and his board colleagues had made to oppose the registrar's decision for the first time in history. He pointed to the massive forgeries of petition signatures acknowledged by the mayor's campaign as the compelling reason for removing Williams' name from the Democratic primary ballot.

The board's decision was a defining moment in Wilson's professional career, and it was the moment he earned a place in my book.

Of course, this is not the first time the board has faulted the mayor. During the school board referendum in 2000, Williams was reprimanded by the elections board's Office of Campaign Finance and ordered to terminate his illegal use of city resources and employees for political purposes. He attacked his accusers then as he has this time.

Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 political activist and a mayoral appointee to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, has challenged the validity of a number of candidates' petitions over the years. She has also has been a perennial critic of Ben Wilson.

A few weeks ago, when I was a guest commentator on WAMU's "D.C. Politics Hour," the petition debacle was the topic when Seegars called in. She sounded furious, accusing Wilson of being the mayor's lapdog. Seegars complained that Wilson usually "goes along with staff and the general counsel recommendations and often rejected removing candidates from the ballot."

Seegars, whose own challenge to Mayor Williams' petitions was dismissed last week by the elections board, now says she will defend Wilson. "Ben Wilson did a 360-degree turn from his usual. Their decision to remove the mayor from the Democratic ballot shocked me. It showed courage and that they had a conscience," she said. Seegars, who is quick to acknowledge that she has also done a 360-degree turn, called Wilson "very brave."

Vicky Wilcher, an experienced adviser to D.C. politicians, said she "celebrated" the decision because "finally the system worked for the people."

"What we had before (the board's decision) was not democracy," she said. "This was a rare moment, when the board was truly working for the people."

In July 1974, another political scandal gripped D.C. citizens. Then, President Richard Nixon wasn't attacking his critics as being ankle-biters, as Mayor Williams has done. But as court decisions and public opinion were turning against him, Nixon was attacking his critics as "enemies" and their actions as "undemocratic" and "unconstitutional" - the same arguments Williams continues to use against his critics.

The mayor should stop taking lessons from Richard Nixon's playbook. He would be better served if he listened to the words of his appointee, Benjamin Wilson: "We must never forget the old rules of playing fair, playing honest, playing by the rules and protecting the integrity of the election process."

Are you listening, Mr. Mayor?

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator