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Posted at 6:20 PM ET, 01/12/2011

The problem with the D.C. Democratic State Committee

By Mike DeBonis

In the run-up to last Thursday's vote to appoint an interim at-large D.C. Council member, a high-ranking member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee asked me how he thought the DCDSC could improve its reputation. It was a question that I had more difficulty answering than I anticipated. I've spent almost a week now thinking about it, in fact.

Over the four years I've covered the D.C. government, I've probably gone to more DCDSC meetings and events than any other reporter. I've also gotten to know a great many DCDSC members, including members of the leadership, whom I know to be conscientious and interested in the progress of the city.

But the institution throughout its recent history has been mired in mismanagement allegations, financial woes and, most often of all, irrelevance. The conduct of last Thursday's election, with its furious lobbying and closed-door dealmaking, was notable mostly for the fact that it had real-world consequences.

It's unfair to begrudge the group for exercising the right it has been granted under the District's charter to fill vacant at-large council seats. But what is frustrating is that the D.C. Democrats haven't found itself a role to play in this city aside from organizing the Democratic National Convention delegation every four years and, once every decade or so, filling an at-large council seat.

And when they do have those special roles to play, the State Committee has proved itself incapable of rising to the occasion.

In 2008, tasked with raising funds for the convention, the State Committee leadership chose to raise corporate money through an arcane outside organization that sought to keep its records in the dark, leading to an investigation and sanctions from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance for accepting outsize corporate contributions.

This year, with a contentious internal campaign on its hands, the Democrats didn't sufficiently appreciate that the eyes of the city would be on them. So rather than, for instance, use the open ballots their party rules suggest, individual votes were not accounted for.

The appointment is done now, and the DCDSC will likely now slink back into obscurity until delegate-picking time in 2012. So how can the DCDSC improve its reputation in the interim? I first thought to say that the Democrats need to do a better job raising money and keeping track of it. But the DCDSC needs to answer a bigger question first: What does it exist to do?

The organization's mission -- "ensuring, preserving and protecting the principles of Democracy, freedom, equality and service for the common good through political action for good government, fair elections, quality elected officials, strong and vibrant communities, the election of a Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and voting rights for DC" -- is ambitious, diffuse and not a very good description of what the DCDSC does.

In the 50 states, most have some semblance of two-party rule, putting a sense of purpose behind state party organizations -- that is, getting their party's candidates elected. In D.C., a Democratic near-monopoly exists in spite of the state party organization, not because of it. The DCDSC is indeed a champion for voting rights, and it works to hand the District's three electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates (as if they need the help). But it's hard to finger anything the DCDSC has done to distinguish itself in "promoting good government, fair elections, quality elected officials [or] strong and vibrant communities," because it doesn't need to. Democrats keep getting elected with them or without them.

The DCDSC reminds me of when I was in college and worked at the campus radio station, which happened not to have an actual antenna. Virtually no one actually listened to the shows we DJ'd, so it turned into less a radio station and more a social club for kids who liked interesting music. Our radio station tried to maintain our relevance on campus by DJing parties and promoting concerts and things like that, but at the end of the day our stated ambitions were pretty far removed from what we actually did.

That is to say: The D.C. Democratic State Committee is less a political party than a social club for D.C. residents who like politics -- which is fine, until the club gets tasked with exercising real power, and outsiders resent it.

The last time the party exercised its appointment power, appointing Arrington Dixon in 1997, the party was embarrassed when he couldn't manage to beat David Catania, then an unknown 29-year-old Republican. At least then no one raised many questions about the appointment process. Now, in the social-media age, the sausage-making and kitchenette-dealing can be easily documented -- leading to criticism of an "unbecoming" process that have extended to questioning the DCDSC's role in making an appointment.

Those are questions Democratic insiders better get used to answering -- and not only when they're charged with filling a council seat. Until the DCDSC figure out how to take a more active institutional role in the District's still-young democracy, its irrelevance will continue to breed contempt. Alternately, the organization might consider giving up its appointment role. The less responsibility it takes on, perhaps the better off it might be.

By Mike DeBonis  | January 12, 2011; 6:20 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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Comments

And Debonis does it again. Writes a story that is well thought out!

As Finance Chair I can assure you that the controls are in place to ensure that the OCF issues we dealt with due to the complaint and inquires from Ms. Royster National Committeewoman and Former Committeeman Phil Pannell will not occur again. Having spent hunderds of hours pouring over 4 years of DCDSC financai records and reviewing the convention records, there was not one misappropriation of funds whatsoever. Although proper steps where not taken to setup the Denver Convention account to show a distict difference, the intent was clearly there. OCF was consulted prior to the account being estabished. OCF did issue a fine but found no guilt or liablity which shows the DCDSC and the Denver convention accounts were intended to be seperate. I wasn't part of the DCDSC at that time and once I was this drama was the highlight of my first few months on the committee and the year that followed. As Finace Chair it wasn't easy, we set up a special audit committee to wade through records only to have the Treasurer and National Committeewoman quit because the rest of the commitee voted against their motions. The Special Audit commitee continued on and managed to gather all the records for OCF to review. Thanks to those special committe members and their hard work. Furthermore, the DCDSC will have an outside audit firm review our financials every two years in step with the change of elected officers to ensure any issues are addressed and officers held accoutable. It wasn't easy to get those 27 controls passed by the body. The treasurer resisted even when D&T's money laundering unit consulted on the controls. In the end the DCDSC passed every control the Finance commitee put forward. Rest assured there will be no financial reporting woes in the future, despite what other reporters (not Debonis) like to put out. At the end of the day this whole OCF thing was a power play by certain members to discredit the leadership for thier own political gain, without any reguard for the party. What was really troubling was the DCDSC records from the former former treasurer which were not filed properly. And that wasn't at heart of the complaint and inquiry filed and discovered due to the audit.
Thanks again MB for this balanced story. I hope the DCDSC can find some of your comments helpful to move this party and city forward in a postive direction.

As far as raising more money..we're looking for check from you and all those that attend the exciting balloting from last week. I gave $20 and stated this was the best entertainment you could buy in DC. I guess others didn't pony up...we collected about $200 in that hat. There were no donations over $20 in cash and the DCDSC member carrying the hat was very aware of the limits... We know how to report our financials now despie what some other reporters put in there stories, and Mr. Craney states teh Republicians never do...OCF records?

Posted by: bdaneker | January 12, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

And Debonis does it again. Writes a story that is well thought out!

As Finance Chair I can assure you that the controls are in place to ensure that the OCF issues we dealt with due to the complaint and inquires from Ms. Royster National Committeewoman and Former Committeeman Phil Pannell will not occur again. Having spent hunderds of hours pouring over 4 years of DCDSC financai records and reviewing the convention records, there was not one misappropriation of funds whatsoever. Although proper steps where not taken to setup the Denver Convention account to show a distict difference, the intent was clearly there. OCF was consulted prior to the account being estabished. OCF did issue a fine but found no guilt or liablity which shows the DCDSC and the Denver convention accounts were intended to be seperate. I wasn't part of the DCDSC at that time and once I was this drama was the highlight of my first few months on the committee and the year that followed. As Finace Chair it wasn't easy, we set up a special audit committee to wade through records only to have the Treasurer and National Committeewoman quit because the rest of the commitee voted against their motions. The Special Audit commitee continued on and managed to gather all the records for OCF to review. Thanks to those special committe members and their hard work. Furthermore, the DCDSC will have an outside audit firm review our financials every two years in step with the change of elected officers to ensure any issues are addressed and officers held accoutable. It wasn't easy to get those 27 controls passed by the body. The treasurer resisted even when D&T's money laundering unit consulted on the controls. In the end the DCDSC passed every control the Finance commitee put forward. Rest assured there will be no financial reporting woes in the future, despite what other reporters (not Debonis) like to put out. At the end of the day this whole OCF thing was a power play by certain members to discredit the leadership for thier own political gain, without any reguard for the party. What was really troubling was the DCDSC records from the former former treasurer which were not filed properly. And that wasn't at heart of the complaint and inquiry filed and discovered due to the audit.
Thanks again MB for this balanced story. I hope the DCDSC can find some of your comments helpful to move this party and city forward in a postive direction.

As far as raising more money..we're looking for check from you and all those that attend the exciting balloting from last week. I gave $20 and stated this was the best entertainment you could buy in DC. I guess others didn't pony up...we collected about $200 in that hat. There were no donations over $20 in cash and the DCDSC member carrying the hat was very aware of the limits... We know how to report our financials now despie what some other reporters put in there stories, and Mr. Craney states teh Republicians never do...OCF records?

Posted by: bdaneker | January 12, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

And Debonis does it again. Writes a story that is well thought out!

As Finance Chair I can assure you that the controls are in place to ensure that the OCF issues we dealt with due to the complaint and inquires from Ms. Royster National Committeewoman and Former Committeeman Phil Pannell will not occur again. Having spent hunderds of hours pouring over 4 years of DCDSC financai records and reviewing the convention records, there was not one misappropriation of funds whatsoever. Although proper steps where not taken to setup the Denver Convention account to show a distict difference, the intent was clearly there. OCF was consulted prior to the account being estabished. OCF did issue a fine but found no guilt or liablity which shows the DCDSC and the Denver convention accounts were intended to be seperate. I wasn't part of the DCDSC at that time and once I was this drama was the highlight of my first few months on the committee and the year that followed. As Finace Chair it wasn't easy, we set up a special audit committee to wade through records only to have the Treasurer and National Committeewoman quit because the rest of the commitee voted against their motions. The Special Audit commitee continued on and managed to gather all the records for OCF to review. Thanks to those special committe members and their hard work. Furthermore, the DCDSC will have an outside audit firm review our financials every two years in step with the change of elected officers to ensure any issues are addressed and officers held accoutable. It wasn't easy to get those 27 controls passed by the body. The treasurer resisted even when D&T's money laundering unit consulted on the controls. In the end the DCDSC passed every control the Finance commitee put forward. Rest assured there will be no financial reporting woes in the future, despite what other reporters (not Debonis) like to put out. At the end of the day this whole OCF thing was a power play by certain members to discredit the leadership for thier own political gain, without any reguard for the party. What was really troubling was the DCDSC records from the former former treasurer which were not filed properly. And that wasn't at heart of the complaint and inquiry filed and discovered due to the audit.
Thanks again MB for this balanced story. I hope the DCDSC can find some of your comments helpful to move this party and city forward in a postive direction.

As far as raising more money..we're looking for check from you and all those that attend the exciting balloting from last week. I gave $20 and stated this was the best entertainment you could buy in DC. I guess others didn't pony up...we collected about $200 in that hat. There were no donations over $20 in cash and the DCDSC member carrying the hat was very aware of the limits... We know how to report our financials now despie what some other reporters put in there stories, and Mr. Craney states teh Republicians never do...OCF records?

Posted by: bdaneker | January 12, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse

bdaneker, just hit the submit button ONCE, I hope you are not in charge of IT at the DCDSC!

The DCDSC and you should just pay attention and read the instructions to get the basics down before we write a comment that is as long as the article. Suggestion for you and the DCDSC, go back to the fundamentals.

Posted by: dropem95 | January 13, 2011 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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