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D.C.'s Self-Imposed Barrier Against Democracy

For all the complaining the District's government and residents do about our lack of voting rights and our second-class citizenship, there's one dark stain on Washington's democracy that the city could get about cleaning up--but no one has bothered to, for all the wrong reasons.

The D.C. Republican Party this week asked the city's highest court to nullify the election last month of Michael Brown to an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. The Republicans contend that when Brown, a perennial candidate for city office as a Democrat, finally won a seat as an independent, he was in violation of the law that required him to be a real independent, not just a Democrat in neutral clothing.

One of the strangest provisions in the District's Home Rule Charter, the 1975 document that gives the city partial control over its own affairs, is the guarantee that at least two of the 13 seats on the Council be held by people who are not the nominees of the majority party, which has always been the Democrats.

The rule, purportedly designed to protect minority rights, was actually a classic bit of congressional meddling designed to assure that somehow, someone would find a genuine Republican in the District and put that brave soul into public office. But the rule hasn't quite worked out that way. Rather, it has become a big career booster for odd birds from the statehood movement; a route to power for tough, fiscally conservative Republicans such as Carol Schwartz and David Catania (who has since left the party); and, in the case of Michael Brown, a back door into office for a Democrat who had proven his lack of appeal to the electorate.

Brown duly switched his party registration from Democrat to independent well before the election. This is why the Republicans will lose their case. Much as GOP lawyer Charles Spies argues that the law never really defines "affiliation" and much as he's absolutely right that Brown was laughing in the general direction of the meaning of the statute and much as Brown himself regularly told audiences during that campaign that he is really a Democrat but was running as an independent just to get into office, the fact remains that the charter emphasizes party nomination more than personal affiliation.

Here's how the Home Rule Charter [Section 401b(2)] defines who may or may not be on the Council:

"Not more than two of the at-large members (excluding the Chairman) shall be nominated by the same political party. Thereafter, a political party may nominate a number of candidates for the office of at-large member of the Council equal to one less than the total number of at-large members (excluding the Chairman) to be elected in such election."

Not a word about whether those independent candidates might really be stealth Democrats.

As GOP lawyer Charles Spies points out, the charter elsewhere does say that "at no time shall there be more than three members (including the Chairman) serving at large on the Council who are affiliated with the same political party." The Republicans are hanging their hat on that phrase, but as the Board of Elections ruled in rejecting the GOP complaint, affiliation is interpreted simply as a matter of party registration.

The Republicans are right to make a stink, and they're right to call Brown on his cynical ploy. Brown actually put out campaign brochures that labeled him as "Independent Democrat." But the Court of Appeals is not going to strip Brown of his council seat, and there will not be the special election that the GOP is asking for.

Let's hope that the party continues the fight, and that Democrats and Republicans alike begin a serious effort to change the charter to lend some extra oomph to the tiny little bit of democratic voice that District residents enjoy. The Democrats stand to gain a seat or two on the council; the Republicans stand to gain the dignity and genuine competition that would come in elections that are truly open and honest. And all D.C. residents stand to gain a stronger case when they make the argument for a voice in Congress.

By Marc Fisher |  December 3, 2008; 7:50 AM ET
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One question - without even reading the entire post - why isn't Independent capitalized in the same manner as Democrat or Republican? Does that party classification not demand the same grammatical respect?

Posted by: alexi27957 | December 3, 2008 8:56 AM

Because he ran as an independent not as a representative of the Independent Party is what I'd figure. Especially since he's really a Democrat.

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 3, 2008 9:34 AM

alexi- "independents" aren't a party. They're "independent", so it's an adjective describing their lack of party affiliation, not their allegiance to an actual party.

As for the rule, it's silly. But the method of election is silly too. If there are going to be at large seats, why not create more proportional representation by allowing everyone two votes that they can cast for two candidates, or both for one? That would allow smaller parties to focus their efforts on a single candidate.

Posted by: ah___ | December 3, 2008 9:36 AM

It's because "Independent" isn't a party means that you're "independent" of all parties.

Posted by: cleanconscience | December 3, 2008 9:43 AM

Marc Fisher, what is a real tragedy is when the business community can find someone who is willing to be their prostitute. They put their money behind this guy because the republican incumbent took a bold step and stood up for the working class by getting a sick leave law passed for the lowest wage earners.

Her payment for this was to be unseated by someone who did not even know what the City Council responsibilities are and no real platform or involvement in city politics. What residents had better watch is who is controlling the government, the residents of business interests that don’t live in DC or have children in the local schools. This is absolutely the wrong direction of politics in D.C. New is not always better.
As for the Republican Party in D.C, it does not exist.

Posted by: teerazz1 | December 3, 2008 6:59 PM

Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut was a Democrat. He lost in the Democratic election in Connecticut. Later, he ran as an Independent. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who supported Senator John McCain in the presidential race, was allowed to keep his committee chairmanship as Democrats sought to strengthen their majority. All politicians are corrupt and neither party are worth voting for, because both parties are liars and don't serve the will of the U.S. voters. I am not a Michael Brown supporter, but he won the election fair and square. Get over it GOP!!!!

Posted by: Ward4DC | December 3, 2008 8:08 PM

I think the Republicans will lose this.

Brown's position is dishonest at best, but probably not something he'll lose in court.

It's sad when that's our standard for local elected leaders.

Posted by: HillMan | December 4, 2008 7:28 AM

No Marc Fisher, what is really a tragic is that you and Carol Schwartz can't leave it alone. It is over Carol lost please get a life the both of you.

Posted by: zippergyrl1 | December 5, 2008 12:24 AM

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