WASHINGTON – A warning from the Democratic National Committee (search) has forced Washington, D.C.'s Democratic Party to back away from the city's decision to buck tradition and hold its primary on Jan. 13, less than one week before the Iowa caucus and two weeks before New Hampshire's usually first-in-the-nation primary.
The D.C. Democratic Party has agreed to set the ward caucuses in February and congressional primary in March, and leave the January date in place for a non-binding "beauty contest," to vet presidential candidates and grab media attention.
"We’re still making this a meaningful primary," Sean Tenner, executive director of the D.C. Democracy Fund (search), said of the January event. D.C. Democracy Fund is a political action committee that pushed for the city to hold the January primary and backs candidates who support full voting rights for District of Columbia residents.
"They have to treat it as a beauty contest," Tenner said. "But the candidates will indeed pay attention."
Supporters argued the spotlight would focus attention on D.C.'s voting rights movement. As a city independent of a state, registered voters can elect a president and one delegate to represent the city in Congress, but that delegate does not have full voting privileges on Capitol Hill. The voting rights movement has been working to change that, making a splash in 2000 with the creation of vehicle license plates that read "Taxation Without Representation."
But sympathy is not what the nation's capital attracted with the forward push. The DNC refused to recognize the date and threatened to punish D.C. if it sent delegates to the convention who would nominate candidates based on the results of the January primary.
"[The DNC] has from the very beginning tried to quash this for whatever reason," said D.C. Democratic Party committee member John Capozzi. "Journalists have been contacting the DNC to cover this and they haven’t even put it on their calendar."
Washington, D.C., is not the first to try to usurp the spotlight from New Hampshire and Iowa. Both states have laws dictating that their primary and caucus dates are held at least seven days before the rest of the country.
The DNC has consistently sought to protect those rights, establishing specific windows of time in which the other states can hold their primaries and caucuses, which are used to choose delegates for the national convention.
According to Democratic officials, they have "worked with state party leaders" in the past to suppress efforts to thwart the status quo, and are less than thrilled with D.C.’s insistence on an earlier date.
"Rules are rules," said DNC spokesman Guillermo Meneses, adding that states must schedule their primaries and caucuses between Feb. 3 and June 8, 2004.
"The dates were chosen by our DNC membership and we’ve been able to work with state parties to maintain that," Meneses said.
Meneses said the DNC will only recognize the dates that the D.C. Democratic Party gives them, not the city. It is not acknowledging the January beauty contest — being paid for by the district — on its official schedule, to be completed by mid-summer. The city's Democratic Party is paying for the February and March nominating events.
Supporters of the January primary said they are asking the city’s "superdelegates" — 28 members of the party and elected officials who have an automatic placement at the convention — to pledge to vote at the convention for the winner of the early primary.
Tenner said they already have agreements from many of the delegates, giving the primary the edge it needs to be relevant.
The remaining 10 delegates that will represent Washington at the convention in Boston in July 2004 will be chosen in the Feb. 21 ward caucus. Those delegates are expected to nominate the presidential candidates based on the percentage of votes the candidates earn in the March 6 primary.
One party official close to the caucus process said he seriously doubts the beauty contest will have any effect on the delegation, despite the best efforts of the voting rights movement. He also questions whether many promises have been made by superdelegates to cast their votes according to the January results.
"They will form their own independent decisions, no matter who wins the [January] primary," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Capozzi said that despite the arguments that resulted, the early primary has focused attention on voter representation.
"We're doing this to dramatize for the nation and the presidential candidates that 600,000 people in the nation’s capital don’t have the right to vote,” he said. "The primary has already generated more attention to the D.C. voting plight than anything else."