Racial political calculation lurks behind Democrats’ disrespect for D.C.

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 5, 2012

Leave it to Marion Barry to be the one with enough nerve to cite race as the real but mostly unspoken reason this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte has so disrespected the District’s quest for full voting rights.

“Let’s be honest: Does D.C. have to be ‘gentrified’ to get voting rights? Is that what we are waiting for? Democracy has no color, right?” the D.C. Council member and former mayor tweeted from Charlotte.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Barry (Ward 8) has often engaged in racial demagoguery, but this time, he has a point. Some other senior Democrats from the District, white and black, said privately that they believed that political calculations about race were largely behind the organizers’ moves to squash advocacy of D.C. statehood or voting rights at the convention.

According to the Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely criticize the party hierarchy, everything happening in Charlotte was ultimately decided by President Obama’s campaign operation in Chicago. The Chicago folks wanted to avoid publicizing African American leaders or causes that might perturb some white voters or hand Republicans an issue to exploit.

“It’s cold, stark, political calculus,” a Democratic official said. “There’s too much ammunition to be used against the city there.”

Although the official was displeased with the decision, he said he respected it: “To tell you the truth, if I were in [the organizers’] position, I’d do the same thing.” The result was the most severe rebuff in two decades by a Democratic convention to the District’s entirely legitimate desire to get the same representation in Congress as, say, Wyoming, which has nearly 50,000 fewer people.

Organizers have denied a speaking slot to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional delegate, even though she has addressed every other Democratic convention since being elected in 1991. They also insisted that the party platform endorse only equal voting rights, whereas the District government and some supporters had fought to go further and explicitly urge statehood.

District leaders in Charlotte suffered the humiliation of speaking out for the cause not from the convention’s podium but from a designated “free speech zone” set aside for protesters near the hall. Mayor Vincent Gray and Norton, who were supposed to address the rally Tuesday, missed it because they couldn’t get through the tight security.

District officials and supporters lobbied the White House, Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign to relent and let Norton address the convention. They weren’t satisfied with what they described as contradictory or inadequate explanations.

According to one account, organizers said Norton was excluded because this year’s convention was a day shorter than earlier ones, so there wasn’t enough time. But just two minutes would have placated her.

Admittedly, the Democrats were exponentially more supportive of the District than the Republicans were. The GOP platform explicitly opposed statehood and urged Congress to meddle more in the District’s budget. But it’s easy for the Republicans to insult the city when it voted more than 90 percent for Obama in 2008. The Democrats should know better, and the city needs to tell them.

“I think the message for the District is, ‘You cannot be satisfied with simply criticizing your opponents.’ The Democrats deserve criticism, and not silence, for removing us from the speaking roster for the first time in 20 years,” Norton said in a telephone interview.

The District shares some of the blame for how it’s treated. City leaders and advocates are divided over whether to press now for statehood, as Gray has done, or focus instead on easier, initial steps such as getting a seat in the House.

Personally, I support the incremental approach. National opinion polls have shown that Americans are more receptive to equal voting rights than to statehood.

Still, what’s most important is that the District unites around one strategy. The movement faces enough resistance (or apathy) at the national level that it can’t afford to let internal disputes weaken it at home.

The cause has also suffered from this year’s high-level corruption scandals in the District government. It’s hard to lobby self-righteously for increased political power when the mayor is under investigation for possible campaign finance violations and two council members have pleaded guilty to crimes in the past eight months.

District leaders in Charlotte said the recent scandals haven’t attracted much national attention. But it would be easy for Republicans to put together television advertisements linking today’s controversies to ones from the city’s past — and then fault Obama for favoring statehood.

The District needs to finish cleaning its own house to have a better showing at the national conventions in 2016.

I discuss local issues at 8:50 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney
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