November 16, 2012

The election of Phil Mendelson (D) this month as D.C. Council chairman — following felony and misdemeanor guilty pleas of the previous chairman, Kwame Brown — has set up a special election to fill Mendelson’s vacant at-large seat. But before that happens early next year, a mere 82 members of the Democratic State Committee will select someone to serve for approximately 70 days — and thereby gain the valuable advantage of incumbency in the campaign to follow.

At a critical moment when a new voice is needed to help push for meaningful ethics and campaign finance reforms, the newest member of the council will be chosen by a group dominated by longtime Democratic Party operatives, rather than by the voters of the District. It’s time to make a change.

As chairman of the Ward 6 Democrats — and one of those 82 committee members casting a vote — make no mistake, I want to see a Democrat elected to the council. But I believe this process will not pick the best Democrat, let alone the best person, to serve our city.

The Democratic State Committee’s selection process will be marked more by what you won’t see than by what you will. There will be no public forums, no candidate meet-and-greets in a neighbor’s living room, no vetting of credentials and experience and, most disturbingly, no debate on the issues that face the council. The system doesn’t just encourage backroom vote-trading and deal-making, it all but requires it.

Notably, this isn’t how things are done when a vacancy occurs in one of the council’s eight ward seats. In that case, a special election is called quickly, ensuring that the voters end up with a representative of their choosing. It’s only when one of the council’s partisan at-large seats becomes vacant that the central committee of the party that holds the seat is given sole discretion to make the choice.

I don’t believe that 82 people should be able to select one of only 13 members of the city’s lawmaking body — especially not an at-large member with the responsibility to represent all 618,000 D.C. residents.

We must reform the way at-large vacancies are filled, to ensure that those elected are accountable to all residents, not beholden to just a few within one political party. The council should put a charter amendment referendum before the voters to treat all vacancies on the council the same way — with a swift and representative special election so that the voice of the voters is heard.

The writer is chairman of the Ward 6 Democrats and chief of staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

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