D.C. Party Is Resistant To Audacity Of Change

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

Like thousands of young Barack Obama supporters, Kahlill Palmer has poured his soul into the politics of change.

He's volunteered at the polls, taken road trips to knock on doors, and done his part to help build those big rallies.

Now Palmer, a 30-year-old lawyer from Northwest Washington, is ready for the next step: his own run for elected office. Palmer and a dozen friends from the volunteer group D.C. For Obama are part of a slate bidding for seats on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. They are touting ideas and experience from the national campaign that they say can energize and grow the local party apparatus, whether it's using the Internet to organize or broadcasting meetings to boost visibility.

And they're getting their heads knocked hard against the wall of political reality.

Their idealism and enthusiasm have crashed into a formidable opposing force: the local Democratic Party, with its internecine rivalries and territorial squabbles. The District, after all, is that proverbial "small-town big city," where everyone knows everyone and insiders aggressively control tiny fiefdoms.

These insiders have called the newcomers Johnny-come-latelies who don't know the city and haven't paid their dues. The old guard is intent on keeping them at bay.

Four of the newcomers, including Palmer, have had their nominating petitions challenged at the Board of Elections and Ethics by rivals hoping to keep them off the ballot. Two others from Palmer's slate were denied seats on the city's delegation to the Democratic National Convention, after losing votes against longtime D.C. politicos. And several more newbies said they were told by longtime party leaders that they should wait their turn and drop out of the race.

"I did not even have a moment to relish that I was a candidate," said Palmer, whose petition was challenged by 77-year-old incumbent Horace Kreitzman. "I'm sensing some resistance and hesitation for people to embrace change."

Kreitzman says he respects Palmer and the others for their work on Obama's campaign but wonders how much they understand about the District.

"They're very active and very sincere folks, but some of the people I talked with didn't even know what precinct they vote in," Kreitzman said. "All of a sudden they're active? Good, I'm glad. But some might say they should not start at the top."

A similar dynamic is taking place in pockets of other cities, as first-time candidates, inspired by Obama, try to make inroads in a party long-controlled by those with ties to his Democratic primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her husband, Bill.

In New York, for example, Paul Newell, 33, has challenged powerful New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, 64, who supported Clinton. Newell's campaign manager, Evan Hutchinson, said Silver has been backed by the establishment, with its money and endorsements, so Newell will rely on a network of Obama volunteers who helped him get on the ballot.

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