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Plugged In Nationally, Tuned Out Of the District

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Harold Ickes is the prototypical insider, a career political operative who knows as much about how Washington works as anyone.

Just don't ask the former Clinton White House official and Democratic superdelegate what ward he lives in.

"Oh boy," Ickes said recently by phone. "It's either 2 or 7. I live in Georgetown."

Or who represents him on the D.C. Council.

"Don't know."

Or the name of the public schools chancellor.

"I don't know the name, an Asian woman."

If Ickes isn't plugged into the local political scene -- correct answers: Ward 2, Jack Evans and Michelle A. Rhee -- that's because there have long been two separate and distinct Washingtons. One is federal, the other local, and rarely do those in these two worlds think of one another.

But next week, they might. Ickes is one of 75 people appointed by Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean as at-large superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. These national power brokers are seated with the delegations from where they live, so the 15 who reside in the District will join the 25-member D.C. delegation. That's easily the highest proportion of national-to-local delegates in the country.

The presence of these high-profile figures simultaneously excites and frustrates the local delegation, made up of city officials and activists, including Evans, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Anita Bonds. As it does every four years, the D.C. delegation will use the convention to renew a public push for congressional voting rights. But even though the big shots command media attention and enjoy outsize influence that could help the District's cause, most aren't planning to spend much time with the locals or join them at a voting rights rally at Denver's U.S. Mint.

Instead, the at-large superdelegates, including political strategist Donna Brazile, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen and Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, will join the locals for breakfast at the Crowne Plaza hotel, where the delegation will be based. After picking up convention credentials, however, the superdelegates will rush off to lobby for their own interests.

"They don't come to our events, and if they don't come, why are they there with us?" Evans said. Seating the national figures with the D.C. delegation, he added, is "a convenient place to put them, but with it should come responsibility."

For example, although the D.C. delegates intend to hand out wooden nickels with the slogan "Taxation Without Representation," some of their brethren couldn't name the three historic city residents being considered by the Mint to grace the D.C. quarter.

"Frederick Douglass?" superdelegate Moses Mercado, 44, a former Dean aide at the DNC who has lived in the District since 1982, answered tentatively when asked by a reporter to name them. He drew a blank on the other two: Duke Ellington and Benjamin Banneker.

And don't assume that the superdelegates are familiar with the District's three-member shadow delegation on Capitol Hill, even though all three are delegates.

"Don't they have one named Michael Brown?" asked Minyon Moore, an aide in President Bill Clinton's administration who works in marketing and communications. She was right, but she couldn't name fellow shadow senator Paul Strauss or shadow representative Mike Panetta.

"Argh, I was going to stay Strauss," Moore said. "I couldn't remember if he was still there."

National party leaders emphasize that the at-large superdelegates do not reduce the number of the District's local seats. The party selects the superdelegates to represent groups that might otherwise be underrepresented, such as women, minorities and organized labor.

Even so, several of the D.C. superdelegates had trouble naming Fenty's two high-profile female deputies, Rhee and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, referred to by two superdelegates as "the blond lady." Ben Johnson, a former Clinton assistant, couldn't think of Rhee's name, even though he has a school-age granddaughter.

The unfamiliarity could make for awkward moments in Denver. Superdelegate Elizabeth M. Smith, political director for the American Federation of Teachers, couldn't name the D.C. Council chairman, a delegate.

"Oh, God, I'm failing," said Smith, a 40-year D.C. resident who has been a superdelegate since 1988. Smith put a reporter on hold for 30 seconds as she tried to come up with Vincent C. Gray's name. Her spokeswoman, Janet Bass, jumped in to try to end the interview: "How many more 'gotcha' questions do you have?"

A few more, actually. Such as: How much public money did the District spend to build the Nationals baseball stadium?

"Two-hundred-something million?" Mercado ventured. Swing and a miss. Correct answer: more than $600 million.

Not all the superdelegates had trouble. Christine Warnke, a lawyer at Hogan & Hartson who hosted a recent gathering for the D.C. Democratic Party, quickly named Rhee, Lanier, Strauss and Brown (although not Panetta). Similarly knowledgeable was superdelegate Mary Eva Candon, who got her start in politics stumping for D.C. home rule in the 1970s and then rose to national prominence as a fundraiser for Clinton and former presidential candidate Al Gore.

"If we're smart, we could use them better and get to know them better," Candon said of the D.C. contingent's relationship with her fellow superdelegates. "I do wish we worked together more closely."

For now, that may be wishful thinking. Asked whether he knew the name of the D.C. government building, superdelegate James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute, was stumped. "What is it?" he asked.

The John A. Wilson Building.

"Ahh, I knew John Wilson," Zogby said of the D.C. Council chairman who died in 1993.

"I don't want to answer any more questions," Zogby said with a sigh. "You're going to embarrass me."

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