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D.C. might be much better off without pointless party politics

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 6:21 PM

The necessity of choosing an interim D.C. Council member to replace Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who becomes the body's chairman after the new year, has some questioning the intermittent relevance of the D.C. Democratic State Committee.

A legitimate question. But why not go further and question the relevance of having any parties in the District?

There are all sorts of precedents. In big cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago - yes, Chicago - some or all city offices are elected on a nonpartisan basis. No D's, no R's. Just raw politics.

The problem in the District is that parties add no value to our politics.

It's not just that pretty much every officeholder is a Democrat. It's that party labels tell you nothing about officeholders in this city - not when one well-known Democrat is calling for "welfare reform" and most Republican candidates support gay marriage rights. There is nothing resembling party discipline on the 13-member council. Ad hoc coalitions appear and disappear on a bill-by-bill basis.

And then you have the problem highlighted by this year's mayoral race: There is a class of city voters effectively prevented from voting on races in which they have an interest. In this town, plenty of city voters register as something other than Democrats for various reasons - say, those holding Republican political jobs for which it would be professionally hazardous to register as a Democrat. They don't get to vote in the election that matters, a.k.a. the Democratic primaries.

Chatter before and after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's Democratic primary defeat concerned opening the primaries to independent voters. Holding nonpartisan elections would address the primary problem and solve a few others, too.

In Chicago, the mayor and other citywide officials have been elected on a nonpartisan basis since 1999, a fact that comes as some surprise to folks who assume that the deep-blue Windy City would treasure its Democratic identity. Rather, every candidate who can manage to gather enough signatures is on an initial ballot; the top two vote-getters subsequently duke it out in a runoff.

All voters have access to the decisive races. That hasn't much affected Democratic hegemony in Chicago: Witness the current mayoral race, in which a former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff is vying against a current Democratic congressman, a former close aide of the current Democratic mayor and a former Democratic U.S. senator.

There's still a Democratic party organization in Chicago. Unlike here, however, it isn't handed the unusual task of naming a council member to represent city residents for a few months, perhaps giving that person a leg up in a special election to be held in the spring. Rather, it makes slates, endorses candidates and otherwise works to make the notion of a local Democratic Party relevant to the voters.

D.C.'s Democrats are under fire of late, but other party organizations don't add much, either. The primary mission of the small but well-organized D.C. Republican Committee recently has been simply to embarrass the Democrats whenever possible. The Statehood Green Party has withered into near-oblivion. It doesn't help that both parties' relevance is relegated to the biennial ritual of tedium we call a general election.

This year's general election actually saw one bit of drama - and a decent argument in favor of nonpartisan elections. In the race for the Ward 1 seat on the nonpartisan State Board of Education, Patrick Mara defeated incumbent Dotti Love Wade.

Mara beat Wade the old-fashioned way - he outworked her, knocking on doors and explaining to voters why he was the best man for the job - while Wade relied heavily on the support of the ward's Democratic Council member, Jim Graham. What Mara didn't mention, and never had to mention, is that he's a Republican, albeit the near-extinct socially moderate type.

He ran on essentially the same platform he ran on when he sought a D.C. Council seat in 2008: support for private school vouchers, charter school expansion and former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's school reforms. Ward 1 voters liked what he had to say.

But if Mara had run with an "R" next to his name? "It would have been more difficult," he said.

Mara said his victory is "proof" that nonpartisan elections are what the city needs. "Sometimes people focus too much on political affiliation not knowing where a candidate stands," he said. "If there were more emphasis placed on what a candidate believes, how hard they work, how ethical they are ... the city would be a lot better off."

But moving to nonpartisan races is almost never mentioned among the city's local political class - most of those currently wielding power got it via partisan races.

Certainly non-Democratic candidates such as Mara, who too often are dismissed simply because of their non-Democratness, would benefit from wholly nonpartisan elections. But the people who would really benefit are voters.

Unfortunately, there's not much the voters can do about it. To amend the District charter, the D.C. Council would first have to pass the change, which would then be ratified by voters and then sent to Congress for approval. The council isn't moving on this issue anytime soon.

But consider what happened in Chicago: The city got big-footed.

In 1997, a rare Republican-controlled state government passed the nonpartisan measure. In the District, there's another big foot hovering over city hall - just 14 blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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