There were times not very long ago in this city when it would have been a cherished chore among local political types to be a delegate to any top-level national meeting of the party that controls the White House and Congress. But that appears not to be the case with the forthcoming. Democratic National Conference, which is scheduled for Dec. 7-10 in Memphis.
This year in Washington there is no overwhelming rush to fill four delegate positions at this mid-term conference, which will focus on party organization and a discussion of issues. Perhaps the lack of interest is understandable. There is the excitement of electing a mayor for only the second time in more than a century, with an intense rivalry for the party's nomination. Many people are not sure what effect the conference will have on national Democratic politics, since the formal mid-term meetings, which began in 1974, are still unknown quantities.
So when D.C. Democrats receive their ballots Sept. 12 and select, by popular vote, four of the 11 delgates the city will send to Memphis, only 25 names will be on the ballots instead of the 32 allowed by party regulations. In the case of seven other nominations that could have been made, ward caucuses to choose nominees were held, but, not enough people showed up for selections to be made.
When compared to the still evolving national average, the limited interest in delegate selection here is par for the course, according to officials at the Democratic National Committee. In other ways the Washington situation has both local and national aspects.
Locally, it may be a sign of the times that leading city Democrats see little cause for alarm in the apparent lack of enthusiasm. "I think it's probably better that people are more concerned with who's being elected mayor in the District than who's going to a mid-term conference that you don't know the importance of," said Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who has been active for many years in local party politics.
The current calm is markedly different from the sharply divided, but perhaps healthy and predictable, intra-party skirmishes that took place the last time city Democrats, who account for three of every four registered voters in Washington, chose delegates to a national party meeting.
That was in 1976, and the Open Party slate, backed by Mayor Walter E. Washington, dueled against the Unity '76 Coalition, led by Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, for seats on the D.C. Democratic State Committee as well as delegate representation at the Democratic National Convention where Jimmy Carter was nominated for president.
This time there are no pitched battles. "It's in the finest tradition of the Democratic party," boasts State Committee Chairman Robert B. Washington Jr. "We have opened it all up. It's a straight out, open party participatory process."
In order to be nominated for one of the 32 slots (two men and two women from each of the city's eight wards) a person had to be chosen at a ward caucus. The caucuses were held June 20. In the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, one man and one woman will each be chosen a delegate from an area of the city made up of wards 1, 2 and 8. Another pair will be chosen from an area made up of wards 3, 4, 5, and 7.
Of the remaining seven city slots, four are already accounted for by the standing quarlet of D.C. representatives on the Democratic National Committee - State Committee Chairman Washington, Vice chairman Lillian Adkins Sedgwick, National Committeeman John W. Hechinger and National Committeewoman Sharon Pratt Dixon.
Three people will be chosen by the state committee as at-large delegates on Oct. 5.
The biggest local winners in the initial quest for representation in Memphis are the city's Young Democrats who have five active members among the 25 nominees, and the leftist Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), whose local chairman, Alex Spinrad, and national vice chairman, Ruth Jordan, are both nominees.
The Young Dems' thrust was a strongly local-oriented one. According to Young Dems President Earl Pope, it was aimed at encouraging greater interest in local politics on the part of those under 36 years of age and at providing a training ground for persons who might want to run for political office someday. of the 56 people running for office this fall, Pope pointed out, three have been active in the Young Dems - Absalom Jordan, Marie S. Nahikian and Hector Rodriguez. All three are seeking the Democratic nomination for City Council at-large.
DSOC, a socialist organization working within the Democratic party to promote Democratic socialism, has been making a national effort to get strong representation in Memphis. "Very few people seem to care about the elections (for delegates). We feel it's a very important opportunity to state our commitment to the democratic process within the Democratic party and our commitment to the party platform as a contract with the people," said local DSOC chairman Spinrad.
Among the issues DSOC plans to speak out on, Spinrad said, are national health insurance, full employment and greater numbers of public works jobs, as well as the establishment of a national energy corporation.
Mary Eva Candon, a nominee for conference delegate and executive secretary of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said the convention is also likely to get a push from the local delegation for nationwide support of full voting representation for the District.