When James Christian was elected to succeed Ivanhoe Donaldson as chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee last year, he touted himself as a "consensus leader" who could help build the party.
After nearly a year of his leadership, however, party officials are mired in dissension over Christian's style. The 38-year-old lawyer's detractors are moving to oust him and install Ward 2 member Larry Weston in the chairman's seat amid allegations that Christian runs the party autocratically and lacks the political and organizational skills of Donaldson.
Christian faces what many feel could be a close reelection bid June 5. His fate may hinge on the success or failure of the party's annual Kennedys-King Dinner fund-raiser tonight, an event that is expected to determine the party's financial outlook for the coming year.
Ironically, Christian may not be chairman long enough to preside over the fruits of his labor.
Even his foes credit Christian as the driving force behind the Democrats' first-ever platform convention June 21. The convention, for which more than 300 delegates will meet at the University of the District of Columbia to debate mostly local issues, is expected to fashion what Christian terms a "blueprint for the party." More importantly, organizers hope the event will alter the local party's image as largely ineffectual.
However, Christian's adversaries hope to dislodge him before the big event.
"There are people who would like to give him a double humiliation," said one Democrat.
The seemingly venomous spirit of some of Christian's opponents may reflect nothing so much as frustration over the party's limited role in the city's political process. The organization, lacking funds and clout, rarely plays a significant part in shaping D.C. elections.
"All that energy gets collapsed inside the state committee and they start fighting each other," said one well-placed insider. "It gets to be a big thing whether you get to arrange the seating for the Kennedys-King Dinner."
Christian seeks to change all that, and in so doing, to promote his vision of a local party organization with muscle.
"Historically, the state committee has really been an extension of elected officials," he said in a recent interview. "We want the elected officials to recognize the legitimate role of the state committee as the spokesman and representative of the Democratic Party."
Central to that change is the workability of the platform convention. Mayor Marion Barry said recently that he supports the convention as a way to invigorate a "docile" party. But some committee officials worry the gathering may be chaotic, and a few elected officials are concerned that the resulting platform may diverge from their own views.
In addition to 240 convention delegates who were selected this year in ward caucuses, other delegates will include the 69 members of the committee, as well as the city's elected officials, including D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy.
With such hotly contested issues as rent control and the location of a proposed new D.C. prison likely to be mentioned in the platform, mayoral and City Council candidates almost certainly will find themselves measured not only against their opponents but also against a Democratic Party testing its strength.
City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who faces a reelection bid this year, said she doubts whether the party is in close touch with D.C. voters, adding, "I am going to listen to my Ward 6 constituents . . . not the party."
Christian was elected a year ago after Donaldson, then under federal grand jury investigation, decided not to seek a second term. Donaldson was sentenced in January to seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
Internally, the debate over Christian's performance arises out of the criticism by some that the party leader makes decisions, then seeks support for them -- rather than the other way around.
"The platform convention idea came from the chairman, and he unilaterally moved forward," said Stanley Boucree, chairman of the party's finance committee and an open supporter of Weston. "While I am not opposed to a convention, I think you should enlist the support of the membership. There is a vast difference between leadership and dictatorship. I am completely opposed to the manner in which this was done."
Organized labor supporters on the committee also gripe about Christian's handling of preparations for tonight's Kennedys-King dinner, to be held at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. The initial printing of tickets for the event, whose keynote speaker will be Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was done by a nonunion shop. After an uproar from labor supporters, the tickets had to be reprinted, committee members said.
The grousing could fade soon, however, if the fund-raising dinner brings in enough money to put the financially strapped organization on solid footing and if Christian can hold off a challenge by Weston, the executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, who lost to Christian by a 39-to-22 vote in the election for chairman last year.