D.C. Democrats will debate proposals for aiding tenants, cracking down on drug use and wresting away some mayoral powers in the first ever Democratic State Convention today at the University of the District of Columbia.
The convention, organized by the D.C. Democratic State Committee, is aimed at charting a course of independence for the local party organization, which traditionally has been dominated by the city's elected officials.
"It is time for the party to break away and show that we are alive and well," said Kathy Foster, a leader of the convention's organizing committee.
The all-day event, which will be attended by 240 delegates from around the city, is expected to focus on proposed planks to the party's platform, drafted in the last several months by ward delegations and a platform committee of the party organization.
Among the ideas supported in the draft platform: The right of tenants to deduct the costs of needed repairs from rent payments. Statehood for the District. Health insurance for the unemployed. Tougher penalties for drug pushers and consideration of antiloitering legislation aimed at discouraging the drug trade. More housing and business loans, and assurances that businesses benefiting from major economic development projects hire more neighborhood residents. A series of changes aimed at giving community members greater influence over agencies now controlled by the mayor. The proposed platform calls for the election of Public Service Commission members, who now are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. City Council.
The platform also would give elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions the right to appeal decisions of the mayorally appointed Board of Zoning Adjustment and Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Finally, the draft calls for the establishment of a recall process for mayorally appointed board and commission members.
One party member derided the so-called "community empowerment" plank as "democracy ad nauseum . . . . One could say it is the powerless seeking power."
But James Christian, chairman of the state committee, suggested that the proposals are not a power grab aimed at the mayor but simply a reflection of concern among ANCs and others that they should have more say over community interests.
Foster said the platform, with its emphasis on traditionally liberal policies in the social services area and its hard line against crime, offers something for everyone. "When you give the delegations a wide opportunity to come up with pie-in-the sky dreams, they did it," she said. "I think the significance of the whole thing is the party coming together as a party."
The education lobby weighed in with a schools plank that calls for increased education funding, better teacher-to-student ratios and the establishment of a satellite campus of UDC in Ward 8. Gays got strong assurances of a strengthened Human Rights Act along with a proposal for "additional civil and criminal penalties" for anyone who harasses a person because of race, sex or sexual orientation.
One issue missing from the draft platform is the location of a new prison in the District. Mayor Marion Barry has proposed construction of a prison in Ward 6 near the D.C. Jail. But "the platform ducks that issue, and I am sure there will be further discussion," Christian said.
Debate on the platform will be tightly controlled under the rules formulated for the convention. Any proposed amendments to the draft must have been submitted 48 hours in advance of the event and require supporting petitions signed by 36 delegates. Christian said 29 proposed amendments have been submitted.