D.C. Democrats ratified a platform of public policy issues at their first convention yesterday, but not before delegates launched a rebellion against their leadership over a rules question that spotlighted party members' internal divisions and election-year priorities.
The grappling started early at the University of the District of Columbia auditorium, where 240 regular convention delegates and 69 members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee were joined by several D.C. City Council members in an effort to raise the party profile.
When it was nearly over, Mayor Marion Barry congratulated the Democrats for the spirited debate and said, "People should register their differences."
In a surprise move, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) was nominated to chair the convention, but Jarvis withdrew at the last minute in favor of nominee Romaine Thomas, a Ward 5 member of the Democratic State Committee and sentimental favorite of a body that was determined to steer a course independent of the city's elected officials.
The rules battle, which began during debate on the economic development plank of the party's proposed platform, brought shouting and confusion and was capped by state committee member Barbara Lett Simmons' charge that the convention leadership was "reactionary . . . . The last 15 minutes sounded like every Republican convention I have ever seen. Everything is out of order."
The fight started when Ward 3 delegate Ruth Dixon, a candidate for the Ward 3 City Council seat, proposed altering language in a section of a plank calling for incentives to businesses to locate outside the downtown area.
Dixon's suggestion that the incentive provision be excepted in Ward 3 -- where proposed developments have drawn fire from community groups and are the focus of the council race -- was ruled out of order by James Parks, chairman of the platform committee. Parks argued that such a change would require that an amendment proposal have been filed 48 hours before the convention.
James Nathanson, a Ward 3 state committee member who is also a candidate for the council seat, supported the change, saying, "There are some other wards crying out for economic development . . . . We would like to share some of that development."
With convention delegates from several wards rising to concur with the Ward 3 members, Ward 4 delegate William Rumsey warned, "We are about to throw the baby out with the bath water."
In a roll call vote, however, the plank passed 104 to 94, saving the baby. Kurt Vorndran, head of the Ward 3 delegation, commented afterward, "I think we made our point. We caused enough of a brouhaha to get everybody's attention."
An hour later, the party leadership reversed its stand on the rule, clearing the way for an amendment that made it easier to introduce amendments.
Employing the new provision, Ward 6 members won approval for a measure opposing new prison construction in residential areas of the city -- an addition to the party's generally hard-line anticrime plank. And Ward 2 members likewise garnered approval for an initiative declaring the District a legal sanctuary for political refugees.
The so-called "community empowerment" plank -- calling for election of Public Service Commission members and other provisions -- also triggered debate. Backed by public utility critic and Ward 3 delegate Mark Plotkin, the plank was approved overwhelmingly by every ward delegation except Plotkin's, which was dominated by delegates allied with Dixon.
"I'm building an at-large constituency," explained Plotkin, who is also a Ward 3 council candidate.