The big question now for advocates of a first-in-the-nation D.C. primary is this: If you hold it, will they come?

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), architect of the bill to move the city's presidential primary to Jan. 13, contends they will. Some candidate, he says, will want to win the primary -- if only to get a mini-bump heading into the traditional kickoff events in Iowa and New Hampshire. Once one candidate is in, others will follow.

But several of the leading candidates have already made clear that they are going to keep their distance. And why not? New Hampshire so jealously guards its spot in line that state law requires that it have the first primary. New Hampshire officials through the years have threatened to print ballots with no dates on them, so they can call an election with only a few days of warning.

As for Iowa, it's unlikely corn farmers are about to give up their best leverage to keep their ethanol subsidies.

So if you're a candidate with a real shot, why risk upsetting the political fanatics in the states whose votes will indisputably matter?

Remember, if the D.C. party goes forward with a binding primary, the Democratic National Committee has warned that 30 of D.C.'s 38 delegates to the national convention will lose their seats. Are those eight delegates worth it? The early returns from campaigns suggest no.

"The party will frown upon it in such a way that the candidates get the message," said Donna Brazile, the DNC member who has cautioned against the push for an early primary. "No one wants to flout the party's rules."

That doesn't mean a long-shot candidate and maybe two won't get in the mix for the D.C. primary. A win here for Al Sharpton, for example, could bolster his credentials as the candidate of the left, perhaps weakening former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as he heads into the big primary next door to his home state.

But the national political calculus, which remains uncertain, should not obscure the enormous public relations victory already won by the D.C. statehood/voting rights crowd.

Activists have long contended that if only the nation knew D.C. residents (as opposed to lobbyists and Hill staffers) had no vote in Congress, a change would come. It's too soon to know if that's true, but it's clear that the primary election maneuver has generated more headlines than activists could reasonably have hoped for.

A primary -- even one that the biggest fish skip -- would mean more attention.

Fines a Prickly Subject

The press release issued by the city's Department of Public Works last month about upcoming increases in fines for illegal parking was, on the surface, as straightforward as they come.

The new rates -- which went up by $10 in most cases for passenger vehicles and kicked in March 1 -- had been approved by the D.C. Council last summer, the release stated.

Simple enough, right?

Not to council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large). When she read a small item about the increases in The Washington Post, she was outraged.

Schwartz directed a staffer to call The Post and ask for a correction because the council had never approved such an increase. When it was pointed out that the council had, in fact, approved it, Schwartz's representative said the council member would "let The Post off the hook" and take her complaints elsewhere.

Last Tuesday, "elsewhere" was identified: DPW Director Leslie Hotaling. During an oversight hearing, Schwartz, who is head of the council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment, delivered a letter to Hotaling.

"Dear Ms. Hotaling," Schwartz wrote, "How dare you place responsibility for the increases in parking fines on the Council! You, better than anyone, know that not to be the case."

Schwartz went on to detail her point. While the council had, ultimately, approved the increases, the council also had reduced the fine increases from the original amounts proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Hotaling.

Schwartz, who lost to Williams in the mayoral election last fall, stated in her letter: "At the March 22, 2002 budget hearing you defended the Mayor's request to increase the fine for an expired meter violation by 166% from $15.00 to $40.00. You also strongly supported his 125% increase from $20.00 to $45.00 for violations of residential permit parking, no parking, no alley parking, and no parking-street cleaning. As you will also recall, I adamantly opposed the size of the increases. The Council did ultimately -- albeit reluctantly -- agree to a more reasonable compromise of a flat $10.00 increase in the proposed fines that more closely resemble the fines of comparable jurisdictions. But it was always the Mayor's proposal and not ours."

Schwartz continued: "I am sure much to your and the Mayor's office's glee, the media -- both print and electronic -- repeated your less-than-accurate press release ad nauseam. Ultimately, though, this sort of deception does not accrue to your benefit. In the future when you issue press releases that mention the Council's role in a policy decision, do so in a manner that is factual and that does not rewrite history."

Hotaling apologized to Schwartz during the hearing for any misunderstanding. But Hotaling had never even seen the press release because it was written by DPW's communications director, Mary Myers.

"This was simply intended to be a reminder that, in fact, the fines would be going up," Myers said. "It was never my intention to needle or prick or scrape the Council. I'm just a poor functionary public servant."