The debate over a first-in-the-nation presidential primary in the District is the most important home rule issue in years. The District's elected officials should unanimously support switching the city's May primary to Jan. 10, 2004, as D.C. Council member Jack Evans has proposed. Far from being a "disaster," as the Wall Street Journal suggests, this visionary action would:

* Provide a spectacular platform from which to educate Americans about the disenfranchisement of the people of the nation's capital. It would generate national and international press scrutiny, which in turn would put pressure on the president, Democratic presidential candidates and Congress to remedy this injustice. In the same year that the Organization of American States plans to release its recommendations concerning the political status of D.C. residents as adjudicated under international law, a D.C. presidential primary would leverage the political effect of that decision and incorporate it into the national dialogue.

* Show Americans that Washington isn't just an enclave of federal workers and politicians, but a vibrant and distinct community. A first-in-the-nation primary would show Americans that real people with real concerns live, work and raise families in the District and deserve equal political rights.

* Concentrate the minds of the presidential candidates and the public on urban issues. According to the recent census, urban dwellers make up 75 percent of the nation's population. They also constitute a significant portion of the Democratic Party base, so the party should be championing the cause of congressional representation for the District, not quibbling about bylaws that set the earliest date for a primary as Feb. 3.

* Focus on the fact that the District's population is more racially diverse than either New Hampshire's or Iowa's and that it is substantially more reflective of the country.

* Provide a boost to the District's economy. New revenue would come from presidential campaigners, reporters, advocacy groups and other political constituencies that would need hotel rooms, meeting rooms, taxis, food and car rentals. This revenue would buy more than a few textbooks and hot lunches.

This is the year for Washingtonians to make a united stand for equal political rights, even if the Democratic Party decides to punish the District for switching the date of the city primary by restricting the city's right to elect convention delegates. And should Congress wade in to veto the District's first-in-the-nation legislation, D.C. voters should commit an act of civil disobedience by going to the polls on Jan. 10. There, they should cast their votes for those presidential candidates, regardless of party, who recognize the imperative of granting equal rights to all taxpaying U.S. citizens, including D.C. residents. Making the D.C. primary the first in the nation would move Washingtonians a long way toward becoming full-fledged citizens at last.

-- Timothy Cooper

a D.C. voting rights activist, conceived

the idea of a first-in-the-nation

D.C. presidential primary.