The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. Democrats’ real power grab

Byron Graham, the cleaning supervisor of the Wilson Building, prepares for the swearing-in of the members of the D.C. Council outside the Wilson Building on Jan. 2. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Nelson F. Rimensnyder was an analyst specializing in District of Columbia history and government at the Congressional Research Service from 1971 to 1974 and director of research for the U. S. House Committee on the District of Columbia from 1975 to 1992. He has written a history of the D.C. Home Rule Charter Act of 1973.

Republicans have contended in recent hearings that D.C. statehood is a “power grab” intended to ensure the election for life of two Democratic senators. They have ample precedent for that claim if one examines the actions of the local government over the recent history of home rule in the nation’s capital.

A section of the D.C. Home Rule Charter provides that “at no time shall there be more than three members (including the chairman) out of the five serving at-large on the Council who are affiliated with the same political party.” It was the intent of Congress that this provision would enable candidates of various organized and certified political parties to compete successfully for at-large council seats, and it did work that way for many years. Republicans and Statehood Party members were elected and held at least one of the two seats reserved for members of other parties. At one time, Republicans even held both these at-large seats.

In recent years, however, all at-large council members have in reality been affiliated with the Democratic Party. How did this one-party government come about? The truth is that Democrats found an easy way around the requirement for multiparty representation on the council. The Democratic-controlled Board of Elections simply began allowing Democrats who register as “No Party” to appear on the ballot as “Independent,” even though there is no such thing as a registered “Independent” party. These de facto Democrats could have chosen a more honest route to election by organizing and seeking certification of an “Independent Party,” but, of course, they have no desire or incentive to do so.

In 2014 and 2018, I was the Republican candidate for D.C. delegate to the U.S. House. In several candidate forums, I challenged the Democratic incumbent, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), to work with civic and political leaders on legislative or administrative reforms of the Home Rule Charter that would restore multiparty representation on the council. Norton’s disappointing response was to insist that provision of the charter is broken and can’t be fixed.

To justify their disregard for the intent of Congress, Democrats falsely claim that the charter provision prohibiting more than three of the at-large council seats to be members of the same party is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has held otherwise (see Hechinger v. Martin). Additional false claims are that the at-large provision was imposed solely by Republican members of Congress and that D.C. is the only jurisdiction governed by a charter that mandates minority political party representation. Connecticut and Pennsylvania both have jurisdictions with such charters.

The Home Rule Charter legislative history documents that during drafting sessions of the U. S. House Committee on the District of Columbia, Democratic members were not comfortable with the prospect of a one-party local government. Donald Frazer (D-Minn.) observed on several occasions that “I generally feel that legislative bodies function better with vigorous two-party or multiparty representatives on it.” Local Democratic Party leaders also testified in favor of multiparty representation. Democrat Joseph L. Rauh Jr., a highly regarded civil rights attorney, testified that “I have no objection to ensuring minority party representation on the Council. That can be done. A provision can be found. There is a problem in the District of Columbia that the Democrats outnumber the Republicans. It is a troublesome problem.”

Whether the governance of D.C. continues under the provisions of the Home Rule Charter Act of 1973 or D.C. is granted statehood by Congress, the ills arising from one-party rule will be ongoing. The “fix” is to carry out the original intent of Congress and ensure party diversity in our elected representation.

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