If, as the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Democratic Institute preaches around the globe, “political parties are essential institutions of democracy,” then the one-party District of Columbia may well be the cradle of autocracy.
Power in the District rests in the hands of a relatively small group of like-minded Democratic politicians. There is no viable opposition party to hold the D.C. government accountable. Alternative policies and choices in governance are missing when one party controls all the action. That’s the case whether the scene is dominated solely by Democrats or by Republicans.
But, in the District, lopsided governance carries the day.
Look no further than next month’s primary election in which the offices up for grabs are D.C. delegate, mayor, council chairman, at large council member, and council seats in wards 1, 3, 5 and 6.
Only the Democratic Party has fielded candidates for all of those positions.
The Statehood Green party and the Libertarian party have produced limited slates. Both parties, minor in both membership and money, have candidates running for delegate, mayor and at-large council member; the Statehood Green party has a candidate for a Ward 5 seat. That’s it.
The Republican Party, however, has pretty much punked out. The GOP ballot for mayor and council positions offers no candidates, except the Ward 6 seat. It’s as if the D.C. GOP has a noncompete clause in its bylaws.
Asked about the paucity of candidates, D.C. Republican Party Chairman José Cunningham said in a telephone interview this week that his party is “in the bluest of blue states” and has limited resources that must be “focused where we can do the most good.” Cunningham said he believes that Michael Bekesha, the Republican candidate for the Ward 6 seat held by Democratic Council member Charles Allen, will be competitive in the general election, assuming Allen wins the Democratic primary. Cunningham acknowledged that the D.C. GOP is way behind the curve.
There are reasons, of course, for the disparity in party candidates. Citywide registration, as of April 30, helps tell the story: Registered Democrats, at 360,107, represent 76 percent of the electorate. The District’s second-largest voting bloc, nonparty registrants or independents, totals 78,178, or 16.5 percent of the voters.
Only 29,136 residents are registered Republicans — 6.15 percent of registered voters.
But there’s another reason for D.C. Republican candidate no-shows. The Republican brand on display in Washington and across the nation is a huge turnoff in the District. President Trump and his Republican-controlled Congress only make matters worse with their passion for marginalizing the District. Their incursions into the city’s limited self-government powers are as predictable as August heat and humidity. District residents are viewed by the Republican leadership the same way in which that damnable Supreme Court Dred Scott decision viewed blacks — that they had no rights that a white man (in this case, Republican leader) was bound to respect. What self-respecting D.C. citizen would seek office under the GOP banner?
Still, the city suffers from the lack of an opposition.
Issues crying out for attention can easily be ignored or brushed aside with lip service by a party exclusively controlling the local agenda.
The list of present-day unaddressed governance problems, as investigated and reported by the D.C. Auditor, makes the point:
• Overtime spending is out of hand: up 167 percent from $40.5 million in fiscal 2011 to $108.2 million in fiscal 2017. More than 400 District workers made more than half of their base salary in overtime in fiscal 2016.
• Groups of students in some wards continue to have “serious and persistent disparities” in learning opportunities and academic achievements.
• The multimillion-dollar Housing Production Trust Fund suffers from weak management and lack of constant oversight.
• The First Source law, created to ensure that city residents are given at least 51 percent of new jobs created by municipal financing and development programs, has not been effectively implemented.
These clearly are problems of management, performance and government oversight that fall in the wheelhouse of the Democratic-dominated D.C. Council. But the council is to Mayor Muriel Bowser what the Republican Congress is to President Trump: huffing and puffing lawmakers blowing away nothing but themselves.
Governance demands more than that. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a registered Republican. But the District needs an inclusive, multiparty system if citizens are to have a real impact on governance. We don’t have that now.
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