TWO YEARS ago, when D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) faced a challenge in the general election, she made quite a point of her party affiliation. “I am the Ward 7 Democratic candidate. So there you go. Bam!” was her retort to her Republican opponent in one debate. Now Ms. Alexander apparently feels less fealty to her party identification. She is considering shedding it to increase her advantage in a possible run for an at-large council seat.
Ms. Alexander is not the first local politician, nor is she likely to be the last, to adopt the crass ploy of running as an independent in name only to capture a seat reserved for representatives who are not members of the majority party. That’s why it’s time the District revisit the quirk in city law that essentially permits a farce to be perpetuated on voters.
Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, two at-large seats on the 13-member council are reserved for non-majority party members. The provision was insisted upon by Republican members of Congress who knew the District was overwhelmingly Democratic and didn’t want one-party rule. That, though, essentially is what has happened, because of a weak local Republican party and the recognition by Democrats that they could bypass the more competitive Democratic primary and get elected by registering with no party. Former Council member William Lightfoot pioneered the practice in 1988, and it was successfully used by former council member Michael A. Brown and current council member David Grosso.
The prospect that the at-large seat now held by David Catania, a former Republican who switched to independent, will be vacated if he runs for mayor in November has Ms. Alexander considering her options. Two other former council candidates, Elissa Silverman and the Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, have already switched their status from Democrat to Independent in anticipation of potential runs. Reports also suggest Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is considering the possibility.
There is something essentially undemocratic about setting aside seats. There is generally less competition for them and those who get elected do so with fewer votes. Better systems exist in other cities that open up the process without the charade of candidates pretending to be something they aren’t. Some jurisdictions, for example, have primaries in which candidates of all parties run, with the top two winners advancing to the general election. Or there is the practice of non-partisan elections, a proposal that was on the table for the District when Home Rule was approved but that was unwisely rejected in favor of the set-aside seats.
As the council prepares to consider proposals to change some aspects of local elections, we urge it to broaden its inquiry to a reform of how two of the at-large members are elected.