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D.C. Will Host 2004’s First Presidential Primary

With the conclusion of a Congressional review period on Friday, the District of Columbia became the official host of the nation’s first presidential primary in 2004.

Despite the fact that the voting will not immediately yield convention delegates to the winner, organizers were thrilled by the outcome.

“We’ve managed to thread the legal needle,” said Sean Tenner, political director of D.C. Democracy Fund, a federal political action committee which led the movement to push the primary date from May to Jan. 13.

Although some voting-rights proponents had said a floor fight over the bill could generate publicity for the District’s status, there was little expectation Congress would seek to overturn the legislation.

Under the legislation, signed in March by Mayor Anthony Williams (D), the District will hold a primary six days before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before New Hampshire’s scheduled primary.

To avoid being punished by the Democratic National Committee, which had threatened not to recognize a majority of the District’s delegates at the 2004 nominating convention, the city’s 10 delegates will actually be chosen at a March party caucus. Many of the District’s 28 additional superdelegates — elected city officials and party leaders — have vowed to support the primary winner at the convention.

“There’s no way the DNC can say what we’re doing violates their rules,” Tanner said.

Because the District’s primary is essentially non-binding, it will not violate national party rules that guarantee New Hampshire’s and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.

The District’s Republican Party will not participate in the primary but will hold a caucus in the spring.

Voting-rights advocates assert a first-in-the-nation primary is critical to drawing attention to the push for full Congressional representation in the District — which is represented by a Delegate in the House and has no elected official in the Senate.

“This is really the best option,” Tenner said. “If we had done the primary in February … nobody would care because we’re such a small jurisdiction.”

Tenner also insisted that the early primary has already started to generate interest. He said campaign staff for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have been in contact with Democratic groups in several of the city’s wards.

“For anyone who thinks the candidates won’t come here, do we really think John Kerry’s campaign staff would be campaigning in Ward Eight in the District of Columbia … if it weren’t for the primary?” Tenner said, noting that Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has also committed to campaign in the District.

Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), an elected official who lobbies Congress for voting rights and statehood, expects all of the presidential candidates to campaign for the District’s primary.

“Let’s face it, they all campaign in the District anyway, whether it’s here to raise money or to meet with policy leaders, they have a presence in the District. Now they’ll have votes as well,” said Strauss, one of the city’s superdelegates.

D.C. City Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who authored the primary legislation, argues that the DNC has sought to “minimize” the District’s election, but said he still expects candidates to begin to focus their attention on the city sometime after Labor Day.

“The primary is the primary, it doesn’t matter if it is a beauty contest or not,” Evans said.

Several organizations that pushed for the earlier primary are now working to organize a candidate debate, Evans said.

“Our primary will reflect an urban view of America, and will talk about issues that are important to urban America — and I say this jokingly but seriously — not what the price of soybeans are or how to keep farm credits in place,” Evans said.

Still, in the near future, it appears unlikely that presidential candidates will add District events to their campaign schedules.

“It’s so new we have to take a look and decide what to do,” said Jeff Cohen, communication director for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (Ohio) bid. “Our focus will remain on Iowa.”

And while former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun has pledged to take part in the primary, it’s unlikely to affect her campaign strategy, a Braun spokesman said.

Frank Watkins, campaign manager for the Rev. Al Sharpton, believes “the media will be the determining factor” in how much attention candidates pay to the contest.

But that argument is something of a “Catch-22” scenario, as DNC spokeswoman Debra DeShong noted: “It depends on how much attention the candidates pay to it. It’s really up to the candidates.”

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