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D.C. Leaders Want First Presidential Primary

Once again seeking to put the nation’s capital on the political map, District of Columbia officials and Congressional voting-rights advocates are renewing efforts to make the city home to the nation’s first presidential primary in 2008.

Proponents of the idea hope to build on efforts that produced mixed-results in 2004 — the District’s Democrats held an early nonbinding primary under agreement with national party officials — but this time will work through the Democratic National Committee, rather than mount a grass-roots effort.

“We’re hoping to find a solution that is more within the national process and structure of the Democratic Party,” said D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), who lobbies for statehood and voting rights as part of the District’s three-member Shadow Congressional delegation.

Congressional voting-rights advocates are focusing their efforts on the DNC’s Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling, established to examine the party’s primary process.

Earlier this year Strauss, along with Sean Tenner, political director of D.C. Democracy Fund, a federal political action committee that led the 2004 movement, testified before the panel, and others, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) have written to the commission to lobby for the District’s place in the primary calendar.

As in 2004, District advocates hope that giving the city first-in-the-nation status would highlight its current Congressional status; the District is represented by a non-voting Delegate in the House and has no Senate representation.

District officials also remain hopeful that Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who has voiced support for the effort, will serve as their advocate on the 40-member commission, of which she is a member.

“She’s certainly sympathetic to our cause,” Strauss said. Brazile, who is also a Roll Call contributing writer, was traveling Monday and could not be reached by press time.

While voting-rights advocates asserted that they would work within the DNC in hopes of altering the primary structure, Tenner acknowledged that proponents have not eliminated the option of another renegade primary, should they fall short of their goal.

“It was a moral principle [in 2004] and probably always will be more important than party bylaws in a certain respect,” Tenner said.

“As the law stands now, we have the first primary,” Tenner added, referring to the measure approved by D.C. City Council members last year. “While I’m certainly hopeful and optimistic that we can reach agreement with the DNC, that is the law of the land.”

Even some of the strongest supporters of the effort, including City Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who authored the legislation moving up the city’s primary calender in 2004, voiced doubt over whether the push for the first primary will have any real impact this time.

Evans admits it appears unlikely that the DNC would opt to promote the District to the lead-off position in the primary calendar.

“I think it’s a long shot at best,” Evans conceded. “I think when push comes to shove the party elders are very reluctant to go against Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Among the alternatives the District could pursue should the initial effort fail, Evans said, would be a regional primary involving Maryland and Virginia shortly after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

Similarly, Strauss suggested that primary proponents could be satisfied if the DNC provides another “highlighted forum” — a highly visible public event, which would likely include additional time for the District to make its case for Congressional representation during the party’s nominating convention in 2008.

“I think it all depends on how the DNC justifies what they’re doing and how they go about it,” Strauss said.

For now, the efforts remain confined to the Democratic Party, repeating the partisan divisions that surfaced on the issue in the 2004 cycle.

At the time, D.C. Republican Party officials refused to schedule an early primary — opting instead to host a caucus later in the spring — and criticized the Democrats’ decision to do so. Local GOP leaders cited conflicts with Republication National Committee rules while also asserting that an early primary would carry a prohibitive financial costs

In an interview Monday, D.C. Republican Party Chairman Bob Kabel characterized the event as “a horrendous waste of tax payer money.”

Although the local party is supportive of Congressional representation for the District, Kabel criticized the Democrats’ renewed efforts to push for a first-in-the-nation primary, questioning whether such an event can really produce tangible results.

“It’s a gimmick, and it doesn’t really pay off,” Kabel said.

He added that the D.C. GOP intends to focus its efforts in coming months on educating other local party affiliates about the District’s Congressional status.

In the meanwhile, Kabel said the party will follow the RNC’s lead on the 2008 primary calendar.

“The RNC is looking at a lot of the issues surrounding the primaries and the timing of them, and we will be involved in that process,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the party will opt for another caucus or a traditional primary.

“We’re a long way away form making a decision on that,” Kabel said. He added: “We’re just not going to join those that are trying to advocate a first in the national primary.”

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