Report from February 7th DCDSC: Changing the DC Primary

UPDATE, FEBRUARY 17, 2019: I received a phone call from Councilmember Jack Evans today requesting that I update my characterization of his early departure and his motivation for seeking to change the primary. I’ve done so in red in the text below, keeping the original text in strikethrough for accountability purposes.

On February 7th, we had the fifth DC Democratic State Committee meeting since my term began.

The February 7th meeting had two main events:

  1. a speech from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton, primarily focused on DC Statehood, the Democrats taking the House, and specific legislation she’s forwarding to give DC full home rule; and
  2. a proposal from Ward 2 Councilmember and National Committeeman Jack Evans to move the DC Democratic primary from June 2020 to April 2020

I don’t take terribly good notes for guest speakers, as most of what we hear you can find on their websites or elsewhere. If you want to get deep into the details, read my live-thread from that night on Twitter.

Are We a Governing Body or a Toastmasters Chapter?

The meeting started off with quite a surprise: Chair Charles Wilson announced that the Executive Committee has selected to separate business meetings from those with speakers/presentations. In a change that’s concerning to me, as someone who wants to see the committee get into serious deliberations and resolution consideration, the Committee has chosen to compress all business to four meetings per year, one each quarter, and to host issue discussions in the interim months.

The change is understandable, but troubling. It’s true that our current meetings are packed too tightly with a guest speaker, reports from each officer and Ward Chair, and so on. Serious deliberation is limited to only a few minutes per meeting and has never been enough for the committee to feel like it’s thoroughly discussed and considered an issue before voting. It’s also true that part of what many of us ran on was a desire for the DCDSC to play a larger role in facilitating discussions of key issues facing residents. But the ratio seems backwards, to me.

A quarterly issue discussion with business dominating the interim months seems like a better schedule for a party governing body. Or swapping them every other month. Alternatively, we could raise expectations of committee members to come prepared, with agendas, officer and ward reports, proposals/resolutions, all submitted two weeks prior to the meeting so that we don’t need to take up precious time being read documents aloud.

Ideally, the meetings of the DCDSC should all be business-centered, with issue discussions something we organize and host in each ward on its own schedule. That’s part of what Voter Outreach Co-Chairs Gordon Andrew-Fletcher and me have proposed we take on in our standing committee’s work.

Yes to Changing the Primary, but No to the How and Why

The most anticipated discussion of the night was a proposal by Jack Evans to change the DC Democratic Primary from June 2020 to April 2020.

This issue came up briefly at the tail end of our January meeting but was never on the agenda and discussed for less than 10 minutes. This month, Evans decided to exaggerate the January mention during, calling it a “lengthy discussion.” This from the man that claimed a year-long, high-dollar public discussion on Initiative 77 wasn’t enough time for voters to understand an issue.

Evans clearly wants the primary changed. He argues that DC doesn’t benefit from being the last in the nation primary, a point with which it seems like a majority of DCDSC members agree. His motivations, however, gave many of us pause. You see, Evans is on the 2020 primary ballot for his Ward 2 Council seat. Recent investigations and ethical scandals have many privately saying the Councilmember is at his most vulnerable in his nearly 20-year career.  A shorter primary gives a potential challenger less time to build a campaign and name recognition. So, why is he leading the charge instead of abstaining given his obvious conflict of interest as a sitting Councilmember with something to gain or lose from the decision?

Evans told me that his motivation for changing the primary to April is due to a complicated DNC formula. In short, if DC were to hold its primary after March and in line with other state’s primaries (like Pennsylvania, Maryland), DC would be awarded a total of 25% more delegates than the 20% addition it currently gets for holding its primary in June. He also says he will be stepping back on this issue to allow the state committee to consider it on the merits of the issue rather than his involvement with it.

That cloud hung over the entire discussion. At least 12 meeting attendees rose to respond to Evans proposal, about evenly split between those who supported the change on the grounds DC would get more attention from presidential candidates (a proposition with which Norton would disagree from the dais later) and those who felt suspicious of of the rushed nature of the proposal and the apparent advantage it gives to incumbents in local elections. I was one of the latter.

At least two DCDSC members expressed concern that moving the primary as frequently as DC has done in recent years suppresses turnout. I strongly agree with this concern. Voters deserve a reliable election date, period.

Ultimately, Chair Charles Wilson encouraged that we close discussion, assisted by National Committeewoman Sylvia Martinez, who put a motion on the floor to table the proposal until our March meeting. By voice vote, the committee approved the motion, with only one “nay.” The result should come as no surprise. Evans never even tried to work the committee for a vote. No emails. No phone calls. He assumed a lot. Apparently unhappy with his inability to ram the change through the committee, he immediately walked out after the vote, leaving the front of the room, walking up an aisle of the auditorium, and going out the door. Evans clarified with me that his early departure was to attend an event for Yellowstone Forever, an organization which supports Yellowstone National Park, in Southwest D.C. He also noted that Chair Charles Wilson had announced earlier in the meeting that we were moving up the primary discussion on the agenda to accommodate Evans’s schedule.

Evans never returned to participate in the rest of the committee’s business for the night. That includes when other Ward 2 Committeemembers announced that, for the first time in years, the Ward 2 Democrats would host a meeting. It’s been a poorly-kept secret that Evans, in his Council seat since 1991, has presided over the obliteration of his ward organization to ensure no newcomers could rise to challenge his legitimacy.

At the end of the day, the DC Council, on which Evans sits and holds significant power, will make the decision. But I’m proud of the committee for not rubber stamping the move. If it the date is moved, any proposal should include an amendment that it not be changed again for at least a decade, and we should have a full airing of concerns regarding the way in which it advantages local incumbents like Evans, who should find a different resolution sponsor and abstain from the vote.

You can view the official minutes, which covers several announcements and discussions I didn’t include here, on the party’s official website by scrolling down to the “Recap of Our Last Meeting” section.

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