- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

D.C. Democrats are anxiously watching a hotly contested vote today for chairman of the city's Democratic Party as a gauge of Mayor Anthony A. Williams' status in the party he leads.
The mayor up for re-election this year is the top Democrat in the city, and his choice for party chairman, incumbent Norman Neverson, is being challenged by former administration official Phillip Pannell. Mr. Pannell led the movement last month to censure the mayor for participating in a fund-raiser for Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform District of Columbia subcommittee.
"The mayor is the titular head of the party and should have his person there," said former D.C. Council member William Lightfoot, at-large independent. "That gives credibility to his position and his policies. That is why this election has some symbolic value."
Mr. Lightfoot, a lawyer who has long been involved in D.C. political life, said many of the party's leaders were upset with the mayor for his support of Mrs. Morella and Mr. Neverson's handling of the matter; namely, he opposed rebuke of the mayor. The mayor later apologized to the party for his actions.
"People are upset with me as chairman and with the mayor, but I took the position that we don't need to censure or reprimand him," said Mr. Neverson, who was first elected chairman in 2000. "There are tremendous divergent views that become one central voice in the democratic process. I was trying to do what is best for all citizens."
Others interviewed for this story said there is a sense that Mr. Neverson, credited with revamping Ward 4 Democrats as their former president and expanding the party's membership, doesn't run meetings well, is unorganized and lacks skills in parliamentary procedure. That, many city Democrats say, is Mr. Pannell's strength.
Mr. Pannell now is president of the Ward 8 Democrats, and party members credit him with successfully running the party's function and organization committee. He is a longtime activist and a past official in the administrations of former Mayor Marion Barry and Mr. Williams. He currently serves as executive assistant to D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
Two months ago, he pushed the Ward 8 Democrats to censure Mr. Williams and withhold their endorsement. Mr. Pannell was unsuccessful at persuading the central committee decision-makers to do the same.
Still, say observers, his longtime ties to the party have given him tremendous support among the party leadership.
"Norm has the affiliation with the mayor, and that brings great weight," said D.C. Council candidate Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. "But Phil has been tied to the party regulars long before Tony Williams ever came to town. What you have here is a battle between two different networks and systems."
It promises to be an interesting fight and has already had some unexpected twists.
Last month, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the party's organization for homosexual and lesbian members, met to deliver endorsements. The mayor and D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp received the club's approval, which is said to be comparable to a win in the New Hampshire primary in a presidential election.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Williams promoted Mr. Neverson heavily over Stein club member Mr. Pannell. In the end, Mr. Pannell won 22 votes, two shy of the 24 necessary to win the endorsement. Mr. Neverson got 20.
Yesterday, despite optimism on his behalf expressed by party members, Mr. Pannell acknowledged defeat.
"I am going to lose," he said. "I realized [Tuesday] night, I don't have enough votes. But I will carry on anyway."
He echoed others in saying he believes if the election had been held by secret ballot, he might have won. But many party members working in the administration or holding positions on boards or commissions are nervous about voting for Mr. Pannell against an administration-backed candidate.
"This vote was cast as pro-mayor and anti-mayor," he said. "All I wanted to do was lead a reform effort to make the D.C. Democratic party into a less dysfunctional and more viable organization. But because of the way this race was cast, this result is what it has come down to."


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