- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

Forgive me, but I just don't get the hubbub over the District's moving its presidential primary so it is the first in the nation next year. Is it for substance or simply for show?

Like many native and longtime Washingtonians, I have been a staunch supporter of self determination and congressional voting rights for D.C. residents. It constitutes an indefensible hypocrisy that nearly 600,000 residents in the capital of the free world do not have the right to vote in their country's legislature.

Notice I call them residents. Technically, they are not citizens because to be a citizen, one must first be able to vote.

For decades, city residents have taken their case for self determination to the halls of Congress, to the streets, to the courts and to the people. But their pleas for democracy have fallen on deaf ears.

Lamenting their "last colony" status, they try everything from changing the flag to changing license plates to burning their tax returns to demonstrate their "taxation without representation" plight.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, has proposed that the city move its 2004 presidential primary ahead of the traditional campaign kickoff in New Hampshire, and the council this week approved the plan.

This leapfrogging has not been welcomed by Democratic leaders, who warn that the District's 38 Democratic delegates might not be seated at the Boston convention should city leaders persist in their protest.

Mr. Evans and supporters argue that by "being first," they will force a national spotlight on the District's disenfranchisement and on urban problems.

I wonder. As always, you don't always get what you ask for, or rarely what's right. This nation's leaders could do the right thing by its capital residents and rectify this shameful situation today without all these shenanigans.

Now, I'm not afraid of a fair fight and I've learned that victory is often in the battle. Sometimes you have to disobey the rules because the rules need to be changed.

Still, I am at a loss to understand the primary passion, for or against, because it is not clear whether the District's insistence on bucking the national party for what amounts to a presidential beauty contest that most candidates will probably skip will help or hurt the demand for "Democracy Now" cause long-term.

Will this move generate justice or jokes? I asked two men I respect for their stripes in the "Free D.C." movement: Sam Smith and Lawrence Guyot.

Those you think might be leading the charge like Mr. Smith, a longtime activist and statehood advocate are against the primary date change. Even the local D.C. Democratic State Committee narrowly rejected the council proposal, voting to stick with the national party's predetermined process.

Mr. Smith, editor of the Progressive Review, a founding member of D.C. Statehood Now and a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party, said the primary date change is nothing more than a "puerile public relations trick that gives the image of something that is really not there."

"For pointless symbolism, it's hard to beat the D.C. Council's voting to move its primary up to January in order to be 'first in the land,' " Mr. Smith said. "The gimmick is supposed to draw attention to the capital colony's plight, or at least that part of it with which the local establishment is obsessed: giving Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton a vote in the House."

Further, he added "other problems such as a lack of control over the budget, justice system and legislation are tertiary matters in the eyes of local solons, who will take a good symbol over real power any day."

Mr. Smith, a native Washingtonian known for his curmudgeonly wit, noted that the council's move only affects Democrats because the Republican Party had done the right thing, in his view, to opt for a delegate caucus.

Besides, the Democrats ought to be lengthening their primary process to be more deliberative and make a better choice, he said. "After all, the only president they've elected since they started cutting primary corners was impeached."

A noted historian, Mr. Smith pointed out that had it been up to the "taxation without representation" supporters, a few Massachusetts businesses who were content to get a few seats in the British Parliament, the United States never may have become a republic.

Mr. Guyot, a longtime civil rights activist, speaks of a different history. He was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation that challenged the national Democratic Party delegate selection rules at the famous 1964 convention. Their public protest not only resulted in a permanent change in the party's selection process but highlighted the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks and set the stage for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"The '65 Voting Rights Act was passed because America saw the problem and forced the politicians to deal with it," said Mr. Guyot, who adamantly supports the council's vote to hold the D.C. primary first.

"We want to be called citizens, and we're calling upon citizens to grant us our citizenship," Mr. Guyot said. "Citizens vote for the House and the Senate and we want to join that group."

Mr. Guyot said he sees "nothing symbolic about this national call to arms to establish one definition of citizenship."

Does he anticipate a backlash over the council's action?

"I see no backlash; however, the right to vote is so important that we should be prepared to take whatever consequences flow from this fight," Mr. Guyot said. "If there is to be opposition to this, we may lose six delegates, but I cannot imagine a more public or beneficial loss that could be devised.

"Imagine, if you will, the Democratic National Convention being asked to vote to exclude the only nonvoters in America," he said. "There is a fundamental fairness in America I am certain will lead us to success in this endeavor."

So there you have it same goal, same destination but each man riding a different bus, pushing a different tactic.

Who knows who'll arrive first? But surely D.C. residents deserve to be delivered from their disenfranchisement.

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