- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

Record-breaking participation for Democratic elections in two wards is spurring optimism that D.C. voters will go to the polls in droves for the District’s January primary.

More than 800 people voted in the Democratic State Committee elections in Wards 5 and 8 on Sept. 20 even in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel.

“I think it is a tremendous message in anticipation of the January primary and nothing less than a precursor to what will happen in 2004,” said Democratic Party Chairman A. Scott Bolden.

The Ward 8 convention was held in the parking lot of the Washington Highlands Library at 115 Atlantic St. SW.

The library was without power, but that didn’t stop a record 413 persons, including high-profile Democrats including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, from showing up and voting.

“I think having the convention outdoors gave it a festive spirit,” said Phillip Pannell, outgoing president of the committee.

He was one of the many Democrats who didn’t support moving the District’s primary to Jan. 13, making it the first primary in the nation.

He said he was fearful that the District, which turned out only 8 percent of registered voters in the 2000 presidential primary, would be embarrassed by a poor turnout in 2004.

But since the announcement of the primary, Mr. Pannell said there has been a lot more excitement among community activists and politically savvy residents.

“If it keeps up, it could spill out into getting a higher number of voters to turn out for the primary,” he said.

The Ward 5 Democratic State Committee elections brought out more than 430 voters, which many in the party attributed to the controversy surrounding the original election of officers in June.

The June 23 election was riddled with irregularities. The vote was challenged and eventually overturned by the party’s executive committee.

Mr. Bolden said the party anticipates a new beginning for the District’s voter participation in 2004.

But voter turnout is not the only good news for local Democrats. The Democratic Party has hosted a large number of fund-raisers and donor dinners in the past three months.

Black Entertainment Television executive and now NBA franchise owner Bob Johnson hosted a Democratic Party donor dinner last week along with Cathy Milano and Franco Nechuse, owners of Cafe Milano in Georgetown, where the event was held.

Local Democrats boasted that the party has raised more than $100,000 in the past 100 days with only $25,000 through in-kind contributions.

The money raised — already an annual record — will be used to promote local and national voting rights efforts, promoting full congressional voting representation and statehood for the District, and investing in Democratic candidates and issues in other states.

• Going soft

Maryland donors gave $4.8 million in the past three years to a type of “soft money” political committee that critics say can be used to legally skirt state and federal campaign-finance restrictions, a new study shows.

The analysis by the Center for Public Integrity in the District examined the same kind of political committees as the one that Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller heads to raise money for Democratic candidates running for state offices around the country.

Mr. Miller’s work for the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee has drawn critical scrutiny and prompted a federal inquiry because $225,000 in contributions was obtained from racing interests seeking to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.

The report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, says both major political parties and their special-interest allies have been using the same type of tax-exempt committees to raise big sums, the Baltimore Sun reported last week.

These committees, known as “527 Committees” after the section of the tax code that permits them, can raise unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, the study says.

They must file reports with the Internal Revenue Service but can avoid regulation by state or federal election authorities.

The report found that 471 such committees have raised $397.8 million in the past three years, with Democratic-leaning organizations making the most use of them.

“This isn’t illegal, and we’re not saying that it is,” said Derek Willis, a co-author of the center’s report. “Many groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, [National Abortion Rights Action League] and labor unions have used this process for years.”

In Maryland, the Democratic Governors’ Association raised the largest amount of money at $897,000, followed by the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee at $588,377.

Peter G. Angelos, a trial lawyer and managing partner of the Baltimore Orioles, was the biggest individual donor from Maryland to tax-exempt political committees around the country, the report shows. He gave $265,000.

Among labor unions and corporate interests in Maryland, the biggest contributors were the Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union at just over $1 million, defense contractor Lockheed Martin at $227,800 and Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, for its donation to Mr. Miller’s committee of $225,000.

Brian DeBose contributed to this column, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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