- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Sean Tenner likes to force changes. “We are not going to get the vote if we don’t push the envelope,” the executive director of the D.C. Democracy Fund said of the much-debated value of the District’s historic “first-in-the-nation” presidential primary to be held a week from today.

“Regardless of the turnout or the victor, we pushed the envelope and [the lack of full voting rights in the District] would not have been an issue if we hadn’t had the primary,” said the young, bright, energetic Mr. Tenner, who was fielding a flurry of phone calls yesterday about the fast-approaching nonbinding primary.

Some callers wanted information, some wanted interviews, some wanted “the tools necessary for the various campaigns to maximize voter turnout.” Quite frankly, the success of this primary, which some critics have labeled as nothing more than “a gimmick,” hinges on voter turnout. Detractors certainly will use low voter participation to their advantage; supporters will use it to buoy their cause.

Mr. Tenner, listing a hurried schedule of upcoming campaign activities, said his group was “working around the clock” to get out the vote.

Elected officials, labor unions, community activists and D.C. voting-rights supporters are sending out mailings, putting up posters and paying for advertisements this week as well. “The phones [have] been ringing off the hook this weekend and I think it’s going to continue,” he said. “The community’s done as good as we can under difficult circumstances.”

One of the more anticipated events is Friday morning’s presidential debate on WTOP radio featuring D.C. voting-rights stalwart Mark Plotkin and co-sponsored by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Mr. Tenner said a couple of primary activities, one a benefit concert at the Black Cat sponsored by supporters of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, are geared to generate interest among younger, first-time voters.

More than potential monetary benefit to the particular candidate, Mr. Tenner points to the accompanying public relations benefit for the District’s disenfranchisement cause.

For example, one of the groups backing the Friday concert, Punks for Dean, has seen a significant increase in Internet chatter on their Web site about D.C. voting rights. Judging from their comments, Mr. Tenner said, many of the respondents prove the local theory that most Americans are not aware that D.C. residents don’t have full voting rights.

District officials voted to move their traditional May primary up to Jan. 13, primarily with the hope of calling attention to the lack of voting representation in Congress for the half a million highly taxed people living in the capital of the free world.

The D.C. Statehood/Green Party is fielding two presidential contenders while the Democrats have four of nine declared candidates on their ballot: Mr. Dean, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former U.S. senator and ambassador Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

The Republicans will chose a candidate during a later caucus.

And so will the Democrats, as Tuesday’s vote carries no official weight.

It is no secret there is concern this primary could become a “political boomerang” if D.C. voters do not participate in large numbers, A. Scott Bolden, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said. “It’s put up or shut up time for D.C. Dems, they have to step up.”

He’s right to suggest “it’s up to us … to send a sizable message to the country and the White House.” Otherwise, a low voter turnout will be used by voting-rights opponents and naysayers to turn the tables and say, “If the electorate doesn’t come out and stand up for its vote, then why should we?” Mr. Bolden said.

Civil rights stalwart and voting-rights activists Lawrence Guyot goes a step further.

“Those who oppose the District will never let us forget the number of the turnout on January 13,” he said.

This is why it is imperative for D.C. residents “to vote as if you’ll remember it for the rest of your life,” he said, because they “have never had an election of historic and national significance as that which is embedded in January 13.”

Further, Mr. Guyot argued, “The primary is not a gimmick; it is the best political maneuver to nationalize the disenfranchisement of all Washingtonians that can occur.”

He added, “We are voting for our right to vote. This is a referendum on citizenship.”

One of the architects of Tuesday’s primary, however, expressed reservations.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans has volunteers manning a get-out-the-vote phone bank, but he said it will take something more dramatic than this primary to obtain full voting rights for the District and that something must come from within the city.

“There is just not a groundswell for voting rights in D.C.,” he said, beyond “the small cadre of supporters starting with Plotkin.”

Still, Mr. Evans said, “We have to keep trying.”

After all, he agrees with Mr. Tenner that the “push-the-envelope” primary already has been a success because it brought the sought-after attention. “I’m glad we did it,” he said.

Now, District residents, do your part and go out and vote.

For more information, call D.C. Democracy Fund at 202/549-6127 or Democracy First at 202/361-0989.

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