The District’s Republican Party says it will sue any sitting Democrat on the D.C. Council who opts to run as an independent for one of two at-large seats reserved for minority political parties, promising the latest spirited defense of the set-aside positions that have long been a source of discord among city politicians.
“The law was set up for third-party candidates, for nonmajority candidates. It wasn’t set up so Democrats could play games with their identification,” said D.C. GOP Chairman Ron Phillips, pointing to the Republican and Statehood Party candidates who have held the seats in the past.
The threat was made after two Democrats — council members Tommy Wells and Yvette M. Alexander — last week openly discussed switching to independent status to pursue the at-large seat being vacated by Republican turned independent David A. Catania in his bid for mayor. Another five independent candidates, all of whom were previously registered as Democrats, also have expressed interest in the seat.
The tactic exploits what critics call a loophole in the Home Rule Act, which was passed by Congress in 1973 and set up the current form of local government. A clause in the act, thought to be a concession to congressional Republicans, states that no more than three of the five at-large council members, including the council chairman, shall be “affiliated with the same political party.”
In a city where more than 75 percent of registered voters identify as Democrats, the council has skewed similarly blue. The 11 Democrats on the 13-member legislative body account for an 84 percent majority.
So with a new slew of thinly disguised Democrats vying for the set-aside seats, members of minority parties are fuming. Statehood Greens, Republicans and Libertarians all have candidates who qualified through primary elections April 1 for the general election in November.
“I see it as pure opportunism,” said David Schwartzman, a DC Statehood Green Party candidate for “shadow” U.S. senator. “It leads one to question the principles of people who do this.”
A ‘viable option’
In the D.C. Council’s history, three Democrats turned independents have been elected to the set-aside at-large seats. Critics point to the 2008 election of Michael A. Brown — son of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald Brown — as the Democrats’ most flagrant abuse of the system.
Brown ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for mayor in 2006 and for a council seat from Ward 4 in a 2007 special election. After serving his at-large term as an independent and losing his re-election bid in 2012, Brown within weeks switched affiliation back to Democrat to run in a special election last year. He dropped out of the race after coming under federal investigation, has since pleaded guilty to taking bribes while on the council and is awaiting sentencing.
The D.C. Republican Party took the city’s Board of Elections to court after Brown’s 2008 victory, but his win was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals.
D.C. elections law prevents a candidate who loses in a party primary from becoming an independent in order to run in the general election in the same race, but nothing prevents a candidate from switching and running for a different office and no litmus test to determine party affiliation, said Kenneth J. McGhie, general counsel for the Board of Elections.
“We don’t second-guess it,” he said. “As long as you change your party affiliation within the time frame.”
Mr. Phillips said the Republican Party believes a lawsuit against a sitting council member would stand a better chance than the lawsuit filed in Brown’s case. Mr. Wells, for example, served as a Democrat representing Ward 6 since 2007 and lost his seat when he attempted a bid for mayor.
Ms. Alexander, who was elected as a Democrat from Ward 7 in 2007, said she didn’t think changing parties would be dishonest and that she is considering the run to raise her political profile while making room for other candidates.
“I don’t think it’s being disingenuous. It just provides for me to have a broader scope,” said Ms. Alexander, who continues to refer to herself as a die-hard Democrat. “You look at opportunity.”
Mr. Catania, by contrast, was elected in a 1997 special election as a Republican but left the party in 2004 to be an independent after dissatisfaction with the national party’s support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. His election is the only time in the council’s 40-year history that a minority-party candidate beat a Democrat outright and held an at-large seat other than the two set-aside seats.
The first independent elected to the council was William Lightfoot, who served from 1989 to 1997 and now is chairman of Democrat Muriel Bowser’s mayoral campaign. He characterized himself as an “independent Democrat” — a phrase Brown borrowed — and doesn’t recall his party switch as controversial at the time.
“My chances at winning were best to run as an independent Democrat because I was running for an open seat,” he said.
“The fact that I won using this opportunity shows that it is a viable option,” Mr. Lightfoot said, adding that he switched his party affiliation back to Democrat after leaving office.
David Grosso, who is serving his first term after his election as an independent in 2012, was also a Democrat. Mr. Grosso worked for the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, prior to his party switch. But he has sought to empower independent voters by introducing legislation that would open primaries and allow voters to switch party affiliation on Election Day.
The ‘independent’ field
About 76,000, or 17 percent of registered D.C. voters, have forgone party affiliation — among a growing number of predominantly younger voters across the nation who are declining to identify with a political party. Because of the Democrats’ stranglehold on city politics and the tendency of the Democratic primaries to pick the presumptive winners in local races, independent voters have long lamented that their lack of affiliation prevents them from being an engaged electorate.
Five people who have expressed interest in running for the at-large seat were Democrats before switching their status to independent, according to interviews and data from the D.C. Board of Elections.
Graylan Hagler, an activist who helped lead the charge to raise the minimum wage in the city, said he switched back to where he started politically in the District. Originally an independent who later joined the Statehood Green Party, Mr. Hagler said he registered as a Democrat in 2000 “to have a voice in the process.”
He points to the 27 percent voter turnout in the April 1 primary as a sign that voters are tired of the same old political establishment.
“I think many of the political parties have generally taken us for granted,” said Mr. Hagler, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in a 2007 Ward 4 special election.
For others, there is little love lost in renouncing party affiliation.
Elissa Silverman, who sought an at-large seat as a Democrat in a 2013 special election, said many of her beliefs fall in line with Democratic values but she got scant support from the party when she faced off against D.C. Democratic Party Chairwoman Anita Bonds.
“When I ran last year, I ran as a reformer. I don’t think that the party has been very interested in pursuing for reform and certainly wasn’t very supportive of my candidacy,” said the former reporter and D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute analyst who has changed her affiliation but has not made a firm decision on whether to run.
Others new to local politics acknowledge that the set-aside seat is more attainable.
“I think this seat in and of itself gives an opportunity for a new type of candidate to get into the race,” said Khalid Pitts, a wine bar owner and political strategist who registered to vote in the city for the first time last year. “This is an opportunity. You take advantage of opportunities.”
Three candidates — the Statehood Green Party’s Eugene Puryear, Republican Marc Morgan and Libertarian Frederick Steiner — were chosen through the primary to represent their parties in the general election.
But the compressed campaign calendar ahead of an unusual spring primary was another reason cited by candidates who ran as independents.
“I’m really a Democrat through and through,” said Brian James Hart, a lawyer and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Adams Morgan. “I am now running as an independent due to D.C. law and how early the primary was this year. It made it very difficult for a candidate working full time.”
Aside from pointing out issues they believe have not received enough attention from sitting city officials, such as the shrinking stock of affordable housing in the District, several independent candidates said their views by and large do not differ from those of Democrats in office.
“There aren’t any platform issues where I disagree. It’s generally issue to issue,” said Robert White, president of the Brightwood Park Citizens Association and former legislative counsel to Ms. Norton.
Eliminate set-aside seats?
If candidates who embrace Democratic platforms, rather than those with different views from opposing political parties, end up holding the seats, why should they be set aside at all?
“I would want, if possible, the entire council to be a member of my party, if the people so desire. To have set-aside limits, that’s going to be a case where people don’t really have a choice,” said Ms. Alexander, adding that she would support elimination of the set-aside seats.
But Democrats tried that in 1974, when the Democratic Central Committee filed a lawsuit challenging the election of the first two minority-party candidates elected to the council. U.S. District Court and the Supreme Court upheld the use of set-aside seats in the District. The Philadelphia City Council uses a similar model, reserving two at-large seats for minority parties.
Ryan Sabot, chairman of the District’s Libertarian Party, said the concept of set-aside seats is good but they are being manipulated by the majority party.
“It wouldn’t be fair for the position to be gotten rid of but it’s important for voters to remember that, under the city’s current political makeup, the position will just be held by disguised Democrats,” he said.
Attempts to further erode minority party representation will be met with a fight, said Mr. Phillips, promising that Republicans will reach out to Congress to make sure the intent of the law is upheld.
“We’re only talking about two seats. That’s it. It is amazing to me that the Democratic Party could be so greedy, so domineering,” Mr. Phillips said. “They think that attitude is going to gain them support for statehood?”