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City on a Hill: The District’s forgotten second party
On Tuesday night, in a small, dimly lit Adams Morgan bar just off 18th Street, the old guard of the D.C. Statehood Green Party gathered together for an election party. The crowd, which was heavy on tweed coats, traded stories from their daytime campaigning. They booed audibly when a close race was called for the Republicans and cheered when the Democrats hung on to another seat. The bar’s choice to tune into Fox News proved controversial and the loud commentary about the on-air antics of Fox News’s Shepard Smith forced the bartender to change the channel to CNN.
The Statehood Green’s candidate for At-Large member of the D.C. Council, Howard University Professor David Schwartzman, pulled in only 6.8 percent of the vote. The At-Large race is a competition that allows anyone from the District to run in an open election in all of D.C.’s eight wards. Voters can select two choices, and the two best-performing candidates who are not from the same party are elected to the Council.
Though they have yet to win a seat on D.C. Council, the Statehood Greens represent an important force against the political establishment in a city that is almost completely dominated by the Democratic Party and lacks any meaningful Republican opposition. This September, D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray challenged incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in a hotly-contested primary. But when Gray prevailed in the primary, the race more or less ended, leaving many D.C. voters out of the political process and granting the Democratic Party a virtual monopoly on the general race once again.
The D.C. Council races also ended with all of the same Democratic incumbents cruising to victory, with the exception of Independent At-Large David Catania (SFS ’90, LAW ‘94), who was able to win easily due to the unique structure of the At-Large election.
The Democratic stranglehold on local politics has two effects. First, because the Democratic primaries effectively choose the eventual political victors, anyone who is not a registered Democrat has little say in the political process.
Secondly, because they are sure to be reelected as long as they run as Democrats, members of City Council often act in ways that belie Democratic ideals.
As Schwartzman explained, the most recent D.C. Council—the same individuals who will be in power for the next two years with the exception of incoming Mayor Gray—made a number of painful cuts to health care and welfare services in the midst of the recession, and ran a disquieting deficit.
Schwartzman and other Greens are quite familiar with accusations that they contribute to the “spoiler effect.” Democrats across the country are fond of complaining about Green Party candidates who siphon away progressive votes from their party. This election cycle is no different—consider the grumbling about LeAlan Jones allegedly causing Democrat Alexi Giannoulias’s narrow loss to Republican Mark Kirk in the Illinois Senate race.
But Greens in D.C. play an important role in keeping the political class honest. While Schwartzman may have come up short in his At-Large bid this cycle, one can only hope that he will find a way to prevail in the future. A challenge from the left could be the right antidote to the too often passive Democratic establishment.