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Thies: Politics in the District Must Evolve

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Thies: Politics in D.C. Must Evolve

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The 2012 primary election has come and gone for the District of Columbia. Every incumbent up for re-election won.

In a town where 75 percent of voters are Democrats, victory in November for councilmembers Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry and Vincent Orange -- all Democrats -- is nearly assured.

Despite federal investigators probing city hall and subpoenaing campaign records from nearly every councilmember and the mayor, change is not happening.

What’s wrong?

To some extent, it's the voters. There are many who do not participate. Turnout in the most recent election was a scant 17 percent.

Another problem is a playing field that tilts heavily in favor of incumbents and the deep pocket special interests who support them.

Two weeks ago, Marion Barry and Councilmember Tommy Wells appeared on a WPFW radio show I co-host. During the broadcast, both agreed that the city should consider a system of publicly funded campaigns.

Earlier in the year I had a conversation with Wells in which I brought to his attention the campaign finance program currently used by New York City. In short, candidates who opt in are provided with funds that match campaign contributions from individuals.

The system prohibits money from PACs and corporations. It also has spending limits and all campaigns are thoroughly audited. The program was developed in 1988 partly in response to a number of scandals.

While the New York City model may not be fully suited for the District, it is a system that legislators can look toward for guidance and more than 20 years of lessons learned.

The way District residents elect a mayor and Council members also needs to change.

In a town with one-party rule, the balance of a two-party system ceases to exist. The District should do away with party primaries for local office. Instead, step one would be an election winnowing a field of nonpartisan contenders to the two top vote getters. The winners would then square off head-to-head in a November general election.

Of course, Democrats rule city hall in the District. With that in mind, it is unlikely that the mayor or legislators will lift a finger to consider abolishing a broken system that has reliably produced an environment of job security for entrenched politicians.

Residents, however, deserve better.

The founding fathers created a mechanism for amending the laws that govern our nation. It is called a Constitutional Convention.

District residents are governed by a Home Rule Act.

While there is no provision in Home Rule that allows for the convening of a Constitutional Convention-style summit, a bold reform-minded politician in the District could sponsor a process in which elections and governance are examined and innovations proposed. Bring in outside experts, encourage input from residents, make the proceedings public and produce a set of recommendations that can be adopted locally and, where needs be, sent to Congress for consideration.

The District is an experiment in non-democracy. Residents lack equal representation on Capitol Hill and are saddled with a local system that has gone largely unchanged for 40 years.

A wholesale consideration of how the District is governed is in order. It is time to evolve.


Chuck Thies is a political analyst and consultant.  His columns appear every Tuesday and Thursday on First Read DMV. He co-hosts "DC Politics" on WPFW, 89.3 FM. Since 1991, Chuck has lived in either D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Email your tips and complaints to chuckthies@gmail.com or tweet at @chuckthies.

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