Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is almost certain to win the nation's first Democratic presidential primary next month, picking up momentum that could make him unstoppable.
But that primary won't be in New Hampshire. It will be in D.C. And Dean's winning issue won't be opposition to the Iraq War. It will be his support for an unconstitutional plan to pack the Senate with two more Democrats.
Dean's imminent D.C. victory is the ultimate, if unexpected, fruit of first-rate political work by the D.C. Democracy Fund, which describes itself as "the nation's only Political Action Committee (PAC) dedicated to securing full voting rights in Congress for citizens of the District of Columbia."
Under Executive Director Sean Tenner, the fund started pushing last January for D.C. to hold the first Democratic primary of 2004. Its intention was to highlight a single issue: House and Senate representation for the District. The Democratic National Committee opposed the primary because -- among other reasons -- DNC rules make the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary the first two delegate-binding events of the campaign.
Yet, bucking what Tenner described to me as "tremendous pressure" from the DNC, the D.C. Council voted unanimously for legislation scheduling the primary. Mayor Anthony Williams signed the bill, and the Republican Congress (which has 30 days to veto District legislation) allowed it to become law.
To finesse DNC's rules, the primary was made a "beauty contest" that will not determine any of D.C.'s 38 Democratic National Convention delegates (28 of whom are "super delegates" who can support whomever they wish, and 10 of whom will be decided at a Feb. 14 caucus).
But those who dismiss this primary as meaningless are fooling themselves. In 1996, when I was Pat Buchanan's campaign manager, Pat used victories in early (and also smugly dismissed) Republican caucuses in Alaska and Louisiana to develop the momentum to beat expectations in the Iowa Caucuses and win the New Hampshire primary. D.C.'s Democratic primary this year was tailor-made to give its winner a similar early boost -- and to demonstrate appeal in the African American community, which makes up about 60 percent of the District's population and is a crucial element in the Democratic coalition.
Ironically, in Tenner's view, this should have helped the campaign of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. That's because Lieberman is lead Senate sponsor of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton's No Taxation Without Representation Bill. This bill would not make D.C. a state, but it would give it one House member and two senators.
Last October, Lieberman pushed this bill through the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which he then chaired.
"The initial thought of the primary," said Tenner, "was that here's a guy, Joe Lieberman, he's running for president, he's been great for D.C. He could use a boost, especially in the African American community, to start off the nominating process. . . . It just so happens Lieberman let Howard Dean do all the organizing and pulled out of a primary that could have been his for the taking."
Indeed, Dean organized. Nine of 11 Democrats on the D.C. Council have endorsed him. In the first week of November, five rival candidates -- retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Lieberman -- all formally withdrew from the D.C. race. All cited an unwillingness to skirt DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe's Marquis of Queensbury primary rules.
More likely, they feared defeat by Dean. A poll released Nov. 26 by WTOP Radio showed Dean leading Clark 27 percent to 11 percent in a hypothetical nine-way D.C. race. Among the candidates still competing in D.C., Dean had 45 percent, to Al Sharpton's 11 percent, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun's 8 percent, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's 4 percent. Dean even led Sharpton 29 percent to 18 percent among African Americans.
What price did Dean pay for the early boost D.C. may give him? Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution. "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State," it says. "As president," said Dean in response to a questionnaire from letsfreedc.org, "I will support Eleanor Holmes Norton's 'Taxation Without Representation Act' and work to ensure the full voting rights and representation of the residents of the District of Columbia in both the Senate and the House of Representatives."
The Founders made a Great Compromise allowing large states and small to join in the Union. But Howard Dean won't let that compromise his ambitions.