Why are the "Ward 4 Democrats" skipping the Ward 4 election?

(Screen shot of the  Ward 4 Democrats  logo and website header.)

(Screen shot of the Ward 4 Democrats logo and website header.)

Each person running for Ward 4 Council has offered different strategies and perspectives for what the Ward needs, yet each shares at least one common fact: they are all running as Democrats in a partisan election. The local Ward 4 Democrats, an organization that was created in 1975 to support partisan politics on behalf of the Democratic Party in the Ward, should be working to elect those four candidates and educating voters about them.

But they’re not.

Granted, we live in a city where registered Republicans are few and far between, meaning there isn’t the heated battle between the Parties. That means that once the June primary is over, generally so too is the November election. For all intents and purposes, the battle starts and ends at the primary. The Ward Democratic Party would theoretically be working on behalf of all candidates now, before the primary.

The group’s bylaws, in Article II, states their express purpose is to “conduct the affairs of the Democratic Party in Ward 4 of the District of Columbia; to conduct programs of voter registration and education in the Ward; to assist in the election of candidates for President and Vice President of the United States and candidates for local office…” 

Oddly, the Ward 4 Democrats seem to not be active in this year’s primary election for Ward 4 Council — but they are for this year's At-Large Council race. They recently held a public forum on May 17th for the At-Large candidates to debate and present their platforms, inviting all three Democrats (Garber, Orange and White). But where was the Ward 4 forum to help Ward 4 residents learn about candidates Leon Andrews, Ron Austin, Calvin Gurley and Brandon Todd?

I reached out to the group to ask. Their answer is perplexing on several levels. According to current President Candace Tiana Nelson, the Ward 4 Democrats did not schedule a forum for the Ward 4 race because there were no announced challengers when they were planning their annual schedule in November 2015. 

In an email response to questions, Ms. Nelson said, “In November, when the Ward 4 Democrats Executive Committee attempted to plan our meetings, guest speakers, etc., for the entire year; Councilmember Todd was running unopposed. Thus, we did not plan a Candidates Forum for the Ward 4 Council Seat. I was comfortable with this decision then, and also when the Board of Elections posted the candidates who will be on the ballot June 14, 2016. All candidates are known to most Democrats and residents in Ward 4, as they either recently ran in last year's Special Election or have run in other elections in the ward or city-wide.”

Results from the April 2015 special election (courtesy DCBOEE)

In last year’s heavily contested special election of 13 candidates, where the winner took a plurality of the vote, not a majority, to think that any short-term incumbent would not have challengers in the regularly scheduled election one year hence, and therefore not plan ahead for a forum or debate, seems like either intentional obfuscation or extreme short-sightedness.

It seems absurd for a political party dedicated to voter education to assert that name recognition was enough voter outreach. If remembering the past or knowing the name of a candidate was enough to get elected, there’d be no need for campaigns. There'd be no need for an official Ward 4 Democratic party.

According to Ron Austin’s campaign, he announced his candidacy that December. Leon Andrew’s campaign announced their intent to run for the seat on February 15, 2016. That would seem to be enough time prior to the June primary to schedule a forum on behalf of Ward residents.

In Article XIV of their bylaws, section A, it states that the group may “propose to the membership that an Endorsement Forum be held to which all Ward Four candidates and/or At-Large candidates … certified by the D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics and seeking a Democratic Party nomination… are invited. …All Ward 4 Democrats Endorsement Forums are open to voting participation by any registered Democrat residing in Ward 4 as certified by the D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics…”

Section D states that the “Ward 4 Democrats may participate in any At-Large, Congressional District, Ward Four, or portion thereof, caucus held for the purposes of either nominating Democratic candidates or formulating a Democratic Platform.”

In last year’s special election to replace Muriel Bowser, the winner of the race was Brandon Todd, who was then the President of the Ward 4 Democrats. In fact, he’s still listed on their website as the President. (Ms. Nelson was sworn into office in October 2015.) Last year, the Ward 4 Democrats held a straw poll to pick a candidate to endorse (the poll was publicly boycotted by a majority of the candidates because of Mr. Todd’s leadership of the group). If the group was willing to conduct straw polls and endorsements during the special election, why not in this year’s regular election? Who benefits?

The question becomes even more meaningful when you consider that anecdotally, like Ms. Bowser before him, Mr. Todd has a history of avoiding most candidate forums. Having the Ward 4 Democratic Party not schedule a forum for what was surely going to be a contested race, while taking the time and effort to schedule a forum for the At-Large race, seems suspect, however innocent their intentions.

I asked Ms. Nelson who their group is supporting or endorsing, if they’re not actively engaging Ward residents?

Ms. Nelson replied that, “The Ward 4 Democrats are supporting all Democratic Candidates. Through announcements at our meetings or via Social Media, and through our attendance at various Democratic Party events we are supporting both national and local Democratic Candidates… We are not, however, endorsing any candidates in any of the races, national or local. Separately members are actively volunteering for candidates.”

I spoke with the campaigns of Ron Austin, Calvin Gurley and Leon Andrews, and each told me that no one from the Ward 4 Democrats has ever reached out to them with offers of assistance or support. (Brandon Todd’s campaign did not respond to an email request for comment.) The Ward 4 Democrats haven't reached out to the Democrats running for Ward 4 Council, and they're not conducting any voter education. While their bylaws don't require them to hold a forum and educate voters, it would seem to be a basic function and reason to exist.

If the Ward 4 Democrats aren’t involved in the most meaningful local primary for Ward 4 residents this year, and aren’t engaging Democratic candidates in that primary, what do they do?

According to Ms. Nelson, they’re looking to increase attendance at their meetings. Appealing to all Democrats in the Ward would seem to be a good strategy, as would actually supporting local elections in the Ward.

Petworth News is not for or against any candidate in this election, and the intent of this article isn’t about the candidates, it’s about holding the Ward 4 Democrats accountable for acting in a manner that would seem to offer complicit support for one candidate, going against their stated mission.