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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Quadrennial Dissing of DC

For most political party activists, being a delegate to a national convention is a spectacular opportunity and high honor. It is a political pilgrimage that is almost like a Muslim going to Mecca.

In 2004, I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I was one of the three DC delegates pledged to Vermont Governor Howard Dean, whom the progressive wing of the Democratic Party had rallied around in his quest for the presidential nomination.

Although it was clear that he did not have enough delegates to get the nomination, that did not dampen my enthusiasm when I arrived at the Fleet Center to pick up my credentials. After years of watching the political national conventions on television, I was to experience one as a delegate. I had finally arrived as a political activist. Also, as a delegate I was there to lobby other delegates to support DC statehood.

Each delegate had his or her own room in the hotel where their state delegation was assigned. I had three women friends who were DC Democratic Party activists who wanted to go to the convention but were unable to secure hotel rooms in Boston. There were double beds in my room. I ordered a cot and brought a sleeping mat for myself so that all four of us would be in the hotel with the DC delegation. One of my national convention roommates was Yvette Alexander, who would eventually become a Ward 7 councilmember.

On the second day of the convention, Governor Dean met with all his delegates. The three DC Dean delegates sat together on the front row. Charles Allen, the current Ward 6 Councilmember, was one of the delegates. After Dean thanked his delegates and released us to vote for Senator John Kerry for president, he took questions. Mine was the first.

I asked him if during his speech to the convention that evening he would mention statehood for DC. He said that he could not promise that he would do that because all the speeches were approved in advance, and DC statehood was not in his. His response to my question was the beginning of the spiraling down of my national convention experience.

Since the 1980s, due to declining ratings, the three television networks had ceased gavel-to-gavel coverage of the national conventions. Those stations would only give prime-time evening coverage to the convention proceedings. So, if DC statehood were to get national attention, the prime-time speakers would have to mention it.

There were some exciting prime-time speakers during the 2004 convention. The highlight was the keynote speech by the Democratic candidate for junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. His speech electrified the convention and catapulted him to national prominence. But he never mentioned the disenfranchisement of citizens of the District of Columbia.

During that entire convention, the only prime-time speaker to mention DC statehood was Reverend Al Sharpton. For me, the most heartbreaking moment of the convention was when the Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to the convention during prime time and never mentioned DC. He was one of DC’s first two elected shadow senators and served from 1991 to 1997.

Since Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was elected our delegate to Congress in 1990, she has always spoken at the Democratic National Conventions but never during prime time. So, her widest audiences have been the political junkies who watch C-SPAN.

This year, the Democratic Convention will be in Chicago, August 19-22. I predict (and truly hope that I am wrong) that none of the prime-time speakers will mention the second-class status of the citizens of our nation’s capital. DC statehood will be in the convention platform. But how many people read the national platforms of the political parties? In 2020 the Republican Party did not even write one.

Since DC citizens first voted for President in 1964, DC has been the only jurisdiction to always cast its three electoral votes for the national Democratic ticket. Yet, the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees have not mentioned DC in their national convention acceptance speeches. No Democratic President has mentioned DC’s disenfranchisement in his inaugural or State of the Union address. The DC delegation never gets prominent seating at the national conventions.

DC statehood is a political, civil and human rights issue. If DC were a state, it would have the highest percentage of people of color, thus making it a racial justice issue. If DC statehood is to become more prevalent in our national political conversations, the Democratic Party must give the issue more prominence at its national conventions.

I went to the 2004 Democratic National Convention fired up and left with my spirit completed dampened. The convention was nothing more than a tightly scripted pep rally with the delegates as human props. Even handmade posters were prohibited. I had my national convention experience and vowed to never do that again. Watching DC being dissed on television is depressing enough without witnessing it in person.

Long-time Ward 8 community activist Philip Pannell can be contacted at philippannell@comcast.net. Pannell is the executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Help make Wards 7 and 8 great! Become a member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Visit http://www.anacostiacc.org/join-us.html.

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