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D.C. Votes Early and Seldom in Protest

Times Staff Writer

Howard Dean was winning easily here on Tuesday night in what was billed as the nation’s first Democratic presidential primary.

But with no convention delegates up for grabs -- and most of the big-name Democratic candidates skipping the District of Columbia race to chase votes in Iowa and New Hampshire that will count toward delegates -- Tuesday’s primary was dismissed by many as more a show of civic pride than a true test of popularity.

Still, Dean’s capture of 42% of the vote in a heavily black city, with 87% of precincts reporting, could help the former Vermont governor in his efforts to court voters in the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary, where African Americans may account for as many as half of the votes cast.

Dean finished ahead of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was receiving 35% of the vote. They were followed by former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (12%) and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (8%). Seven largely unknown candidates split the rest of the vote.

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The other leading contenders for the Democratic nomination -- retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- chose not to be on the D.C. ballot.

Washington officials moved their primary from May to January to spotlight the District’s lack of a vote in Congress. But the Democratic National Committee refused to recognize it as the first “official” primary that would count toward convention delegates, bowing to the long-standing tradition that gives New Hampshire, whose primary is Jan. 27, that honor. The D.C. primary thus was merely a political “beauty contest” -- without delegates and without most of the contestants.

The race failed to spark a lot of interest even in the city; TV news featured a report on a fatal truck accident and a forecast of snow ahead of the early returns. Of the four major candidates on the ballot, Sharpton was the only one in town Tuesday.

Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland political scientist, said the D.C. primary showed the nation that Washington residents “don’t want a vote just for the sake of voting.”

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“If you don’t give them a real choice, why bother to show up at the polls?” he said. “Since all of the major candidates but Howard Dean stayed out, so did the voters. It’s just like Yogi Berra said many years ago, ‘If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.’ ”

Uslaner said the good news for Dean is that he showed he could win among a heavily African American electorate, even facing two African American candidates, Sharpton and Moseley Braun. Dean has come under fire for hiring few minorities when he was Vermont governor. Supporters noted that the state has only a small percentage of minority residents.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams urged all of the city’s 260,000 registered Democrats to vote -- even if the candidates they supported weren’t on the ballot. They could cast blank ballots, Williams said, or they could write in their choices, even though the votes wouldn’t count. But a large turnout, he said, would show support to the city’s cause of voting rights.

“What we’re doing here is getting on the national stage with a message that we should have full voting representation in the District,” said Williams, the 37th voter at his polling station two hours after it opened at 7 a.m. At one precinct in northwest Washington, just 10 voters showed up in the usually busy first half-hour. About 8% of eligible voters actually cast ballots, little different from the turnout in the 2000 primary.

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Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Williams, said local officials were pleased that Dean and other candidates have pledged to talk about Washington’s lack of votes in Congress. The District has no representation in the Senate and one non-voting representative in the House. “So we’re starting to see a broader discussion and recognition of this long-standing injustice,” Bullock said.

Howard Park, grass-roots campaign director for Clark in the District, wrote in the former general’s name on his ballot.

“It’s the delegate selection process that counts,” he said. Washington Democrats will choose 16 delegates to the nominating convention in Boston at caucuses Feb. 14.

Dean spent little time campaigning in Washington. Sharpton, on the other hand, was here in the last few days leading up to the election, running radio ads and leaving a recorded message on voters’ phones.

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The Kucinich campaign said it distributed 35,000 pieces of literature in Washington, including at hip-hop clubs and poetry sets; actor Danny Glover, a Kucinich supporter, lent his voice to recorded calls to about 68,000 voters.

Both Kucinich and Sharpton told voters that they supported making Washington the 51st state.

Tim Cooper, a Dean supporter and the executive director of Democracy First, which has pushed for giving the District a vote in Congress, said that the primary, even if it is only a beauty contest, would generate momentum for his candidate.

“It matters little that the other candidates abandoned ship,” he said. “What matters is who wins D.C. and gets a bump up with it. But in the end what’s most important for D.C. is that it’s demonstrating raw political courage by taking on everyone -- the DNC, Iowa, New Hampshire, the whole presidential nominating process -- in the name of raising D.C.'s tattered flag and calling attention to its appalling disenfranchisement.”

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