How Socialists Can Flood the Zone in DC's Local Politics

In American football, the term “flooding the zone” is used to describe the application of a large amount of pressure to a particular area of play. In the game of electoral politics, on a playing field as unique as the District of Columbia, it is incumbent on us as socialists to apply this same principle.

Chocolate City, the nickname given to Washington because of its historically predominant African American population, has been a bastion of the Democratic Party since the 1960s. So much so that their traditional rivals, the Republican Party, are basically an extinct species in the District. In fact, the only time the local DC Democratic Party has seen any real challenge to its dominance came in the 1970s with the formation of the DC Statehood Party. But that was short lived, and the Statehood Party – now the DC Statehood Green Party after their merger in the late 1990s –also struggles to stay relevant.

Political control of the District by the Democratic Party runs deep. Everyone from the Mayor to the Attorney General, from the DC Council to the State Board of Education is a Democrat. Sure, two of the seats on the DC Council are legally set aside for the non-majority party, but even then you have Democratic politicians switching their affiliation to “Independent” in order to compete for them.

Thanks to the DC Home Rule Act of 1974, District residents have one level of local government that is nonpartisan and outside the traditional reach of the local Democratic machine: Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs. As the DC Office on ANCs puts it, they are neighborhood bodies “established to bring government closer to the people, and to bring the people closer to government.” Each Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, such as myself, serves a two-year unpaid term representing approximately 2,000 of our neighbors in what are called Single Member Districts (SMDs) within our respective ANCs. 

Our main focus is to serve as the official voice for our neighborhoods when advising the District government on a variety of hyperlocal issues ranging from zoning and transportation to sanitation and public safety. And while the District government isn’t required to heed our advice, they are legally required to give our recommendations “great weight” in their decision-making process. 

There are nearly 300 individual commissioners serving on 40 separate commissions across the District. Operating on their own, either as individuals or as commissions, ANCs do not have much power. But when taken as a whole, in what I would argue is a de facto lower legislative body (with the DC Council serving as the upper chamber in a bicameral state legislature), there is, absolutely, power in numbers. 

With the number of ANCs set to balloon to upwards of 350 commissioners and 45 commissions after DC’s redistricting process concludes later this year, we as socialists in the District should be taking advantage of the historic opportunity being presented to us in order to flood the zone of DC local politics.

The barrier to entry to becoming a commissioner is fairly low and manageable. Each person wishing to appear on the November ballot as a candidate for ANC will need to solicit 25 signatures from residents in their SMD on a nominating petition; the election board will make these petitions for the November election available on July 20. Once these are collected and the petition is reviewed and certified by the Board of Elections, their name will appear on the ballot – along with anyone else running for the same seat. Historically speaking, however, many ANC elections have gone uncontested – mine included. And in some instances, there are no candidates that come forward, leaving many ANC seats vacant and ripe for the taking. (In races where no one qualifies for the ballot, a resident can also mount their own write-in campaign.)

As socialists, and as a chapter, we should be doing everything we can to empower comrades interested in contesting these seats. We should be able to direct them to the resources and information they will need to run for these offices, such as a timeline of important dates, where to find important documents and nominating petitions and general information about what ANCs do and what it is like to be one. By empowering our comrades to do this in their own capacity as individual members, we don’t need to concern ourselves with endorsement processes, canvassing operations or fundraising – components of a traditional campaign that are better left to our endorsed candidates for higher positions (like Zachary Parker in the Ward 5 councilmember’s race).

This is a low-risk, high-reward strategy that our chapter should deploy – via the Political Engagement Committee – that will ultimately help us build the type of long-term working class power we seek in the District of Columbia. Having more socialist commissioners will allow us to deliver more material benefits to and build trust with our underserved communities. Comrades who serve as commissioners will also gain invaluable experience and insight into local District governance, strengthening our socialist backbench and preparing us for opportunities to wrest power away from local machines to  actualize a socialist vision of local governance.

Not every one will win, and we may not be able to fill every vacant seat. And maybe we should acknowledge this strategy has been tried before, albeit when the DSA was less established in DC. Still, having more socialists in local government is a net positive for our movement. And this doesn’t just start – and end – at the ANC level. We should also be organizing our teachers and empowering them to go after more seats on the State Board of Education. We should also consider challenging the institutions of the Democratic Party head on by contesting seats on the DC Democratic State Committee. 

As socialists, we must be proactive in the pursuit of the better world we know to be possible. By laying a foundation of civic and political education from the start, we can equip and prepare our comrades to challenge the local political establishment here in Washington at all levels. And as we elect more socialists into public office, we will see our hand strengthened when it comes to legislative advocacy for our chapter’s campaigns – from defunding MPD to municipalizing Pepco. Elections have consequences, and it’s time for us to rewrite the playbook of what’s possible.

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