The Political Town Where Voters Don't Show

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Maybe all politics isn't local after all.

In the middle of the election-crazed capital in a crazy election season, one contest close to home passed relatively quietly in official Washington this week while political junkies focused on key races in Rhode Island, Maryland and Arizona.

D.C. Democrats all but guaranteed that the young BlackBerry-wielding, triathlon-running Councilman Adrian Fenty would win election as mayor in November, by nominating him Tuesday night as the party's candidate in a city that went 89% for John Kerry in 2004. This isn't your standard primary, where only the most motivated voters come out to the polls; it's the only election that matters.

But turnout Tuesday was lower than expected, despite the interest and a watershed opportunity created by Mayor Anthony Williams' stepping down after eight years on the job. Just over 32% of D.C. voters bothered to show up at polling places Tuesday. And unlike in neighboring, affluent Montgomery County, Md., where a series of screwups left voters writing their choices down on blank paper for officials to collect and count later, there were no long lines or busted machines keeping people away. Preliminary statistics show overall turnout in D.C. was actually lower this year than in 2002, when the incumbent Williams ran without serious opposition and had to organize a write-in campaign after he failed to produce enough nominating petitions to get on the ballot ahead of time.

That might not be surprising in some places, but this is Washington, D.C., where wags have even figured out a way to turn the beloved Redskins into a tool for predicting presidential elections (if they lose their last home game before Election Day, that's a bad sign for the party in power — so with the GOP extra-nervous this year, expect Republicans to be Dallas Cowboys fans on Nov. 5 even though it's only a midterm). Both the mayor's race and the campaign for D.C. Council chair featured multiple contenders for open seats, and candidates dumped enough money on TV ads and mailers that few could argue they didn't know the election was happening.

With a population of 550,000, most of the city's residents have nothing to do with the business of campaigns and elections, but there are still more than enough Hill staffers, ambitious young administration officials, lobbyists, think-tank workers and political reporters living here because of their devotion to civic life that you'd expect turnout to be heavy. The local alternative weekly even wrote up a "Hill Staffer's Guide" for the local election. Yet the national politicos seem to have tuned it out. ABC's super-insidery blog The Note relegated the D.C. results to its second page and only linked to one piece of coverage. Even the Democratic National Committee barely mentioned Fenty's win, and this is a year when both political parties are so eager to claim momentum that they trumpet every victory with celebratory press releases. So why is all the attention heading outside the Beltway?

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