This story has been updated.
Voters in Upper Northwest really, really didn’t like incumbent Vincent B. Orange (D) in Tuesday’s Democratic primary contest for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.
Orange received just under 7 percent of the vote in Ward 3, a poor showing for a candidate who two years earlier carried the ward with nearly 50 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful campaign for council chairman.
Former council member Sekou Biddle swept Ward 3 with 61 percent of the vote, falling just short in several neighborhoods of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s 70 percent showing in those areas in his 2010 match-up against Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Not since Marion Barry defeated John Ray in the 1994 Democratic primary for mayor – after Barry had been locked up for smoking crack – has a candidate performed so poorly in Ward 3 during a Democratic primary and went on to apparently carry the city. Orange has a 543 vote lead citywide, but several thousand absentee ballots won’t be counted until April 13.
In 1994, Barry received only 586 votes in Ward 3, prompting his infamous statement that white voters needed to “get over”the fact he had staged a citywide comeback.
On Tuesday, according to preliminary returns, Orange received just 411 votes in Ward 3, about one-fourth the number that Barry received from Upper Northwest in his 1994 general election match-up against Republican Carol Schwartz, according to Washington Post articles published at the time.
Clearly, Orange was hurt in Ward 3 by pre-election stories about his ties to Jeffrey E. Thompson, a city contractor and fundraiser whose home and office were raided by the FBI and IRS on April 3.
But Orange fatigue among Ward 3 voters first surfaced during last year’s special election, when he received just 6.5 percent of the vote in a nine-way race that featured both Biddle and Republican Patrick Mara.
Filmmaker and activist Aviva Kempner, a strong Biddle supporter, credited Biddles overwhelming showing in Ward 3 this year to what she called the “citizens brigade.”
Kempner said a group of ward residents routinely gathers to try to influence the outcome of the elections.
The group includes Daniel Solomon, a philanthropist who founded D.C. Vote, former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Matt Frumin, activist Marlene Berlin, and Sarah Pokempner, the former head of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association.
Some members of the group helped lift council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to victory in her first race in 2006.
This year, Kempner said many members of the same group rallied behind Biddle this year, convincing neighbors and friends to put up yard signs and e-mail their friends and neighbors to support the candidate..
“It was the standard grassroots,” Kempner said.
The Biddle campaign also focused heavily on Ward 3, working to win over Democrats who supported Republican Patrick Mara in last year’s special election.
It also helped that Biddle picked up endorsements from the Washington Post and the Northwest Current. Biddle’s in-laws also have extensive ties to Ward 3.
Though Kempner believes Biddle could still pull ahead of Orange citywide after the absentee ballots are counted April 13, she blames former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro for Orange’s apparent narrow victory.
Shapiro, Kempner said, “promised people” he would get out of the race if he thought he would serve as a spoiler. Shapiro finished second in Ward 3, drawing 20 percent of the vote.”
“He’s the Ralph Nader of D.C. politics,” said Kempner, who lives in Forest Hills, referring to Nader’s run in the 2000 presidential election. “But I still don’t believe Biddle will be the Al Gore.”
In an interview, Shapiro pushed back against the “spoiler” charge, saying he was running as the candidate who represented a “break from the past.”
“We have two guys, an incumbent and a former incumbent, neither one of which could get a majority of the vote,” Shapiro said. “It is clear to me, based on math, the spoiler in this election is their records.“
Still, if Biddle does come up short in the citywide tally, Kempner will always remember one conversation she had with one of her friends.
“I had a friend who did not go” vote,” Kempner recalled. “I said: ‘If we lose by one vote…’ He laughed. Well, its not a laughing matter, it may come down to one vote.”