District Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) gave interim D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle an energetic endorsement Thursday night, vowing to use the full weight of his political organization to work to keep his seat from slipping into GOP hands.
Speaking to a room full of business leaders and Democratic activists at a stylish new restaurant on H Street Northeast, Gray indicated Biddle's efforts to win the April 26 citywide special election will also be a test of his ability to keep intact the operation he built in his successful campaign last year against former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
Gray called Biddle, who was sworn in as an interim at-large council member two weeks ago, "absolutely the right person for the job" because he said he was "very serious, very thoughtful, very committed and very deeply involved" when he served on the D.C. Board of Education from 2007 to earlier this year.
"We've got to make sure we get out and campaign effectively, hard to make sure he becomes the council member for the duration," Gray said at a Biddle fundraiser at Smith Commons restaurant. "We got to get out there and get it done...We got to get out there and work at this stage...Him winning is absolutely important to the District of Columbia."
Following Kwame Brown's (D) election as council chairman, the D.C. Democratic State Committee voted two weeks ago to appoint Biddle instead of former Council member Vincent C. Orange to fill Brown's at-large seat pending the special election. Before the state committee vote, Brown and five other council members endorsed him, arguing the council needed a fresh face.
But Biddle, a 39-year-old former school board member who vows to make education his top priority, now faces a potentially tough race.
Any Democrat or Republican or member of an minor or unaffiliated party who can collect 3,000 signatures can run in the special election. So far, as many as 16 candidates have indicated they may run, including Orange, Ward 1 activist Bryan Weaver, former Fenty adviser Josh Lopez, Ward 2 activist Wayne Dickson, former Democratic National Committeewoman Mary Eva Candon and Republican school board member Patrick Mara.
Gray, who admitted Thursday night he lobbied some state committee members to select Biddle over Orange for the interim appointment, vowed he would try to help his preferred candidate raise money and staff his campaign with volunteers.
In an interview after his endorsement speech, Gray also said he would try to talk to other possible Democratic candidates to see if they could be convinced to line up behind Biddle instead of mounting their own campaign.
Gray said he's trying to avoid a repeat of 1997, when a crowded field split the Democratic vote. That led to the election of then-Republican candidate David A. Catania to the council. Catania left the Republican Party in 2004 and became an independent.
"We got to be able to make sure this continues to be a Democratic seat," Gray said to cheers at the restaurant. "Are the Democrats prepared to stand up an work?
But with Gray and Brown now both fully behind his candidacy, Biddle starts his race as the candidate with the closest links to the city's political establishment. Some activists and bloggers argue the council needs another voice who would be more willing to stand up to Gray and Brown, both of whom struggled during their campaigns to win support in the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.
Orange, who drew 50,000 votes in his unsuccessful campaign last year against Brown for council chairman, poses perhaps the biggest obstacle to Biddle securing a permanent seat on the council. When told Thursday night that Gray had endorsed Biddle, Orange said he's "not surprised."
He then noted he was at a community meeting in Northwest helping residents organize against Georgetown University's campus housing plan while Biddle was hobnobbing with Brown and Gray.
"Tonight, I'm at Duke Ellington standing with the community of Citizens Association of Georgetown, Burleith and Foxhall fighting," Orange said.
But with fewer than 25,000 residents expected to turnout for the special election, Biddle appears to be quickly amassing the types of allies he needs to wage a well-funded campaign.
Guests at the fundraiser ranged from businessman Emmanuel Bailey and lobbyists David Wilmot and Douglas Patton to Cora Masters Barry and David Meadows, executive director of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Several business leaders said they attended to hear Gray and Biddle, but added its premature for them to make an official endorsement - despite the "Biddle" stickers they were wearing.