Barely a backlash over ethics in D.C. vote

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 4, 2012

Well, that wasn’t much of a backlash.

District voters, despite saying they’re disgusted by scandals and dysfunction dogging the city’s political leadership, went to the polls Tuesday and gave big primary victories to four of the five incumbents on the ballot in races for D.C. Council.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Even the fifth incumbent, Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), apparently won despite being the candidate most vulnerable to criticism of his ethics. Although his race won’t be officially decided until absentee ballots are counted April 13, Orange was narrowly ahead in the votes tallied so far.

So much for throwing the bums out.

Now, I recognize there are plenty of reasons why incumbents get reelected, even when a poll in December showed the electorate disapproves of the council’s performance by a whopping margin of 55 percent to 30 percent.

For instance, you can loathe the council as a whole but be satisfied with the representative of your particular ward. (Darn those other, shortsighted wards that elect bad people.)

That view was decisive in the Democratic primary victories by Marion Barry (Ward 8), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and the unopposed Jack Evans (Ward 2).

Also, it’s hard to beat a veteran politician whose name is familiar to voters from numerous past campaigns, especially when the opposition is divided. Those were major factors in helping Orange and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), the other incumbent most at risk.

Still, it’s distressing that more than a year of unrelenting financial controversies had so little practical impact at the polls. Given the Democratic Party’s overwhelming dominance in the District, primary victories are tantamount to reelection.

Although none of the incumbents on Tuesday’s ballot has been charged with anything, most or all apparently received federal subpoenas recently seeking information about their dealings with campaign donor extraordinaire Jeffrey E. Thompson.

Thompson’s contributions are being examined as part of a major federal criminal inquiry sparked by allegations of wrongdoing in the 2010 mayoral campaign of Vincent Gray (D). A campaign of Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) is also under investigation, and former council member Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty in January to embezzlement

If the voters choose not to punish the politicians at the polls for their misdeeds, perceived or otherwise, there’s no reason to expect anything other than business as usual in the future.

Why should elected officials strengthen campaign-finance laws if they’ll get reelected anyway, using the same questionable methods that reek of special interests buying influence? Why put more muscle in the Office of Campaign Finance or other watchdogs?

The only reason to believe this election could encourage positive change was in the closeness of Orange’s race with former council member Sekou Biddle.

Orange, a well-known figure who had labor support and more than two decades of experience in District politics, should have won easily. But Biddle came close, and might have beaten him, because of the disclosure late in the campaign that Orange had received $26,000 in money orders and cashier’s checks last year from people or companies tied to Thompson.

At Orange’s planned victory party near Catholic University late Tuesday, his supporters were surprised and nervous as returns came in with Biddle ahead or only narrowly behind.

“This should be a wake-up call that people in the city are fed up. You can’t just take money from anybody anymore. It’s all going to be looked at,” said a young campaign volunteer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to offend the candidate.

But in interviews at the polls in neighborhoods that voted strongly for Orange, many who backed him were cynical about the allegations. They said trying to make politicians behave ethically is a hopeless cause.

“One is no better than the other. All of them are corrupt. The whole council is corrupt,” said Patricia Malloy, 61, at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast.

Harold Little, 62, said he voted for Orange and Alexander even though he was dismayed at the various recent controversies.

“Money, scandals, politicians — how do you deal with all that? We need a whole new organization,” Little said. Asked why he didn’t vote for challengers, Little said, “I don’t want to be rocking the boat.”

The comment that perhaps best summed up the election came from Don Folden Sr., who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for the Ward 7 council seat. He was disappointed with low turnout: less than half of the number who voted in the ward’s Democratic and Republican 2010 primaries.

“It’s a disgrace. People are crying about how we need new leadership, but they won’t even come out and exercise their right to vote,” Folden said.

He received 26 votes.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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