The five D.C. Council members on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary elections appeared to win even as they faced voters for the first time since the start of a major corruption investigation into city government.
In the first real test of how the electorate is tolerating the scandal, council members Marion Barry, Yvette M. Alexander, Muriel Bowser and Jack Evans sailed to victory. The fifth, Vincent B. Orange, held a narrow 500-vote lead over challenger Sekou Biddle in the citywide at-large race. Elections officials also cautioned that as many as 1,700 absentee and provisional ballots had not been counted.
Tuesday’s results indicate that individual council members were able to insulate themselves from the widening probe. Orange’s name, however, has been at the center of the controversy over campaign finances.
Biddle beat him badly in large sections of Northwest Washington, suggesting unease in wealthier sections of the city about the state of the District’s government. But Orange’s huge support east of the Anacostia River and in Northeast accounted for his lead.
“There is a God,” Orange told supporters Tuesday night. But he stopped short of declaring victory and Biddle did not concede.
At least six council members are under subpoena as part of the investigation into political fundraising that threatens Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and some on the council.
“It’s dismal, depressing, discouraging and all of the D’s,” Judith Bernard, 53, said after casting her ballot in Upper Northwest. “People just need to clean up their act.”
But despite near-perfect 70-degree weather and the backdrop of the federal investigation, turnout for the primary elections was light, a sign, experts said, that many D.C. voters may be fatigued with a government that has been struggling to overcome the political turmoil.
By early evening, candidates and activists watching the precinct numbers estimated turnout to be about 15 percent. Officials blamed the low numbers on apathy and the city’s decision to move the primary from September to April to comply with a new federal law that determined the time needed to ship ballots overseas.
In many parts of the District, the trickle of voters who did show up said they were standing by the incumbents. Some were suspicious that the federal investigations into campaign spending by Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and other members of the council are politically motivated.
“Some of it is blown out of proportion,” said James Crim, 60, a retired city government worker who supported Orange.
In addition to Orange’s citywide seat, at stake in the Democratic primaries were seats held by Bowser (Ward 4,) Alexander (Ward 7) and Barry (Ward 8). Evans (D-Ward 2) ran unopposed, as did Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and shadow representative candidate Nate Bennett-Flemming. The city’s ceremonial shadow senator position was also up for grabs. Incumbent Michael D. Brown won that race.
The primary also gave the District’s small number of Republican voters a chance to weigh in on the presidential contest. The city is one of the few locations nationally where liberals and moderates dominate the GOP.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily defeated former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) in the District. Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, did not try to qualify for the ballot.
In the Ward 7 GOP council primary, activist Ronald Moten defeated businessman Don Folden Sr.
But in a city in which three out of four voters are registered Democrats, the winners of the Democratic primaries almost always win the November elections.
Much of the attention Tuesday was focused on Orange’s effort to fend off three opponents in the at-large race — Biddle, former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro and Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner E. Gail Anderson Holness.
Last year, after Brown was elected chairman, Biddle briefly replaced him as an at-large council member, but he lost in a special election to Orange.
Biddle, a former school board member, tried to recast himself as an outsider attuned to the needs of a rapidly changing city clamoring for better schools and safer streets.
In the final weeks of the campaign, some activists and voters saw the at-large race as a referendum on what they considered the too cozy relationship between politicians and the money that fuels their campaigns.
Last month, the FBI and IRS raided the office and home of one of the city’s top political contributors, Jeffrey E. Thompson, who holds a city contract worth as much as $322 million annually.
Over the past decade, Thompson has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for D.C. political candidates, including at least $100,000 for Orange. After the raid, Orange acknowledged that he accepted $26,000 in “suspicious” money orders and cashier checks from Thompson last year.
Neither Thompson nor Orange has been accused of wrongdoing, but some voters said the ongoing investigation persuaded them to vote for one of Orange’s challengers.
After voting at Murch Elementary School in North Cleveland Park, Chris Sautter said city government was becoming too reminiscent of how it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, when ineptitude prompted Congress to install a financial control board to oversee the District’s operations.
“It really seems like city politics is at its worst since the height of the Barry scandals,” said Sautter, 62, after he voted for Biddle. “I really think we need some new blood that is not tied to special interests.”
But in a city in which race and class more often that not define the outcome of citywide elections, Orange performed well in less affluent, majority-black neighborhoods in the eastern sections of the District.
In some of these communities, voters said they worried that the news media were unfairly sensationalizing the scandals and directing attention at black politicians. Vincent Harrison, 71, a Ward 4 voter who lives in Shepherd Park, said he voted for Orange because he doesn’t think it’s fair to judge an incumbent too quickly.
“All of them — the man sets you up,” Harrison, a retired cook, said. “They check you as soon as you get there.”
Harrison’s sentiment underscored the relatively favorable environment that awaited many incumbents Tuesday.
In Ward 4, Bowser bolstered her standing by shepherding an ethics bill through the council. She also campaigned on her effort to lure additional retail to the community. Bowser faced five poorly funded opponents in the primary and could benefit from a split opposition vote.
Barry, the former mayor, who was seeking a third consecutive term on the council, faced four opponents, including activist Jacque D. Patterson and consultant Natalie Williams. Four years ago, Barry won the Democratic primary with 77 percent of the vote.
But Barry, 76, struggled through ethical and legal lapses during his term, including a council censure in 2010 for failing to disclose that a city contract was going to his girlfriend. On the campaign trail, Barry said he has overseen the creation of thousands of new or renovated housing units in Ward 8 and is getting money to rebuild schools and recreation centers.
“It’s time for a change,” said Sylvia Smith, a 50-year-old Navy veteran who voted for Williams.
But many longtime residents remain loyal to Barry, citing his experience as a council member and as a mayor from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999.
“He knows the system, he knows D.C.,” said Shamelli Toran, 32, who was born in Washington and works for a grocery chain. “Yes, he’s had mishaps, but no one is perfect. This time around, hopefully he doesn’t disappoint the people.”
About 10 a.m., Barry showed up at a Southeast elementary school to cast his ballot. Dressed in his campaign’s trademark bright green, he called out to a group of schoolchildren, “Who you all voting for?” Without prompting, they shouted back, “Marion Barry!” He won 73 percent of the vote
In neighboring Ward 7, Alexander faced a tough race against four opponents, including former teacher Tom Brown and lawyer Kevin B. Chavous, the son of former three-term council member Kevin P. Chavous.
Alexander was elected in a special election in 2007 as Gray’s hand-picked successor. But she struggled on the council to distinguish herself, prompting labor unions and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce to support Brown.
“I think it’s time for a fresh face,” said Erica White, 37, after she voted for Chavous at River Terrace Elementary School.
Although change was on the minds of many voters, others said they planned to stick with Alexander, who has not been tied to the federal investigations.
“I watch the news a lot, and I don’t see anything bad about her yet,” said Howard T. Chambers, 54, who credited Alexander for an improved police response and new bus stops in the ward.