Vincent B. Orange clings to narrow lead in D.C. Council primary

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (At Large) maintained a 543-vote lead over challenger Sekou Biddle, but the final outcome of the Democratic primary may not be known for weeks because nearly 5,000 provisional and absentee ballots remain to be counted.

On Wednesday, one day after District voters went to the polls, candidates and activists tried to make sense of primary elections that saw four of five council members win easily despite a federal corruption probe into the financing of several District campaigns.

Graphic

Vote margins for Sekou Biddle and Vincent B. Orange
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Vote margins for Sekou Biddle and Vincent B. Orange

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Incumbents Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Marion Barry (Ward 8), Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7) and Jack Evans (Ward 2) all racked up huge margins and — having won in the Democratic primaries — will most likely return after the November elections to a council that has been distracted by internal rivalries.

Overcoming decades of legal and personal drama, Barry received 73 percent of the vote against four challengers, prompting him to declare that he had again beaten the “haters and the doubters.”

“They have thrown the kitchen sink at me,” Barry said in an interview. “But they don’t know how courageous I am. It’s a landslide.”

As Barry spent the day basking in his win, Orange’s future remained in doubt, pending the counting of absentee and provisional ballots by the Board of Elections and Ethics on April 13.

“I think it’s up in the air,” said Bill O’Field, executive director of the D.C. Democratic State Committee and a former spokesman for the election board.

As of Wednesday evening, officials said the election board had received 1,553 Democratic absentee ballots of 3,347 sent to Democrats in the weeks before the primary. Ballots must have been postmarked by the close of business Tuesday and will be accepted by the board through next week.

Alysoun McLaughlin, a board spokeswoman, said 3,867 provisional ballots would be counted, but officials could not say how many came from Democrats.

Biddle, a former interim council member trying to return to the body he briefly served on early last year, said he remained optimistic that he could overtake Orange because “a lot could happen” in the final vote count.

Orange countered that he is “extremely confident” that he will maintain his lead.

“We believe they are coming from senior citizens, nursing homes, and I understand some will be coming from” the D.C. jail, said Orange, noting that he has generally performed well among older residents. “I know one person, in particular, who told me they are responsible for gathering 175 absentee ballots.”

Some of the absentee ballots could also come from families away on spring vacations.

Even as both campaigns await the final count, the recriminations have started.

Some Biddle supporters criticized former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro, a candidate in the at-large race who received about 11 percent of the vote.

They said that Shapiro, a Chevy Chase resident who captured most of his votes in Biddle strongholds in Northwest Washington, was a “spoiler” and that he might have handed the election to Orange.

“I consider him to be the Ralph Nader of D.C. politics,” said filmmaker Avivia Kempner, a Biddle backer. “But I still believe Biddle will not be the Al Gore.”

Shapiro said he will not apologize for running in a race in which he viewed neither Biddle nor Orange as up to the job of reforming government.

“We have two guys, an incumbent and a former incumbent, neither one of whom 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.”

Regardless of the outcome of the race, Tuesday’s results highlighted the difficulty facing self-styled “progressives” as they organize to gain a stronger foothold in District government. Biddle, whom many reform-minded activists rallied around, fared poorly in the eastern sections of the city. Among the other challengers routed in those races was council candidate Jacque Patterson in Ward 8, who received only 9 percent of the vote against Barry.

Bryan Weaver, a Ward 1 activist who helped organize support for Biddle and other challengers this year, said the results showed a need for progressives to forge better partnerships with potential allies, including labor and civic groups.

“We have a council and an administration that is embroiled in scandal after scandal, so you have to start cleaning house at some level,” Weaver said, adding that some like-minded activists supported Shapiro. “We had three great chances to take someone out, and as progressives we couldn’t build alliances and get our act together fast enough.”

But Orange said the primary elections showed that many people are skeptical of the challengers’ message and that they focused too heavily on ethics at the expense of other issues that voters care about.

“The problem with progressives is, the message they represent gets muddled with their holier-than-though positions on council members,” Orange said. “People look and say, ‘They may not be telling the truth.’ ”

Noting the geographic split Tuesday, Weaver said progressives will continue to speak out about ethics but will offer a message with citywide appeal.

“There is a growing mistrust in this city,” he said. “East versus West. Black versus white. Educated versus dropout. If progressives are going to be serious about this, that is the bridge they have to make.”

 
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