November 8, 2012

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA voters showed the door Tuesday to a D.C. Council member who had made a mess of his personal and political affairs. They also gave overwhelming approval to a trio of reforms aimed at improving government ethics. They made clear, in other words, that they are fed up with the scandals that have mired their city.

“It’s a new day for D.C.,” David Grosso said after his upset win over incumbent Michael A. Brown (I) for one of two at-large seats on the council. Mr. Grosso (I) made government ethics the centerpiece of his upstart campaign. He tapped into voter discontent over a series of controversies that have caused two council members to resign in disgrace while calling attention to questionable actions by Mr. Brown. These included his difficulties in managing his personal and political finances and his troubling role in promoting legislation that would have legalized online gambling. “I don’t know if he defeated me as much as I defeated myself,” Mr. Brown told The Post’s Nikita Stewart in an acknowledgment of the self-inflicted damage.

The District has too often looked the other way or made excuses for the failings of its officials, so it was significant that Mr. Brown’s standing as the well-liked son of a local legend, the late commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, was not enough in voters’ minds to overcome his missteps. That same frustration — “We’ve had it” — fueled approval of changes to the city charter that will tighten standards of behavior for elected officials.

Change was not wholesale, it’s true. Council incumbents Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) won reelection. A further test of voters’ seriousness about the need for change will come in the spring, with an expected special election to fill the at-large seat left vacant by Phil Mendelson’s election as chairman. Will the discredited Mr. Brown try again? What about Kwame R. Brown, the former council chairman awaiting sentencing for bank fraud?

As welcome as is the election of promising newcomers such as Mr. Grosso and, before him, Kenyan McDuffie (D) to replace disgraced Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr., it is apparent that no new chapter on government ethics can be opened until the results are known of ongoing investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It’s hard to have faith in a government in which a number of officeholders, including some of its highest, are being scrutinized for suspected wrongdoing. Those with information that might assist the federal investigations need to step forward so that prosecutors can bring the paralyzing uncertainty to a close as quickly as possible.