March 30, 2012

In November 2010, Harry Thomas Jr. was reelected to his Ward 5 seat on the D.C. Council with 84 percent of the vote. Fourteen months later, Thomas resigned from the council and pleaded guilty to felony theft and tax charges. He awaits sentencing on May 3.

Just a little background as the city’s primary elections approach. Verdicts rendered at the polls on Tuesday may not be the only factors bearing on the District’s political future. The people most likely to influence political life in our city are holed up in the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. That’s where federal prosecutors are conducting wide-ranging probes into the campaign-finance activities of some D.C. elected officials and their supporters. Among betting folks, smart money says some pretty high-flying politicians are going to be brought low.

This is not to suggest that the five council members on the ballot Tuesday are in jeopardy of sharing Thomas’s fate. Incumbents Vincent
Orange (D-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) have not been charged with any crimes. There are no reasons to believe they are the subjects of federal investigations.

But they are elected officials in a city hall where the aroma of scandal permeates the air. And federal subpoenas have been dropping like confetti.

Today, the question is not who will be indicted but, rather, who will emerge unscathed.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s primary and the choices confronting D.C. voters.

Ward 2 Democrats don’t have much of an option. Evans is running unopposed. His win Tuesday is tantamount to four more years on the council since he will have no significant opposition in the general election in November.

Evans is the most senior member of the council and brings a boatload of experience to the job. As the overseer of city tax and fiscal policy through his chairmanship of the council’s finance committee, Evans is the go-to guy for those in D.C. business and real estate development. They cherish him, and it’s a role he relishes.

While less beloved in her Ward 4 seat, Bowser is still likely to be renominated. This will be based largely on her superior command of the issues, solid grounding in public policy matters and service rendered to her constituents. There is, however, one major detraction to Bowser as a candidate, and it’s a flaw she shares with Evans and the other incumbents seeking reelection: She’s tone-deaf on the need for real campaign finance reform. The money-fueled status quo has served her and her colleagues well.

Alexander in Ward 7 certainly appreciates the joy that comes with campaign donations. Having moderated two Ward 7 candidate forums, I am tempted to predict that Tuesday’s election will be Alexander’s last. I won’t yield to that temptation, even though she faces strong competition. In fact, that may be Alexander’s saving grace: too much competition.

It is likely that Democratic contenders Tom Brown, the Rev. William Bennett II and Kevin B. Chavous will splinter Alexander’s sizable opposition in the ward, enabling her to muster a plurality of the vote. She’s been tagged with a “do nothing” label, which isn’t quite fair. Travel the main thoroughfares and you’ll see tangible signs of Ward 7 on the move.

But even if Alexander prevails Tuesday, she won’t be home free.

The winner of the Ward 7 Democratic primary has to face the GOP primary victor in November. (Yes, you cynics, there are Republicans in Ward 7.)

And if, as expected, Ward 7 Republicans select former Peaceoholics leader Ron Moten as their standard-bearer, look for a spirited contest in the fall. The Moten I have seen on the campaign trail is ready for prime time.

One incumbent serving long past his time is Barry. If you’re hoping he will give Ward 8 a break and steal away quietly into the night, sorry, it’s not going to happen.

With four other Democratic opponents grabbing a share of the ward’s ballots Tuesday, Barry is expected to once again pull in enough votes to declare victory — an outcome that is sure to be repeated in the fall.

The incumbent who may not make it to the general election is Orange. The veteran officeholder is now the face of old-style D.C. politics, in which coziness with deep-pocketed special interests seemed to be a way of doing business. Orange may see nothing wrong with that. But many voters representing a new brand of D.C. politics do. And they are lining up behind Sekou Biddle.

So there it is. Voters get to speak on Tuesday. Next comes word from the U.S. attorney.

kingc@washpost.com