July 8, 2011

What do Marion Barry, Michael A. Brown, Vincent Orange, Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser and Yvette Alexander have in common besides their membership on the D.C. Council? These six city legislators face reelection next year.

That should focus the minds of D.C. residents concerned about the direction of the city and the quality of its leaders. Do any of these six council members deserve another term in office?

The time to tackle that question is now. With the date of the Democratic primary set for April 3, 2012, waiting until next year will be too late. That is certainly the case with residents who are thinking about challenging these incumbents, two of whom — Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) — should be considered entrenched.

Sixteen years as mayor, a former school board member, and a Ward 8 council member since 2004, Barry is now planning his 10th political campaign. Ward 8 has had nearly 25 years of Barry. What’s there to show for it? Saturday’s Ward 8 community summit on development and growth conducted by Mayor Vincent Gray (D) brings good news about the changes taking place within a two-mile radius of the Anacostia and Congress Heights Metro stations. That doesn’t change the larger picture, however.

First in poverty and neglect, last in jobs and health, Ward 8, despite pockets of improvement, lags in every measure of urban progress. Barry is the embodiment of that failure. This should be both Barry’s last campaign and his last year of service on the council.

Evans has been drawing a D.C. government paycheck since he won a special election in 1991; he has won reelection five times. Does Evans, the council’s longest-serving member, deserve another term? Have Ward 2 voters had enough? Evans fancies himself a fiscal watchdog, and, to some degree he has earned that reputation.

As chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, Evans is also the go-to guy for firms doing business in the city. Evans knows it takes money to win elections, and he knows where and how to get plenty. Business interests are all to eager to contribute their share. Good for him. Good for the city?

Former Ward 5 council member Vincent Orange (D) returned to the council this year to fill the vacancy created by Kwame Brown who moved up (probably to his everlasting regret) to council chairman. Orange is a sure bet to run next year for a full term, maybe on the theme: “Hey, nobody’s investigating me.”

Bowser (D) has held her Ward 4 seat since a special election in 2007. She was reelected in 2008 to her first full term. Her loyalty to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty in last year’s election caused a lot of heartburn among some of her constituents, who abandoned Fenty in droves. Some are still angry with Bowser for not coming with them. She seems to have doubled down on her delivery of goods and services to the ward since Fenty’s defeat. But enough to fend off a challenge? I don’t think so.

Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Michael Brown (I-At Large) are completing their first terms. Brown failed in a 2006 bid for mayor and in a 2007 Ward 4 council race. He and Alexander want to keep their jobs. Both, however, have compiled records of little distinction with the exception of Alexander’s investigation by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance for misuse of constituent services funds, and Brown’s clandestine move to bring online gambling to our nation’s capital. Does the city need these two on an already ethically challenged council?

The six council members will probably face challengers in next year’s primary and general elections.

Which gets us to a seldom discussed, but serious, problem with D.C. politics: election after election, the city gets flooded with dopey, unprofessional political campaigns waged by woefully unprepared candidates with no political strategy, no organization and no money. They crowd the ballot and absorb time and attention, thus giving better-known, well-funded incumbents an easy pass.

Some of the candidates join races with nothing more than a desire to draw invitations to campaign debates where they can say something outrageous enough to get their names in the paper.

These challengers tend to start late, have little detailed knowledge of the area they want to represent or the issues that voters really care about. They show up at forums ignorant of the incumbent’s legislative record, ties to campaign contributors or other areas of potential weakness.

This isn’t to say the city hasn’t seen a fair number of candidates emerge with well-planned and researched campaigns. The initial mayoral campaigns of Anthony A. Williams and Adrian Fenty come to mind. So, too, the races of David Catania and Muriel Bowser’s first foray in Ward 4.

But if there are to be competitive challenges to the reelection bids of Barry, Brown, etc., now’s the time for potential candidates to start organizing and planning and conducting the research and fundraising necessary to get serious campaigns get up and running.

You can bet that’s what the six incumbents are doing.

kingc@washpost.com