March 17, 2012

LESS THAN a year ago, as voters selected an at-large D.C. Council member in a special election, the precarious state of city politics was becoming clear. Shaken by scandal, the District government, which had made so much progress over the previous dozen years, seemed in danger of slipping backward. Since then, the danger signs have multiplied. One council member has resigned in disgrace, and federal prosecutors are conducting a broader probe into suspected corruption. As D.C. voters go to the polls again April 3, the need for principled, committed leadership is urgent.

One at-large and four ward seats on the council are up for grabs in the primary elections, with contests on both the Democratic and Republican side. Many voters, accustomed to September balloting, do not realize that an election is taking place. That is a pity, because this is no time for voters to stay home. Early voting starts Monday at One Judiciary Square.

Topping the Democratic ballot is the race for the at-large council seat in which incumbent Vincent B. Orange, winner of last year’s special election, is being challenged by Sekou Biddle, Peter Shapiro and E. Gail Anderson Holness.

Sekou Biddle, a former D.C. State Board of Education member who served briefly on the council, is by far the best choice. Mr. Biddle would bring a thoughtful, nuanced approach to the complex issues facing the city. Ask him about jobs or economic development or the tensions of a gentrifying city, and you’ll get not simplistic sound bites but careful analysis and workable ideas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-important area of education, where his years as a teacher and community outreach director for a leading charter network made him a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for school reform.

Mr. Biddle recognizes the ethical issues that handicap the council. His recent experience — he admitted mistakes in how he approached his appointment to the council and the events that shaped his loss to Mr. Orange last year — have matured his thinking and approach. If elected, he would return to the council more assured and with the independence needed to move the council forward.

By contrast, Mr. Orange, a former Ward 5 council member, is too much a creature of the old way of city governing. We have admired Mr. Orange as a wily student of government, endorsing him over Kwame Brown for council chairman in 2010, but his return to the council has been a disappointment. He betrayed his claim to fiscal responsibility with an ill-advised scheme to tax municipal bonds, proved an uncertain ally of school reform and, for all his talk about improving ethics, failed to speak out against former council member Harry Thomas Jr. and his transgressions. Recent questions about how he managed his own political campaigns and the role played by suspicious contributions from a prominent businessman add to our unease.

Mr. Shapiro, a former member of the Prince George’s County Council, is handicapped by a lack of experience in District affairs. Ms. Holness, a lawyer and pastor, has a rich history of service to the community, but she has spent much of her candidacy complaining about being overlooked as a woman rather than talking about the ideas that would bring her attention.

In Ward 2, Jack Evans is unchallenged in the Democratic primary. His experience, more than two decades on the council, and sound judgment, particularly on fiscal matters, are needed on an increasingly dysfunctional council.

Another bright spot on the council is Muriel Bowser, who is facing five Democratic challengers as she seeks her second full term as Ward 4 representative. Smart, hardworking and independent-minded, Ms. Bowser has shown herself to be an effective advocate for the interests of her demanding ward and a leading voice for education reform and good government. It was under her deft leadership that the council passed ethics legislation, and she promises additional, badly needed reforms in procurement and campaign finance. Her opponents fail to make an effective case against her reelection.

Ward 7 is the scene of spirited contests in both the Democratic and Republican primary. That’s due, in part, to discontent with the lackluster tenure of incumbent Yvette M.Alexander (D). Elected to the council in a 2007 special election, Ms. Alexander has few accomplishments in legislation or improvement to her ward. Moreover, she has shown a troubling blind side to ethical niceties, failing, for example, to see the problem of using a high-profile lobbyist promoting a business interest in her ward to represent her on allegations she misused her constituent-service account. Her most promising challenger is Tom Brown, who has a solid background in workforce development. Mr. Brown drew on his own struggles growing up poor to shape a career focused on teaching entrepreneurship to youth and training them for jobs. He has a keen understanding of the needs of the ward and a track record of hard work that gets results.

In the Republican contest, Peaceoholics leader Ron Moten is the choice over Don Folden, former street vendor and perennial candidate. Mr. Moten, who recently switched to the GOP out of frustration with what he sees as the abuses of one-party Democratic rule, shows a smart grasp of the issues facing the city. The energy of his campaign speaks well of the kind of constituent service he would provide to long-suffering Ward 7 residents.

The issue for Ward 8 residents in need of jobs, economic development and better schools and other city services is whether they can afford four more years of Marion Barry as their representative. Voter affection for the four-time former mayor should not mask the need for a council member who can bring results. Several promising candidates, including former Barry aide Natalie Williams, are challenging the incumbent; our endorsement goes to Jacque D. Patterson. His history of service to Ward 8 and his experience in the administration of former mayor Anthony A. Williams and at the Federal City Council give Mr. Patterson the insights and skills to improve schools and help bring jobs to Ward 8.