April 12, 2011

THE DISTRICT government, which made so much progress over the past dozen years, seems in danger of slipping backward. It has been shaken by scandals ranging from self-interested use of public dollars to nepotism in hiring to questionable financial dealings of office holders. The need for a strong, independent voice to help the city regain its footing has rarely been more urgent.

Rising to the challenge is a crowded field of candidates for D.C. Council, including some of proven accomplishment and others with promising futures. This is not one of those races in which voters must lament a lack of choice or feel they must pick the lesser evil. Among those running are three candidates whom we have endorsed in other contests — Sekou Biddle, Vincent Orange and Patrick Mara — as well as an engaging newcomer, Joshua Lopez. The winner of the April 26 vote will fill the remaining 19 months of Kwame R. Brown’s at-large term, vacated when he was elected council chairman.

We enthusiastically endorse Patrick Mara. We think it would be healthy to temper the one-party domination of D.C. government, but that’s only the beginning of an argument. Mr. Mara is a socially progressive, fiscally conservative Republican who would bring diversity of thought and approach to the 13-member body. He has the strength to stand up for his beliefs but the pragmatism to form coalitions. Long active in community affairs, Mr. Mara was recently elected to represent diverse Ward 1 on the state board of education. He’s been a strong voice for education, fiercely bipartisan in his support of the school reforms launched by Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Michelle A. Rhee when they were mayor and schools chancellor. He’s a true believer in school choice, supporting charter schools and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Mr. Mara is not afraid to break with his party; he supports same-sex marriage and D.C. voting rights. Indeed, one of Mr. Mara’s promises, if elected, is to use his standing as a Republican to lobby for congressional representation and budget autonomy for Washington. Most refreshingly, Mr. Mara doesn’t change his positions to please the interests of the audience he’s addressing. He owes no favors to the entrenched Democratic establishment and, as such, would be a much-needed breath of fresh air on a council ossified by old ways and tired allegiances.

Mr. Mara faces a field of Democrats that includes Mr. Biddle, a former D.C. State Board of Education member who was appointed to temporarily fill the at-large seat; Mr. Orange, a former two-term council member from Ward 5; Mr. Lopez, a community activist who spearheaded the maverick effort to write in Mr. Fenty last November; and Bryan Weaver, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Adams Morgan with a commitment to progressive causes.

Mr. Orange, who has lost recent races for mayor and council chair, brings the most experience, with strong fiscal credentials, but his candidacy, embraced by organized labor, is more about looking backward than forward. Mr. Biddle is earnest and thoughtful, with an impressive record in school reform, but he too easily adjusts his positions; he has wavered on tax hikes, school vouchers and whether he is independent from or allied with Mr. Brown. Mr. Weaver is well informed, but his approach to government is unbendingly liberal, with increased taxes seemingly his only solution. Mr. Lopez, who would be the first Hispanic on the council if elected, is running an energetic, forthright campaign. There’s no doubt that he, too, would be an independent voice on the council, but he would benefit from more experience.

Turnout for the special election is expected, based on experience, to be light. That would be a shame considering the challenges facing the city and the opportunity for voters to make a difference. We urge those who are registered to vote, no matter what their party, to show up April 26.