Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column misstated the number of Republican voters in Ward 1.

Ward 1 council fight in the District heats up, but no sparks

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, May 15, 2010

This is the second of several occasional looks at candidates in key 2010 D.C. contests.

Thursday night's Ward 1 candidates forum sponsored by the U Street Neighborhood Association didn't set off fireworks. But the three-term incumbent, Democrat Jim Graham, did light a sparkler when he told the audience of 25 or so: "I don't like [D.C. Schools Chancellor] Michelle Rhee as a person." Graham quickly added, "But she's done one heck of a job."

Those were the only sharp words of the evening. The four candidates didn't knock each other. Neither, Graham excluded, did they make a good case for themselves.

Graham demonstrated the power of incumbency, pointing out several examples of projects he has sponsored that have helped transform Ward 1 from a struggling urban landscape to a pulsating part of 21st-century Washington. Though the changes are hardly uniform, and pockets of distress exist, Ward 1 is on the move. Whether Graham deserves the credit he claims is up to the voters. Graham's challengers didn't give voters much to go on.

Marc Morgan, Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith used their allotted 10 minutes to talk mostly about themselves.

Morgan had a strong environmental message. His priorities: "Building a green economy in D.C.," getting businesses to invest in green technology and removing the D.C. government as a barrier to private-sector development.

But Morgan stood out for what he didn't say about himself.

During an interview earlier in the day, Morgan described himself as an African American Republican who is an environmentalist, speaks Spanish and English, and has a base of support among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ward 1 residents.

However, in the forum and in his campaign literature, Morgan treated his party affiliation as if it were the Taliban. He said not a word about his 2 1/2 years as finance director of Maryland's Republican Party; his recruitment to that post by then-state GOP party Chairman Michael Steele; or his fundraising for Steele's 2006 Senate race and House GOP leader John Boehner's 1998 and 2000 reelection campaigns.

With 2,698 GOP voters representing only 5.3 percent of Ward 1's 51,178 voters -- the overwhelming majority are Democrats -- Morgan must reach outside his party. But is a stealth candidacy the way?

Weaver, a former labor organizer and Democratic National Committee staffer, by contrast, can lay claim to a Washington base, having come to town 20 years ago. His roots are in Adams Morgan, where he's a four-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and community activist. Weaver also claims a track record working as a mentor, tutor and coach "with kids on the other side of hope." Weaver's hands-on work with troubled youth -- he founded an organization that takes at-risk youth in Ward 1 to Guatemala for leadership training, mentoring and cultural exchange -- set him apart from the rest of the field. As did his criticism of D.C. Council earmarks and the need for transparency and accountability in government.

D.C. native Jeff Smith, a former elected school board member, longtime Ward 1 resident and executive director of a nonprofit educational reform organization, echoed Weaver and Morgan on the ward's traffic problems; the need for community policing; support for existing small businesses; public schools; and making the ward greener.

Smith was at his best talking about the school system: "Make schools hubs in the community, not silos." He supported Rhee's stress on improving teacher performance and training. He applauded Mayor Adrian M. Fenty for making education a priority, saying: "Education reform should be beyond personality." So why did Smith resign from the school board in April 2007 to protest Fenty's school reforms?

But the three presentations didn't add up to a case for ditching Graham. Is there one to make?

Graham's third term has not been without some acute embarrassments.

Ted G. Loza, Graham's chief of staff for nine years before he was arrested last fall, faces charges related to bribery and extortion in connection with his "performance of official acts as a staff member for a D.C. Council Member," according to a federal indictment. No charges have been filed against Graham, who professes to have had no knowledge of Loza's alleged offenses. In October, 39 taxi drivers were indicted on bribery charges in a cash-for-licenses scheme. Graham chairs the council committee with oversight responsibility for the taxicab industry. Federal authorities claim a conspirator used cash to get access to Graham through Loza.

In a brief conversation after the forum, Graham stressed that he has not been charged with any offense. He also said Loza must be presumed innocent.

The Ward 1 race, likewise, must be presumed to be a contest. It's not one yet.

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