D.C. Council endorsements

Thursday, September 2, 2010

EARLY VOTING is underway in the District, and most of the attention understandably has centered on the contentious battle between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. But there are important races for D.C. Council seats that voters should not overlook. By all accounts, the next four years promise to be a challenging time for the District, with the economic climate uncertain and much work to be done on education reform and improving other city services. Whoever is elected mayor will need a council that is smart on the issues, willing to collaborate when appropriate and able to provide a check on the executive when needed.

In addition to the race for chairman (in which we have endorsed former Ward 5 council member Vincent Orange over at-large council member Kwame R. Brown), six council members are up for reelection. David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) are unopposed in the Sept. 14 primary but will face challengers in the November general election. Republicans are fielding candidates in the four ward contests, and all -- Marc Morgan (Ward 1), David Hedgepeth (Ward 3), Timothy Day (Ward 5) and Jim DeMartino (Ward 6) -- are unopposed in the primary. So in this editorial we focus on the competitive Democratic primaries.

In the Democratic primary for the at-large seat, incumbent Phil Mendelson is seeking a fourth term and is challenged by Clark Ray, former parks and recreation director, and the District's shadow senator, Michael D. Brown. A Post poll published Tuesday showed Mr. Brown in the lead.

Mr. Mendelson has received our endorsement in the past, although with reservations. In 2002, we faulted him for making tasks more difficult than need be; four years ago we called his term disappointing and his leadership lacking. Essentially we picked Mr. Mendelson as the better of a bad choice. Once again this year he is blessed with flawed rivals. But his record doesn't justify another term. Mr. Mendelson's contributions -- notably the revision of city gun laws and his leadership on marriage equality -- are outweighed by what we see as a timidity, even a pandering, in his governing. He voted against mayoral control of schools; while he professes to back Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and her reforms, he's done little to support her important work. His oversight of executive functions, such as emergency services, has remained disappointing, and he's been a naysayer on too many initiatives to combat crime.

Mr. Ray has run an energetic campaign built on his roots in the community, but disappointingly he has not made a good case for his candidacy. On a variety of issues -- from school reform to public safety -- he tries to be all things to all people. Mr. Brown's main issue is advocacy for D.C. statehood. He belatedly entered the race, has barely campaigned and seems to be benefiting in large part from people confusing him with council member Michael A. Brown (I). We are making no endorsement in this at-large race.

By contrast, we have no hesitation in endorsing Ward 1 incumbent Jim Graham even as we recognize his difficulties in the past year. His chief of staff was indicted in an alleged bribery scheme (the council member was not implicated), and the Metro board on which he served struggled with the transit system's dysfunction. First elected in 1998, Mr. Graham has set the standard, emulated by Mr. Fenty when he represented Ward 4, for how a ward council member attends to the interests of his constituents. He listens to residents and, by advocating for better police protection and needed development, helped to transform Ward 1 neighborhoods. An independent thinker and hard worker, he has been an important voice in support of school reform and is the better choice over challengers Jeff Smith and Bryan Weaver.

In Ward 5, first-term council member Harry Thomas Jr. is facing challenges from Kenyan McDuffie, Delano Hunter and Tracey D. Turner. With the notable exception of the courage he showed in voting for marriage equality, Mr. Thomas has been a major disappointment. He pretty much defined his role as trying to stop anything -- no matter how sensible -- sought by the mayor. He led the effort to prevent school facilities chief Allen Y. Lew from overseeing park projects and has been the union's main champion in trying to thwart needed reforms in the schools and government workforce. Particularly distasteful was how he allowed racial demagoguery to derail the nomination of Ximena Hartsock as parks director.

Both Mr. Hunter, a community organizer with Brookland Manor, and Mr. McDuffie, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department civil rights division, are better alternatives. We give the edge to Mr. Hunter, an engaging newcomer who is running a grass-roots campaign. He has an intimate knowledge of the needs of the ward and has smart ideas on how to tackle issues such as truancy and joblessness. Mr. Hunter is not a supporter of marriage equality, but he is not the homophobe his critics make him out to be, but rather someone who thinks there is a way to provide equality for gays while respecting the beliefs of religious groups. He said he would not seek to change the law.

Tommy Wells, running for a second term in Ward 6, deserves to be reelected. Mr. Wells has emerged as the council's leading advocate for new approaches to transportation and the environment. His sponsorship of the bag legislation, requiring a nickel payment on plastic and paper bags, was a model of how to research legislation and build consensus. He is smart on education issues. His oversight of city social and youth services should have been more proactive, but Mr. Wells is thoughtful about how he can become more effective in that realm.

Mr. Wells is being challenged by Kelvin Robinson, former chief of staff to Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Mr. Robinson's experience in the government and as a small-business owner would be a valuable addition to the council, so we regret that he didn't follow through on his initial plans to challenge Mr. Mendelson in the at-large race.

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