By Ann E. Marimow and Anita Kumar
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; B01
D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) had opened a substantial lead over former council member Vincent Orange in the Democratic primary race for council chairman, according to early returns.
"We are very humbled by what we're seeing,'' Brown said in a brief phone interview from a room at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, where he huddled with his family to watch election results as his supporters celebrated in the ballroom below. "We ran a very positive campaign, and we think the results are showing that."
The winner of the hard-fought race is all but certain to succeed Chairman Vincent C. Gray because of the city's heavily Democratic electorate.
Brown and Orange crisscrossed the city in search of votes Tuesday, before rallying with supporters as they waited for the final results. A Washington Post poll late last month showed Brown leading Orange, including in the Northeast communities of Ward 5 that Orange represented for two terms on the council.
Early Wednesday, Orange's campaign manager, Sean Metcalf, held out hope. "It's way too early to be making judgments on the election," he said.
Brown, who, at 39, would become the youngest chairman in D.C. history, was first elected to the council in 2004 after running a relentless door-to-door campaign that helped make him the first council member living east of the Anacostia River to be elected citywide. This year, Brown secured the support of all but one of his fellow council members, and racked up a long list of endorsements from the city's major business, labor, environmental and community organizations. If Brown becomes chairman, his at-large seat would be filled through a special election, probably in the spring.
Orange, who was until recently a vice president at Pepco, questioned Brown's fitness to oversee the city's roughly $6 billion budget because of irregularities in Brown's campaign finance reports and trouble he has faced in managing personal debts. Brown, who has been sued by three credit card companies over unpaid bills and fees of $55,000, has said that his financial problems would not affect his work on the council.
At Orange's request, the city's Office of Campaign Finance said last week that it will investigate Brown's fundraising records from two previous elections. Brown acknowledged accounting mistakes in his filings but has denied wrongdoing.
Orange, meanwhile, had to cope with the departure of two high-ranking aides, including one of his chief fundraisers, who resigned in part because of what he said was the negative tone of Orange's campaign.
Brown, the son of a veteran Democratic grass-roots organizer, raised more than four times as much money as Orange during the reporting period that ended Aug. 10. He stuck to his message of being an advocate for job creation and workforce training.
As chairman of the council's economic development committee, Brown has pressed developers to hire local companies for taxpayer-funded projects. He led the effort to reopen the District's only stand-alone vocational school, Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.
The role of council chairman is a powerful, yet tricky one. Brown would become a leader among equals who shapes the council's agenda but cannot be successful without the votes of at least six of his 12 colleagues. He also would have the daunting task of replacing a chairman viewed by fellow council members as a collaborative leader who deftly forged alliances and settled differences among disparate personalities.
The next chairman will also take over at a difficult fiscal time for the D.C. government: The city faces a shrinking rainy-day fund, declining revenue and little room to borrow for new projects.
Although Brown picked up endorsements from his colleagues, some privately questioned his ability to be a strong leader, expressing concern that he took a pass and voted "present" in the confirmation of Attorney General Peter Nickles. But Brown is well liked by fellow council members, and with Gray's solid lead in the mayoral primary, Brown would have the advantage of working with an executive who also resides in Ward 7 and with whom he has a strong relationship.
"We joined the council together. He lives around the corner. I think he would do a phenomenal job," Brown said before voting Tuesday at the Senior Wellness Center just off Alabama Avenue SE with his wife and two children.
In the other contested council races, incumbents Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) faced an energetic field of challengers. Graham was leading in a three-way race with Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan community leader; and Jeff Smith, a former D.C. School Board member.
Thomas, who represents Northeast neighborhoods including Brookland and Trinidad, was ahead of Delano Hunter, a community organizer; Kenyan McDuffie, a former government lawyer; and Tracey Turner, an information technology consultant.
Wells, who represents Capitol Hill, had a wide lead against Kelvin J. Robinson, who was chief of staff during the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Staff writers Annys Shin and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.