D.C. Democrats to pick interim at-large council member

By Tim Craig and Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 11:09 PM

A new mayor and legislators were sworn in Sunday in the District, but the city's election season continues this week with a high-stakes party vote pitting several D.C. Council members against a former member of their body.

Candidates have started vying for a vacant at-large council seat, which will be filled through a special election April 26. But Thursday, a select group of city Democrats will choose one of their own to fill the seat in the interim. As a sitting council member, the victor is expected to gain an advantage in fundraising and name recognition going into the election, which is open to members of any party.

Former D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. had expected to win broad support in the 80-odd-member D.C. Democratic State Committee, in which he has been active since leaving office in 2007. But elected officials are rallying instead behind a State Board of Education member, Sekou Biddle.

The winner of Thursday evening's balloting, which will take place at Democratic National Committee headquarters, will claim the seat vacated by Kwame R. Brown (D), now the council's chairman.

Orange, who served on the council from 1999 to 2007, had been viewed as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, given a long track record in D.C. politics that includes an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2006 and campaign for chairman last year.

But he is battling a growing tide of support for Biddle, a Ward 4 resident who is a relative newcomer to District politics. The D.C. Council that Orange left in 2007 has changed dramatically, leaving him with few alliances among elected officials, and a scorched-earth campaign in which Orange tried to capitalize on Brown's personal financial troubles might also have cost him support.

On Monday, Brown risked his political reputation by announcing that he wants Biddle to replace him on the council. A day later, council members Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) also threw their support behind Biddle.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is neutral in the race. But Lorraine Green, one of Gray's closest friends and advisers, co-hosted a fundraiser for Biddle on Tuesday night at Ben's Chili Bowl.

"I'm coming on strong right now," Biddle said Tuesday. "My record and my career and my commitment to the issues is resonating."

Orange is confident that his personal ties to many committee members will overcome Biddle's high-profile support. "I've got the football, and I'm about to score the touchdown," Orange said. "They're trying to do whatever they can to make me fumble, and that's not going to happen."

In addition to Orange and Biddle, Ward 4 accountant Calvin H. Gurley, Ward 1 businessman Stanley J. Mayes, Ward 4 social worker Saul Solorzano and Ward 7 State Board of Education member Dorothy Douglas are also running for the interim post. But most local committee members and party leaders say Orange and Biddle are the front-runners for the nomination.

"I think it's going to be a tight race," said Pat Allen, chairman of the Ward 2 Democrats. "I have known Vince Orange for a long time, so I am kind of favorably inclined to him, but Sekou Biddle has called me and seems like a good guy, so I am still just trying to weigh them both."

In addition to his work on the education board, Biddle is executive director of Jumpstart, a nonprofit organization that works to prepare children for elementary school.

Biddle, a former schoolteacher, is running on an education-focused platform, but his long friendship with Brown might be as crucial to his political hopes. The two politicians' fathers grew up together in Lakewood, N.J., before moving to the District, where they raised their sons. The two attended Wilson High School together in the late 1980s.

In making his endorsement, Brown said that it's time for some fresh talent on the council and noted that then-council Chairman Gray hand-selected Alexander as his successor as a Ward 7 council member. And after former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was elected in 2006, he played a major role in helping Muriel Bowser win his former Ward 4 council seat.

But Brown's involvement comes with risks. If Orange wins in April, observers say, Brown could be weakened politically as he tries to keep control over the council.

Orange, who most recently worked as an executive for Pepco, is playing up his experience as a former council member, particularly on fiscal issues, as lawmakers face a gaping budget hole. If elected, Orange said, he'll be able "to hit the ground running" by focusing on economic development, housing and city services.

"It's a tough time for the council," said James Bubar, a committee member who is supporting Orange. "He's lived through a lot of challenges that the city has been through over the years."

Regardless of whom Democrats select, the race for the special election appears to be wide open for the spring.

Although the field of candidates is still being settled, Orange and Biddle are expected to continue their campaigns with or without the state committee's endorsement. Jacque Patterson, head of the Ward 8 Democrats, is also a candidate, as is Josh Lopez, a former Fenty campaign worker.

Patrick Mara, a Republican elected to the school board last year who unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in 2008, is the most widely mentioned possible GOP contender. In an interview, Mara said he's "focused on the school board as of now" but is "not ruling anything in or out."

Patterson, managing director of the Federal City Council, questioned whether either Biddle or Orange could win the special election should they prevail Thursday. He said Biddle appears to have an edge because "council members are making calls for him."

"I don't know what that says about Mr. Biddle being a true candidate when he has to stand up and articulate to voters outside of the state committee and activists," Patterson said.

Lopez, 26, is hoping to capitalize on his experience organizing the unsuccessful Fenty write-in campaign last fall after the former mayor lost the primary. He collected thousands of addresses and phone numbers of potential Fenty supporters, which he plans to use to reach out to voters for his campaign.

"I think I am the only pro-Fenty person out there running, and I am proud of it," Lopez said. "You need a voice of accountability on the city council. The last thing we need is a rubber stamp, and that is the direction we are heading in right now."

craigt@washpost.com debonism@washpost.com

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