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D.C. Democrats pick Sekou Biddle for vacant at-large council seat

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 11:21 PM

In an unexpectedly tough vote, District Democrats selected Sekou Biddle on Thursday night to temporarily fill a vacant at-large seat on the D.C. Council, giving the school board member a chance to represent all city residents until a special election is held in late April.

After three chaotic rounds of voting, the D.C. Democratic State Committee chose Biddle, a relative newcomer to District politics and a Ward 4 resident, over former council member Vincent Orange.

Biddle, who describes himself as "a progressive Democrat," said he is ready to represent the city. "I've got a great opportunity for the next four months to increase the level of service that I give residents of the District of Columbia," he said.

But Orange vowed to take his campaign to the voters in the April 26 special election. "You have not seen the last of Vincent Orange," he said.

The vote, which represents a blow to Orange's attempt at a political comeback, followed several hours of debate among committee members.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Orange, 53, had been viewed as the front-runner, in light of the personal relationships he had developed during his long career in D.C. politics. But Democratic officials said the momentum shifted toward Biddle shortly before Christmas, when many elected officials and party leaders started touting him as a fresh face.

With 74 of the committee's 80 members voting Thursday night, a candidate needed a majority of 38 votes to be declared the winner.

After the first round of voting, Biddle had 35 votes, compared with 31 for Orange and eight for businessman Stanley Mays, a resident of Ward 1. That forced a second round.

Mays then summoned about eight Ward 1 committee members who supported him to a nearby kitchenette for a closed-door meeting. Reporters were told to stay out.

When they emerged, the Mays supporters from Ward 1 said they were split on whether to back Orange or Biddle.

After the second round of balloting, Biddle and Orange received 37 votes each. The tie meant a third round.

Before the third round, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and council members Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5) and Marion Barry (Ward 8) worked the room, trying to persuade Orange supporters to get behind Biddle.

In the voting that followed, Biddle won 40 to 31.

"After what you saw today - the chairman of the council, Marion Barry, council members taking delegates into back rooms - I feel very good it took the entire establishment down here to make this happen," Orange said.

Brown endorsed Biddle on Monday, saying it was time for new blood on the 13-member body. Several other council members quickly followed Brown's lead and made phone calls to committee members urging them to support Biddle.

The state committee was tasked with choosing someone to succeed Brown after he gave up his seat to run for council chairman.

Biddle, 39, was elected to the school board in 2007. He is also executive director of Jumpstart, a nonprofit organization that works to prepare children for elementary school.

He is expected to be sworn in as early as Friday.

Biddle, who campaigned on improving public education, will probably face several opponents in the April 26 special election.

That contest is open to candidates and voters from any political party, setting the stage for a potentially contentious citywide election. With the council closely divided on several major issues, including whether to raise taxes to help close a budget shortfall, the winner could tip the balance until after the 2012 elections.

Possible candidates in the spring election include Jacque Patterson, head of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee; Josh Lopez, a former Fenty campaign adviser; and Patrick Mara, a Republican who is a school board member.

Orange, who served on the council from 1999 to 2007, unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2006 and council chairman last year. He will begin his campaign weakened by his showing in Thursday's vote.

Local Democratic leaders, perhaps even including Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), are expected to rally behind Biddle to try to prevent a Republican or independent candidate from winning the special election.

Biddle's victory was a boost for the political operation that Brown and his father, Marshall, a political consultant, have developed in the District over the years.

Despite his high-profile support, some Democrats worry that Biddle could struggle as the campaign heats up.Although he often talks about improving education, some Democrats have expressed concerns that Biddle at times struggles to offer specific prescriptions for the city's problems.

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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