Candidates for D.C. Council at-large seat running hard - away from Gray, Kwame Brown

By Tim Craig
Monday, March 21, 2011; 7:04 PM

As the candidates in the April 26 special election for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council gear up for the final weeks of the campaign, they are using phrases such as "machine politics," "openly corrupt" and even "banana republic" to describe the District government.

Although they almost never mention the city's two highest-ranking officials, the language heralds a dramatic shift in political climate that has left Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown sidelined in a campaign that could affect the ideological balance of the 13-member council.

When they were running last year, Gray, the former council chairman, and Brown frequently mentioned opinion polls showing that the D.C. Council's approval rating was among the highest of any legislative body in the nation. They leveraged that approval into political clout, endorsing and securing Sekou Biddle, a former Ward 4 school board member whose family has long-standing ties to Brown's, as an interim appointee to Brown's former at-large council seat.

Just six months later, Brown's and Gray's efforts to turn their victories into lasting political power appear to be faltering amid news reports alleging wasteful spending, cronyism and nepotism in the administration.

"They bring it up all the time," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), referring to her constituents in upper Northwest, where turnout for the special election is expected to be higher than in neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city. "Some people are quite sad, and some are quite mad. It's really something that has touched a nerve."

The allegations have led Biddle to try to put some distance between himself and his Wilson Building backers.

"In a matter of weeks and months, we have seen ourselves step backwards," Biddle said at a candidates forum in Kalorama on Thursday. "It's clear we have to go in a new direction."

In an election that allows any registered voter to participate, Biddle will face eight others, including five Democrats: former council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., the best-funded candidate with nearly $200,000 raised; Ward 1 activist Bryan Weaver; Josh Lopez, an aide to the city's previous mayor, Adrian M. Fenty; Ward 8 education activist Tom Brown; and Ward 7 school board member Dorothy Douglas.

Ward 1 school board member Patrick Mara is the lone Republican in the race. Alan Page is running as the Statehood Green Party candidate, and lawyer Arkan Haile is running as an independent.

'An independent voice'

At almost-daily forums and debates - a staple of running for office in the District - the candidates have been trying to put Biddle on defense while outdoing one another in emphasizing their independence from Brown and Gray.

"It's very clear that the political culture is very nasty and dirty," said Orange, who ran unsuccessfully for council chairman last year. "Now, it's up to the voters to say, 'We've had enough,' and it's time to get back to an independent voice."

Weaver, who is calling for campaign-finance reform and new efforts to limit developers' influence on the political process, has accused the council of engaging in "pay-to-play politics."

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