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."
"These things have to go away if we are ever going to get away from the banana republic we have now," Weaver said Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Gertrude Stein Club.
Lopez accuses the council and mayor of being "openly corrupt" and vows to take on Gray and Brown if he's elected.
"It all comes down to who has the capacity to stand up to these people," said Lopez, who is vying to become the first Hispanic candidate elected to the council.
The candidates' tone reflects what they say they are hearing on the campaign trail: growing unease from voters regarding the controversies surrounding the mayor and the 13-member council.
In recent weeks, the council has dealt with revelations that member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) failed to pay his taxes on time, that members have been bickering over free tickets to Verizon Center and that their $125,000 annual salaries make them the second-highest-paid elected municipal officials in the country.
The D.C. Office of the attorney general is investigating whether council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) has fully accounted for money he raised for a nonprofit agency under his control. Last month, Kwame Brown gave up a leased "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator after The Washington Post reported that the car was costing taxpayers $2,000 a month.
Meanwhile, the mayor has been struggling to regain his footing after allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that top Gray campaign officials paid him to attack Fenty on the campaign trail last year.'All about turnout'
Biddle has tried to disassociate himself from other city officials and their troubles, and he says he shouldn't be viewed as the incumbent in the race.
A relative newcomer to D.C. politics, Biddle notes that he is an alumnus of Teach for America, the educational organization closely aligned with former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Biddle said he voted for Fenty over Gray in last year's election, and at recent forums his interracial marriage has become a key part of his stump speech, an apparent effort to reach out to voters in majority-white neighborhoods.
"I don't have years of political deal-making under my belt," Biddle said at the Gertrude Stein Club forum last week. "And I don't owe anyone anything."
Max Brown, who managed Anthony A. Williams's 1998 mayoral campaign, said Biddle's strategy is risky because he needs Gray and Brown to help him raise money and organize a get-out-the vote campaign.
"The lifeblood of politics is loyalty, and you want to stand with your friends in tough times," he said. "Special elections are about turnout . . . and it seems to me the mayor and council ran very effective races [last year] and have supporters out there who can run a ground game."Challenges ahead
In an interview last week, Gray said he had not had much time to focus on the at-large race, and he played down suggestions that the controversies surrounding his administration would be a factor.
"I think I can be very helpful, but at this stage [Biddle] is going to have to make his case," Gray said. "Where I can be helpful, I am prepared to do that."
Kwame Brown also said that he might campaign for Biddle but that the council member is his "own man."
"He's got to show he's not a rubber stamp, and he's going to think independently, and he's someone who's going to bring vigor to the council, and that's why I support him," he said.
Although the crowded field of candidates will probably help Biddle by splitting the anti-incumbent vote among several strong contenders, the challenges he faces were apparent after the Kalorama forum, when a man walked up to shake his hand and give him an assessment of his performance.
"You did a good job," said the man, who declined to give his name to The Post. "One wishes you were not hooked up to these people."