The D.C. Democratic State Committee voted overwhelmingly last night to back a challenger in the primary race for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat, dealing an embarrassing blow to incumbent Kevin P. Chavous.

Of 38 state committee members casting ballots, 35 voted for Vincent Gray, the director of Covenant House and a former director of the city's Human Services Department. Three voted for Chavous, and none voted for any of an array of other challengers.

Chavous did not respond immediately to messages left on his cell phone.

Gray said the endorsement reflects a groundswell of support for his campaign.

"I'm excited. Thrilled," he said. "This further bolsters the momentum we have in our candidacy."

Last night's vote marked the first time the D.C. Democratic committee has tried to pick and choose among candidates in a primary election. D.C. Democrats go to the polls Sept. 14.

Several party members protested the meeting, calling it unnecessary and divisive. But the party chairman, A. Scott Bolden, forged ahead, leading the committee through a brief candidate forum and a late-night ballot to decide who would receive the party's cash and support in contested races.

The committee also voted to endorse incumbent council member Harold Brazil in his campaign for reelection to an at-large seat. Brazil drew 24 votes; challenger Kwame Brown, 13; and challenger Sam Brooks, none.

In the hotly contested Ward 8 council race, where incumbent Sandy Allen faces former mayor Marion Barry and other challengers, no candidate won endorsement. Advisory neighborhood commissioner Jacque Patterson and school board member William Lockridge were in a runoff for the endorsement, but neither received the required 60 percent of the vote.

Nationally, state parties generally shy away from taking sides in primary elections, preferring to husband their resources for the general election battle against candidates from other parties.

Primary endorsements "are not typical at all," said Chung Seto, executive director of the New York State Democratic Party. "State parties usually stay out of primaries, period."

Bolden, who is considering a run for mayor in 2006, defended the meeting, which was held in a penthouse conference room in his downtown law offices and open to the public. He said party leaders should play a significant role in choosing who runs as a Democrat, particularly in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-to-1.

"We've got to look for ways to not only have the state party be relevant but also to be sure that the best and brightest are representing Democrats in the District of Columbia," Bolden said in an interview.

Bolden noted that party bylaws have long permitted the state committee to make endorsements. He said leaders of the party's ward organizations, which have issued endorsements in local races for years, did not oppose the event.

Still, the meeting aroused strong passions. Several D.C. Democratic committee members and nearly a dozen Democratic activists who had campaigned for former presidential candidate Howard Dean protested the shift in policy, asking each candidate to say whether he or she supported it. Some characterized the meeting as a backroom effort to overrule the ward organizations and bolster the campaigns of candidates favored by Bolden, such as Gray.

"I think it's very divisive," committee member Jerry Cooper told the crowd. "I want to work for all Democrats. That's what the Democratic state committee has been organized for."

Chris Homan, a D.C. resident who manages a slate of Dean supporters seeking election to the state committee, called the event "ridiculous."

"You should let the primary decide who the party should endorse," he said. "It reeks of old-boy politics."

Incumbent Kevin Chavous, left, and Vincent Gray are shown at a recent Ward 7 forum.