The election is on. How can we tell? Because at the Sept. 20 meeting of the D.C. Council, topic number one was voter anger over rising gas prices.

Mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent B. Orange Sr. competed to present the most sincere display of fury on behalf of the city's beleaguered drivers. Fenty (D-Ward 4) proposed cracking down on price-gouging, while Orange (D-Ward 5) called for a 90-day break on city gas taxes.

Then again, maybe Fenty and Orange were advocating on their own behalf. After all, nobody must feel the pinch of higher gas prices more intensely than these guys.

Fenty races around town in a giant white Ford Expedition, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, gets a measly 14 to 16 miles per gallon in city driving.

Orange, meanwhile, just bought a brand-new Cadillac SRX, a sort of sport-utility wagon. It also gets about 16 mpg on city streets, according to the Energy Department.

Fenty declined to comment on his wheels. Orange said that at least his SRX "wasn't an Escalade" -- an even bigger Cadillac.

Depending on how the fundraising and campaigning go, perhaps one of them will soon be shoehorning his rump and ego into a tiny, fuel-sipping hybrid.

Pannell Draws a Crowd

More signs that the election is on: No fewer than six council members spent their Saturday night in Southeast Washington at the bar formerly known as Players Lounge, celebrating the 55th birthday of longtime Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell.

Noting the presence of Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Orange, Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At-Large), Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) joked that she nearly had a quorum.

Pannell, who hosts a birthday bash every year, said as many as 400 people showed up for this year's extravaganza, which featured a karaoke party on the first-floor stage, a live band on the second floor and a party canopy out back. Several council members come every year, including Orange, who "loves a good time," Pannell said, "particularly if there's James Brown on the turntable." Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) also also comes, Pannell said, though the former mayor skipped this year's party in favor of a Congressional Black Caucus event.

But several of the honorables were making their maiden foray to a Pannell party. Evans and Patterson, who both plan to run for council chairman in 2006, were there for the first time, Pannell said. So was Cropp, who recently announced her campaign for mayor.

Not content simply to show up and sip cocktails, Cropp even took to the karaoke stage for an impressive performance of the Motown hit "My Guy."

"She was doing these little shoulder actions. She went all the way down to the floor," Pannell laughed. "She got a standing ovation, and she won votes at that evening, too. Even the karaoke host was saying, 'Mrs. Cropp! We didn't know!' He said, 'Now, I'm voting for you!' "

Back-Room Deal

A sign that the election is on and fixing to be brutal: Political consultant Chuck Thies has publicly accused at-large council candidate David Bowers of violating campaign finance laws. In a complaint faxed Monday to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, Thies accused Bowers of accepting use of a back room from Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW on top of the maximum contribution of $1,000.

The room, where Bowers in June announced plans to challenge at-large council member Phil Mendelson (D), a former Thies client, is known as the Cosmopolitan and rents for $250 an hour, Thies said. That means the restaurant has donated at least $250 too much to the Bowers campaign, he said.

Thies said he was acting as a private citizen in filing the complaint, not on behalf of Mendelson or former D.C. Democratic Party chairman A. Scott Bolden, another former client. The race "involves two of my friends who I've worked for and who I respect and who I believe should benefit from a level playing field," Thies said.

Bowers said use of the Cosmopolitan Room does not amount to an in-kind donation. Others have raised the issue, he said, but failed to excite the interest of campaign finance officials.

"There is no violation and no in-kind donation of any sort," Bowers said. "We're in compliance, and I would assume that's still the case unless we hear otherwise from Campaign Finance."

Getting to Know You

How well do District leaders and Major League Baseball officials know each other, now that the Nationals have been in town for almost a full season? Not very.

When Cropp recently sent a letter to baseball Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig, she was pointed in her call that baseball sell the Washington Nationals to a D.C.-based ownership group.

But Cropp made one little mistake: She spelled his name wrong.

The letter was addressed to "Alan" Selig, even though the commissioner spells his name Allan.

Oops.

Cropp's staff declined to comment on the goof, but council sources said an aide wrote the letter for the chairman, who had no reason to suspect a spelling error before she signed it and sent it off to Selig.

City to Nader: Sorry

Nader nugget: A few weeks back, the Notebook chronicled former presidential candidate Ralph Nader's battle with the bureaucracy at the city's Office of Tax and Revenue. Nader says he has won an apology for kicking back his tax return and a promise to make tax forms more consumer-friendly.

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Council Chairman Linda Cropp, shown with Mayor Anthony A. Williams at the Nationals' home opener in April, wants the team sold to a local group.