Biddle, who is expected to announce he’ll run for the council Friday, has hired Wilcher to run his campaign. He is seeking a rematch against Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At large) the April 3 Democratic primary.
Biddle’s decision to tap Wilcher — a 51-year-old former leader of the D.C. Republican Party and political consultant — will present an early test for his campaign as he seeks to position himself as a progressive, reform-minded, alternative to Orange. In 2004, Wilcher served as the treasurer of the committee that tried to press for a referendum to legalize slot machines in the District. The effort never made it on the ballot following an aggressive probe by civic activist Dorothy Brizill and others questioning the validity of its petition collection effort, which resulted in the Board of Elections and Ethics issuing a record fine against the group.
But as she prepares to head up Biddle’s effort, Wilcher is trying to preemptively clarify her controversial history in District politics so she doesn’t become a distraction for the campaign.
“Don’t make this about me, this is not about me,” Wilcher said in an interview. “This is about Sekou Biddle and his run for office, which is so much bigger than me.”
Wilcher, who worked for Orange during the spring special election, was arrested May 7 on three felony counts — possession of an unregistered firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, and carrying a pistol without a license outside of the home. On July 14, under a plea agreement, Wilcher pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of attempted carrying a pistol without a license. She received one year of unsupervised probation and was ordered to pay a $150 fine.
Wilcher, who lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia, said she was arrested after forgetting the handgun was in her purse after she was summoned at the last minute to One Judiciary Square to help Orange oversee the counting of absentee ballots from the April 26 special election.
At home in West Virginia, Wilcher notes it’s legal to openly carry a firearm. She said she became a gun owner for her personal safety.
“I am a single African-American woman living alone in West Virginia,” Wilcher said. “I have a gun. I never take it out of the house, but on this particular occasion, I was house sitting for some dear friends who live on 25 acres of land in West Virginia.”
As Wilcher traveled from her house to her friend’s, she said she put the gun in her purse. Along the way, she said, she got a call asking her to go to the Judiciary Square to help oversee the vote counting. Wilcher said she “completely forgot” the gun was in her bag until a security guard noticed it as she was being screened at the entrance to the city building.
“The (security) guy is like, ‘Oh my god there is a gun in here,’” Wilcher recalled. “I said, ‘Oh no’.”
Wilcher said she offered to the turn over the gun to the security guard until she left the building but was instead placed under arrest.
The incident is not likely to sit well with some District voters, who have a long history of being skeptical of firearms. But Wilcher isn’t the first nonresident to run afoul of the city’s strict firearms laws. Shortly after he was elected, a staffer for U.S. Sen. James Webb (D-Va) was arrested for attempting to carry his boss’s gun into the U.S. Capitol.
What could be equally troubling for District Democrats, however, is Wilcher’s party affiliation. In the mid 1990s, Wilcher switched parties and became a Republican. She then served one year as executive director of the D.C. Republican Party.
In an interview, Wilcher said she “would be happy to change parties” again but doesn’t believe her current affiliation should be a factor in Biddle’s race.
“The caliber and character of a candidate can sometimes supercede party affiliation,” Wilcher said. “Here is a guy who I believe lends himself to trying to help people. If my party affiliation would in some way limit his abilities, of course I would switch parties or step down.”
And despite her ties to the GOP, Wilcher has been working for local Democratic candidates for years. Not only did she previously work for Orange, Wilcher said she served as a field organizer for Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign.
But Wilcher’s high-profile position in the Biddle campaign could also renew questions about her role in the failed slots referendum effort in 2004.
That year, Brizill and lawyer Ronald L. Drake charged that many of the petitions collected by the Citizens Committee for the DC Video Lottery Terminal Initiative Were part of a “a pervasive pattern of fraud and forgery.” The elections board eventually agreed, issuing a $622,880 fine against the group. Later, the leaders of the group worked out a settlement where they donated $75,000 to the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, according to DC Watch.
Slots opponents also accused Wilcher of trying to intimidate witnesses in the case. They said Wilcher improperly went to the home of a Northeast mother and daughter who had collected signatures for the slots effort but later claimed irregularities during the petition drive.
Wilcher now admits to going to the home, but strongly denied she every tried to intimidate anyone.
“I visited that woman at her invitation and I went into her home alone,” Wilcher said. “I had a fiduciary responsibility. I was in fact the treasurer, so you are telling me, we are paying people who are collecting signatures illegally, of course, I need to know what is going on with that.”
As for her overall role in trying to bring slots into the District, Wilcher said she saw it as an opportunity to bring more revenue into the city to help the poor and elderly.
“I had been in schools where kids couldn’t take books home because they were sharing, and I had heard stories where seniors had to choose between paying for a prescription drug and buying groceries,” Wilcher said. The money generated from having video lottery…never mind the jobs it would have created…is what drove me to participate.”
With Wilcher’s name not appearing on the ballot, it would be rare for her role in the Biddle campaign to cost him votes. But following the controversy over the alleged conduct of some Gray’s campaign officials during his 2010 campaign, Biddle’s decision could give some voters pause.
But Wilcher is asking that the District’s political chattering class give her a fair shake before they try to use her to harm Biddle’s campaign. “Call me, get to know me,” Wilcher said. “See what my side of that story is.”
Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.