“When votes are counted in this race, we’ll get a glimpse into a direction the electorate is moving ideologically,” said Chuck Thies, a veteran political operative who is unallied in the race. “Are we moving as far left as social media and people in the streets would have you believe, or is the District closer to left-of-center and a moderate Democratic stronghold?”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), one of the most liberal lawmakers, is not seeking reelection, sparking the free-for-all for the first vacant seat since 2014. D.C. voters can pick two candidates for two at-large seats, but only one can be a Democrat under the home rule charter.
That will probably be incumbent Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who is seeking his second term.
No clear front-runner has emerged for the other seat — with many of the contenders longtime Democrats who are running as independents to be eligible. But observers say four candidates — Marcus Goodwin, Christina Henderson, Ed Lazere and Vincent B. Orange Sr. — are best positioned because of their higher profiles.
Henderson, a former aide to Grosso, has the departing council member’s endorsement.
Orange is trying to mount a comeback after losing the Democratic primary in 2016 to White. Orange resigned after an outcry over his plans to lead the D.C. Chamber of Commerce in his final months in office.
Other candidates with the potential of breaking into the top tier, according to strategists, include Markus Batchelor, vice president of the D.C. State Board of Education, and Mónica Palacio, who led the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
Even with prior electoral experience, name recognition can only go so far in a presidential election year expected to bring out casual voters who aren’t plugged into local politics.
“There’s so many new people in this city every 60 seconds,” said China Dickerson, who was a senior adviser to an at-large candidate in 2018. “Unless you’ve been out and about in the last year, people won’t know who you are.”
To overcome that — and the inability to hold meet-and-greets and knock on doors during the pandemic — candidates have to get creative. And voters should expect to be overwhelmed. Mailboxes overflowing with campaign literature. Light poles cluttered with campaign signs. Phones ringing off the hook with robocalls. Unwieldy virtual candidate forums.
“That’s the chaos we are now going to live through for the next 90 days that we haven’t seen before,” said Bill Lightfoot, a former at-large council member who is close to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
It’s due in part to new election rules easing barriers for lower-profile candidates to seek office.
The public campaign financing program launched this year allows candidates to raise enough money from small donors to run a competitive campaign. The D.C. Board of Elections lowered the signature threshold to qualify for the ballot from roughly 3,000 registered voters to 250 to reduce the risks of petition-circulating in a pandemic. (Candidates still may be disqualified if they failed to submit enough valid signatures.)
Neighboring Montgomery County saw similar dynamics in 2018, its first election with public financing, when 33 Democrats competed for four at-large seats.
In the District, other independent candidates include Claudia Barragan, Mario Cristaldo, shadow delegate Franklin Garcia, Calvin Gurley, Kathy Henderson, A’Shia Howard, Chander Jayaraman, Jeanné Lewis, Will Merrifield, Rick Murphree, Alexander Padro, Eric Rogers, Michangelo Scruggs, Addison Sarter and Keith Silver. Republican Marya Pickering, Libertarian Joseph Bishop-Henchman and Statehood Green Party candidate Ann Wilcox are also running.
Orange is hoping his 12-year tenure on the council will resonate with voters who want seasoned hands in a turbulent time. Just three lawmakers have been in office during a recession. Come January, a majority of the body will have less than six years of experience. He says he would run on his record pushing through labor protections such as a $15 minimum wage and expertise from leading the chamber to help businesses recover.
“We need experienced council members to fight the coronavirus and the impact on us,” said Orange, 63. “And we need to have balance of thought since I’ve been here during the bad times as well as the good times.”
But critics dismiss Orange as an eccentric relic of the old guard of D.C. politics.
Goodwin, 30, has also been wooing business leaders and running as a fiscal moderate. He says voters want fresh perspective, not a former lawmaker tagged with ethics lapses. (Orange said the city ethics board found he did not violate rules by seeking the chamber job and called Goodwin “inexperienced.”)
Business leaders are eyeing both candidates, hoping to replace a frequent foe on the council with an ally.
The mayor and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) tend to be more fiscally moderate and support business interests. A growing bloc of liberal lawmakers has pushed through tax and spending increases against their wishes.
Stalwart business allies Jack Evans, who represented Ward 2 for nearly three decades, and Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) both lost elections this year. Todd is set to be replaced by Janeese Lewis George, a self-described democratic socialist.
Kevin Clinton of the Federal City Council, a pro-business group, said it’s important to maintain a balance on the council.
“As we get further and further away from the ’90s, when the city was in dire financial position, you have a feeling of invincibility,” Clinton said. “There’s less of a sense that there are consequences to spending beyond our means.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and left-wing groups have coalesced behind Lazere, who unsuccessfully challenged Mendelson in 2018.
As the former leader of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Lazere spent nearly 20 years advocating for liberal budget priorities. He says he would champion drawing from reserves to increase relief for needy residents.
“What’s at stake is the council actually being progressive and left-of-center,” said Zach Weinstein, an organizer with the Jews United for Justice campaign fund, which endorsed Lazere. “The council right now will pass legislation that sounds really progressive, but not put the money behind it.”
Henderson, the former Grosso aide who most recently worked for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), has focused her campaign on improving public schools and addressing racial and economic inequality.
Grosso said liberal groups were too quick to back Lazere, who is White, without really considering his former aide Henderson, who is Black.
“I’m concerned people aren’t recognizing the value of having another woman on the council, and indeed a woman of color, who would bring a perspective that is desperately needed,” Grosso, who is White, said in an interview. “These groups claim to have racial-equity framework as a priority, but haven’t really given her a chance or any other people of color a chance.”