After a year of controversy that led to a guilty plea from a former colleague and a federal investigation of another’s campaign, the five D.C. Council members up for reelection this spring had been priming for what they thought would be a tough day at the polls.
But less than three months before the April 3 Democratic primary, most appear to be coasting to another term despite three criminal inquiries that have smothered city politics for months.
Although a few of the incumbents face serious challenges, D.C. political observers say officeholders hold the advantage because of name recognition and superior campaign financing as well as a relatively strong economy. But the experts also point to a dearth of qualified political talent willing to mount credible challenges, as well as a dispirited electorate.
“The problem is people of integrity and accomplishments don’t want to join this council,” said former council member William P. Lightfoot, who served as an independent from 1989 to 1997. “They say it’s not a group they want to be affiliated with.”
Several races are crammed with challengers, but political and business leaders say that what’s missing is a sense that top-tier talent is interested in reshaping government at a time when the news media and federal authorities are scrutinizing elected officials.
And without well-known contenders, incumbents are increasingly optimistic that they can insulate themselves from the upheaval in the John A. Wilson Building.
“I think the throw-the-bums-out mentality is more on a national level,” said council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who will be up for election in November. “On the local level, we see the folks at the grocery store, in the neighborhood, at schools, and the local folks see we are here working.”
The U.S. attorney’s office launched three separate investigations last year that have led to a plea agreement by former council member Harry Thomas Jr., who was accused of diverting more than $300,000 in public money for personal use. Meanwhile, federal officials continue to investigate the finances of Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008 campaign and allegations of quid pro quo by the 2010 campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
The controversies and frustration over the shortage of strong challengers have prompted a group of civic, community and business leaders to develop a program to groom a new generation of politicians.
The DC Leadership Development Council, which will be headed by former city administrator Michael Rogers and is to launch in the spring, will school potential candidates in ethics, city history and leadership skills.
“We are naive if we think qualified people are just going to drop out of the sky,” said Martha H. Mitchell, a former Ward 4 Democratic Committee leader who is helping to spearhead the group. “Our ultimate goal is to raise the bar a little.”
Progressive activists have held meetings throughout the city to develop ways to forge more local competition for the council, whose members run on staggered terms. But despite some crowded council races this year, observers say that the overall depth of talent willing to take on wholesale change remains thin.
“A lot of folks just throw up their hands and give up and go back to thinking about things on a national level,” said Bryan Weaver, an activist who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2010 and 2011. “You need an angry populace to hold city leaders accountable and here you just don’t have that.”
In Ward 2, which stretches from Georgetown to downtown, council member Jack Evans is all but guaranteed a sixth term after his only Democratic primary opponent dropped out in November, conceding that she was not up to the rigors of campaigning.
Evans, first elected in 1991, said he succeeded in drawing no opponent by “announcing early and raising a lot of money,” as well as maintaining a “fabulous staff.” And Evans, who referred last year to the council as the “worst” he has served on, disputes suggestions that his decision to seek reelection is blocking the way for the next generation of political leaders.
“You have a relatively new council and see one mistake after another made by people who don’t have experience,” Evans said. “I don’t aspire to the idea you need new and young people. When you go to the doctor, do you want a doctor who knows what they are doing or one right out of medical school?”
Challengers have emerged in the other Democratic races, but incumbents appear to have the edge in those contests, too, especially with their critics struggling to coalesce around one strong candidate.
In the At Large race, council member Vincent B. Orange faces former State Board of Education member Sekou Biddle and former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro, according the latest filings with the Board of Elections and Ethics.
Because he received only 29 percent of the vote in his race against Biddle and seven others in a special election in April, many observers questioned whether Orange could broaden his appeal before the primary.
But Orange has worked to bolster his profile by pushing council term limits and ethics reforms while solidifying his base in Northeast and east of the Anacostia River. Biddle, who lives in Shepherd Park, and Shapiro, of Chevy Chase, may split supporters in other parts of the city.
In Ward 4, which stretches from Petworth to Chevy Chase, council member Muriel Bowser appears to have improved her standing. Once thought to be politically vulnerable because she was a supporter of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), she has spearheaded passage of ethics reform legislation.
Several potential high-profile candidates opted not to run against Bowser, but she is still facing five challengers in the primary: Renee L. Bowser, Calvin Gurley, Baruti Jahi, Judi Jones and Max Skolnik.
In Ward 7, which includes parts of Southeast and Northeast, council member Yvette M. Alexander could benefit from a crammed field of challengers. She faces five contenders: the Rev. William Bennett II, former teacher Tom Brown, Kevin B. Chavous, Monica L. Johnson and perennial candidate Dorothy Douglas.
Many community leaders think Alexander could be vulnerable this year if the right opponent emerges. But she expects to benefit from her constituent service.
“When you attend every community meeting, you and your staff, when you know so many organizations in the ward, when you know so many residents, you are in touch with the people,” Alexander said.
In Ward 8 in Southeast, council member Marion Barry is also banking on his relationship with voters as he seeks a third term. In recent weeks, there have been signs that some of Barry’s support in the ward may be fading, including when he was shouted down at a community meeting on a proposed homeless shelter.
“People love me. Not everybody, but enough,” said Barry, noting that he needs a plurality of the vote against his six opponents. “I am the only candidate running that can lift the spirit of the people of Ward 8.. . . I have demonstrated I can get knocked down and get right back up and keep fighting.”
Former Ward 8 Democratic Party chairman Jacque Patterson, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Darrell Gaston and former Barry communications director Natalie Williams are his most vocal opponents. Community activist Sandra Seegars, Peaceoholics co-founder Jauhar Abraham and Gary “Ric” Feenster are also running in the primary.
Patterson noted that Barry’s continued service underscores the problem challengers face in a city with few elected positions. “There are only 13 council seats, and they don’t want to give them up, and they don’t want to groom others,” said Patterson, who thinks Ward 8 voters have Barry fatigue.
When asked whether he would consider stepping aside to make way for a new generation of leadership, Barry said that would be “anti-democratic.”
“I am doing a very effective job; why should I step down and let a new person come in?” he said. “Then people lose the clout, and all the resources I bring to bear.”
And when a candidate tries to take on an incumbent in the District, many say they quickly discover business leaders and community activists are reluctant to cross an incumbent.
“I’ve had several people say to me, ‘I only give money to incumbents,’ ” said David Grosso, an Independent in November’s At Large race. (Republican Mary Brooks Beatty is also a candidate.)
Monica D. Miller, a longtime Ward 6 activist, hopes challengers gain more advantage with the launch of the DC Leadership Development Council.
“If we want the best choices, we have to make sure others understand how the system works,” said Miller, a founder of the group. “Otherwise, the Wilson Building seems like a secret society.”