Candidates running in Tuesday’s special election for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council spent the weekend pleading for votes at farmers markets and churches and on front porches across the District, capping a campaign that could be decided by a few hundred votes.
In a race that has the potential to alter the balance of power on a council governing a rapidly changing city, the eight men and one woman running in the citywide election said they will keep fighting for votes until the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The candidates largely agree on many major issues, meaning the race will probably hinge on what sort of message voters want to send to a council and mayor dealing with recent scandals and a looming budget debate that could pit the city’s wealthiest residents against some of its poorest.
“The voters are going to tell us in this special election which direction they want the city to go,” said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). “In some ways, I’m personally viewing this election as a referendum on the city, more so than on the individual characters in the race.”
The candidates with the best chance to win appear to be former council member Vincent B. Orange and council member Sekou Biddle, both Democrats, and Patrick Mara, the school board representative from Ward 1 who, if elected, would be the only Republican on the panel.
But with only a fraction of the city’s 459,000 registered voters expected to show up at the polls, the election represents the best chance in years for new blocs of voters or those affiliated with minor parties to make an impact.
For example, the election will be a test of whether a new generation of politically active bloggers and environmental and progressive activists can mobilize enough support for their preferred candidate, Democrat Bryan Weaver of Adams Morgan.
The election also will determine whether the young Democratic activists who backed ex-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) last year have a new leader in Joshua Lopez (D). Lopez was at the helm of the write-in campaign for Fenty in the fall’s general election after the then-mayor lost to Vincent C. Gray in the Democratic primary.
Also running as Democrats for the at-large seat are education activist Tom Brown, a political newcomer who has impressed observers at forums, and Ward 7 school board member Dorothy Douglas. D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate Alan Page and lawyer Arkan Haile, an independent, also will be on the ballot.
Depending on the winner, the election could create either a majority-white or -black council. It could give the council its first Hispanic member, should Lopez take the seat. The election also could determine whether embattled Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) will have six allies on the 13-member council.
The most dramatic result would be if Mara is victorious in a city where three out of four voters are registered Democrats.
“I am saying I am the one member who would not only be the fiscal but the ethical watchdog of the D.C. Council,” said Mara, a consultant and former lobbyist who bills himself as a “socially progressive, fiscally conservative Republican.”
There are signs Mara has momentum, but Orange remains better known and has prepared a well-funded get-out-the-vote effort.
“They are going to empty out the senior buildings all day long,” said Sean Metcalf, an adviser to Orange.
Orange, an accountant and lawyer, says his experience is needed on the council to help balance the budget. In recent days, Orange has been stepping up efforts to highlight Mara’s party affiliation, sending out mailers trying to link him to conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Though Orange is hoping Democrats citywide rally behind his candidacy to stop Mara, the former council member appears to be targeting black voters. On Saturday, Orange supporters handed out leaflets in Southeast featuring a picture of the candidate beneath the phrase: “He walks like us. He talks likes us. He has a record of working for us.”
Despite relying on the same political base that elected Brown and Mayor Gray last year, Orange said he would act as a check on the mayor’s and the chairman’s power. Orange, who was sometimes unpredictable when he served on the council from 1997 to 2007, says he will shake up the body.
“We definitely need a change,” Kathy Miller, 55, said Saturday after she talked to Orange in Ward 8. “I think I’ll give him a shot. At least you know he’s approachable.”
Orange, 54, has been able to position himself as an outsider in the race because Gray and Brown persuaded the D.C. Democratic State Committee in January to appoint Biddle as an interim council member pending the special election. A majority of council members, including Catania and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), has endorsed Biddle.
But Biddle has tried to distance himself from some high-profile backers as controversy mounted at the top levels of city government. Instead, he has promoted himself as the only candidate who would make schools a top priority.
A former teacher and executive director of Jumpstart for Young Children, Biddle is a former school board member from Ward 4 and is closely aligned with the school reform movement. He has been making inroads with parents.
“When he said schools, he sold me,” Shelia Hester, 55, said at an Easter egg hunt at Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill.
Biddle, 39, and Mara, 36, appear to be vying for many of the same types of voters, which could work in Orange’s favor.
After Biddle showed up at Ben Schaibly’s house on Capitol Hill, the candidate persuaded the 57-year-old landscape designer to support him instead of Mara.
“I’ve heard the Sierra Club has endorsed Mr. Biddle, and that means something,” Schaibly said. “I’m opposed to the old machine politics and didn’t know [Biddle] was so young.”
Across town, Mara was working hard to win over potential Biddle voters in Georgetown. As Mara knocked on doors, resident Tom O’Hara told the candidate he probably would vote for Biddle because his daughter knew him.
“I can actually win,” Mara shot back. “It’s between me and Mr. Orange.”
After a 10-minute conversation, O’Hara said he was undecided between Mara and Biddle.
In neighborhoods closer to the city’s center, Weaver and Lopez were battling over voters. While Orange, Mara and Biddle all oppose Gray’s plan to raise income taxes on the wealthy, Weaver, 40, and Lopez say the rich should pay more to offset major cuts to human service programs for the poor.
Weaver is a longtime progressive activist who wants to make wholesale reforms to District government and puts a priority on urban planning and traditional liberal social causes. He has found support from the District’s newer residents.
Lopez, who at 27 would be the youngest council member, has been waging a door-to-door campaign billing himself as a fresh face for the council.
“It’s going to be about turnout, and if it’s low turnout, it’s going to be a race,” said Lloyd Jordan, a lawyer and Democratic strategist who worked for Gray last year.