Less than a year after a mayoral race revealed an electorate split along racial and class lines, candidates in the April 26 special election for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council are scrambling to figure out where their most likely supporters live, touching off a political free-for-all with no overwhelming front-runner.
The citywide election, held to fill the at-large seat previously held by Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), could affect the 13-member legislative body reeling from recent controversies and divided on whether to increase taxes to help close a $320 million budget gap.
But unlike the mayor’s race, in which Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had an overwhelming advantage in majority-black neighborhoods while former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) dominated other areas of the city, the nine candidates vying for the at-large seat are struggling to line up solid bases of support, political observers say.
“There is a lot of ambivalence among voters because none of the candidates seem like their cup of tea,” said Chuck Burger, a veteran local political organizer.
The contenders viewed as having the best chances for cobbling together enough votes to win — perhaps as few 10,000 in what is expected to be a low-turnout election — are council member Sekou Biddle and former council member Vincent B. Orange, both Democrats.
Orange, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2006 and council chairman last year, has raised nearly $200,000 for his campaign and is banking on name recognition to solidify support near his home in Northeast and communities east of the Anacostia River.
But Orange, a former Pepco executive, is campaigning hard in Northwest, joining residents near Georgetown and American universities to resist attempts to expand student housing into the neighborhoods. And because of the SUV-spending controversy surrounding Brown, Orange is hoping voters will turn to him to be the chairman’s antidote on the council.
“Nearly 50,000 people thought Vince Orange was the best choice for chairman of the council” last year, Orange frequently says, referring to the number of votes he received in his race against Brown. “I would say, ‘Boy, were they right.’ ”
Biddle, a former Ward 4 school board member, is also aggressively campaigning in majority-white neighborhoods in Northwest. A former executive director of Jumpstart for Young Children, Biddle is aligned with the city’s school-reform movement and is trying to win over voters who enthusiastically backed former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
“I fundamentally believe that improving the quality of education can transform our communities,” said Biddle, who in January was appointed by the D.C. Democratic State Committee to temporarily fill the at-large seat until the special election.
But the early support Biddle received from Gray and Brown — now politically injured due to recent controversies — has hamstrung his effort, resulting in a campaign still trying to identify a path to victory. While Biddle concentrates heavily on Northwest, his backers, including Brown’s father, Marshall, are working to line up support in other areas.
Biddle’s strategy could leave an opening for Patrick Mara, the race’s lone GOP candidate. Mara is aiming to convince voters that this is a solid opportunity to gain a more moderate voice on a council, which currently has 11 Democrats and two independents.
“If I am elected to this position, you are putting me behind enemy lines,” Mara, a school board member representing Ward 1, said at a candidates forum in Chevy Chase last week.
But Mara is vying for many of the same voters being wooed by Democrats Bryan Weaver and Joshua Lopez, a community activist who honed his campaign skills while working as an organizer in Fenty’s mayoral campaigns.
Lopez, 27, would be the first Hispanic elected to the council and its youngest member. Employing tactics he learned from Fenty, Lopez has undertaken a relentless door-knocking strategy. “D.C. is at a crossroads right now, and we need someone who is not going to be a rubber-stamp politician. It’s not time for a recycled politician,” said Lopez, a reference to Biddle and Orange, who served on the council from 1997 to 2007.
Weaver is a former Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who unsuccessfully ran against council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) last year. After getting his start in politics as an aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone, Weaver founded a nonprofit agency to support at-risk youths.
Although Weaver has support in the city’s progressive and environmental communities, he’s not well known citywide. But at forums and debates, Weaver’s message of overhauling city ethics and disclosure laws has drawn nods of approval.
“If we want open, transparent government, we have to reform the entire system,” Weaver said last week.
Other candidates include Ward 8 activist Tom Brown and Ward 7 school board member Dorothy Douglas, both Democrats, as well as DC Statehood Green Party candidate Alan Page and lawyer Arkan Haile, who is running as an independent.
With less than three weeks until the election, voters interviewed by The Washington Post said they were undecided.
After a Ward 5 forum, Sharon Crane of Woodridge in Northeast said she was debating between Orange and Mara.
“I think one of the big problems we have is we don’t have a two-party system, but I’m really torn,” said Crane, a lifelong Republican who changed her registration to Democrat to support Fenty in last year’s primary. “I think we need a Republican on the council, but Vincent Orange brought so much to this district when he was on the council.”
Some observers say they think one of the candidates will open up a clear advantage during the final days of the race. Those most likely to do so are Orange and Biddle, they say, or Mara, if he can snag a few high-profile endorsements.
In addition to Gray and Brown, Biddle is being supported by council members David A. Catania (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Yvette D. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). The council support will probably help Biddle rally support citywide, but many observers think he will have a hard time matching Orange in vote-rich Northeast and neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
“I think candidates are going to be sadly mistaken if they think they can win just by carrying Ward 3” in Upper Northwest, said Jacque Patterson, chairman of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee.
Marshall Brown, who is assisting with Biddle’s field campaign, says there is a ceiling of support for Orange. He noted that his son, council Chairman Brown, defeated Orange last year in Northeast and Southeast, and he predicted that many undecided voters will swing behind Biddle.
“Orange is stuck in neutral. . . . How can you be undecided with a man who has run for chairman, he’s run for council, he’s run for mayor,” said Marshall Brown, referring to Orange’s past campaigns. “It’s not like the public doesn’t know who he is.”
Many of those voters may choose not to go to the polls, said Burger, the political organizer. “You have this whole population of voters who are saying, ‘Let them stew in their own cup of tea.’ ”