Cross-posted at DCist.com
With early voting having begun this week and the election day less than two weeks away, the contest for the April 26 At-Large Special Election remains fluid and unsettled, with no one candidate yet rising above the rest. The uncertainties in the campaign to fill the seat once occupied by D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown is a product not only of the candidates, though, but of the ever-shifting political environment in the District.
Of the nine candidates vying for the seat, Interim Councilmember Sekou Biddle, Vincent Orange, Josh Lopez, Patrick Mara, and Bryan Weaver have risen to the top, but that's about as much as anyone can say. (The Post had a good take on the Special Election over the weekend.)
Biddle, an early favorite and the choice of many of the District's political leaders (including Brown and Mayor Vince Gray), has struggled to make his voice heard amongst a host of scandals and missteps, including flip-flops on various issues and ties to the Brown family. Most recently, Biddle was forced to dismiss Marshall Brown, a paid campaign advisor and father of Kwame Brown, for comments he made in a Post article regarding the city's changing demographics which Biddle later termed "hurtful." Regardless, Biddle has remained one of the strongest candidates on education, and snagged coveted nods from Councilmembers David Catania (Ind.-At-Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), as well as liberal groups like the Sierra Club and Democracy for America.
Orange, who served two terms representing Ward 5 on the Council and has run for citywide office on a number of occasions, has used his massive bankroll ($191,000 through early March) and longstanding political connections to jumpstart his campaign and gain the support of a variety of unions (including the AFL-CIO and Washington Teachers' Union). Orange's strength has been budgetary matters, where he's been the most specific candidate in laying out where the city can gain revenues without having to raise taxes. His role as the District's perma-candidate, though, has left some feeling that he's got too much baggage to effectively serve on a council that needs to move forward on a number of issues.
Mara, the sole Republican in the race, received a huge boost last night when he gained the Post's endorsement and earned plaudits from longtime political watcher Jonetta Rose Barras. His intense focus on ethics, oversight and accountability has matched the uncertain mood in the District over persistent scandals at the highest levels, though he remains unknown to many voters across the city.
Weaver has similarly struggled with name recognition, though he has performed strongly at candidate forums and made a name for himself as a candidate that understands issues in their broader context. He was recently endorsed by The InTowner, the D.C. YouthPAC and the D.C. College Democrats. And though The Current didn't endorse him (it went for Biddle), the four-newspaper chain called him the "most knowledgeable challenger we have interviewed over the past 16 years." Oh yeah -- and there's those campaign ads.
Lopez may not be strongest on the issues, but he's been working the hardest and seems most in his element when he's directly interacting with voters. The former Adrian Fenty campaign worker has also matured as the campaign has evolved, showing more discipline in his answers at candidate forums and landing humorous blows against Biddle and Orange. Much like with Weaver and Mara, his issue may be citywide name recognition (and age -- he's the youngest candidate at a fresh-faced 28), though he stands to gain Fenty's endorsement.
There are four remaining candidates that should be mentioned -- Alan Page, Dorothy Douglas, Arkan Haile and Tom Brown. Their fundraising and polling have been low, though they have added needed second-tier voices to many debates.
So why all the uncertainty? Part of it is timing: it's a special election only months after a bruising mayoral campaign, so there's a certain amount of electoral fatigue setting in. Part of it is context: what started as a race that would seem to focus on issues like the budget deficit and education reform was quickly derailed by the scandals involving Gray and Brown. Suddenly, the candidates -- mostly Biddle, given his ties to Brown -- were forced to shift gears and re-tool their messages. Finally, each candidate is strong on particular issues, but not particularly strong on all issues. Biddle has education nailed, while Orange comes closest on budget. Weaver, Mara and Lopez seem most attuned to accountability and oversight.
This mixed bag was on perfect display at a candidate forum at the Black Cat last night, where the candidates fielded tough and diverse questions from NBC 4's Tom Sherwood, the City Paper's Alan Suderman and WPFW's Chuck Thies. None of them seemed to come out a winner, though Biddle and Orange went at each other on numerous occasions during a round when the candidates were able to ask each other questions. Orange asked about Biddle's ties to Brown, while Biddle insinuated that Orange is something of a career politician willing to do whatever it takes to get elected. (For a thorough accounting of the forum, check the #four26dc hashtag on Twitter or read Aaron, Mike DeBonis and Keith Ivey.) Maybe one of the best questions of the night, though, was when each candidate was asked who they would vote for if they weren't running. Biddle said Weaver, Lopez said Weaver, Mara said Tom Brown, Orange said Lopez, and Weaver said Lopez.
As with most elections, it looks like the April 26 contest will rest on turnout. And in that, Orange seems to be doing best. When asked why he arrived at Monday's D.C. voting rights protest late, he mentioned that he had been at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics with seniors that he had bused down to vote. Granted, not many people are taking advantage of early voting -- only 47 had showed up so far at 2:30 p.m. yesterday (Update: 221 people have voted over the last two days, I'm told) -- but if turnout is expected to be light, those votes will count. Orange also seems to be digging for votes wherever he can get them. Today, he sent out a somewhat pandering press release asking that voting hours be extended so that Jews observing Passover can cast ballots after sundown. (The board has already extended early voting hours for observant Jews who can't vote on April 26.)
Regardless, Mara is riding high with his nod from the Post -- though it remains to be seen if the newspaper can end its losing record when it comes to marquee races -- and Biddle is benefiting from a massive influx of support from SEIU, which endorsed him. Weaver and Lopez may be slight underdogs, but they're anything but out of this one. (Plus, their own opponents seem to like them best!) Weaver's base is strong and well-engaged, while Lopez is seemingly always knocking on someone's door.
Remember -- the election is on April 26, but you can vote this week and next at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics at Judiciary Square.