Cross-posted at DCist.com
In a crowded conference room on a cold January night, Vincent Orange stood before the members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee and promised that he'd be back. Orange, a former two-term member of the D.C. Council and citywide candidate, had just been bested by Sekou Biddle, a member of the State Board of Education, in a tightly-contested series of party votes to fill the At-Large seat vacated by Kwame Brown after he was elevated to the Council's top spot only days before.
Fast forward to today, and Orange stands to regain a spot on the Council and redeem himself after a defeat that seemed to spell an end to a political career spanning two decades. Tomorrow, Orange and Biddle will again fight for the At-Large seat, though any repeat of January will be complicated by a slate of seven other candidates, three of which -- Bryan Weaver, Patrick Mara and Josh Lopez -- are seen as serious contenders in their own right. They're joined by Dorothy Douglas, Tom Brown and Alan Page; Arkan Haile is also on the ballot, but he's been all but absent from the campaign trail.
The city's political context couldn't be much more different than it was in January, a fact that has shaped the battle for the At-Large seat in dramatic and subtle ways. In January, Mayor Vince Gray and Kwame Brown were only just taking office amidst promises of a more inclusive style of governing than that offered by Mayor Adrian Fenty. Today, Gray and Brown are only barely keeping afloat thanks to repeated ethical scandals and missteps. Gray and Brown's travails both dragged down Biddle -- who benefited from their early endorsements -- and brought new contenders like Mara, Weaver and Lopez into the fold, all three stressing their independence, integrity and commitment to clean government. Orange, who seemed dejected and on the outs after his January defeat, roared back to life on the strength of his 2010 campaign against Brown, when he railed against the council chair for his personal financial problems.
Regardless of how hard they've tried, none of the five frontrunners have decisively moved ahead of their competitors. Orange out-fundraised everyone by a huge margin, but he was denied a hoped-for endorsement from the Post, which went instead for Mara. Despite Biddle's complicated associations to Gray and Brown, he's raked up the support of a number of progressive organizations and two key colleagues on the Council, David Catania (I-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). Weaver has performed strongly at candidate forums, but he's had to battle the belief held by many that he just can't win. Lopez isn't the strongest candidate on policy issues, but he's made up for it by knocking on more doors than anyone else and pledging to be the constituent services councilmember should he win.
It's literally anyone's election to win tomorrow, and that's why participating is so important. (See all of our Special Election coverage here, and my dedicated Four/26 blog here.) Special Elections tend to be sleepy affairs, with turnout ranging from five to 25 percent. While this election may not be different in that regard, it will be won by turnout -- and that could amount to just a thousand votes between the winner and the losers.
The policy implications of this election are clear -- whomever wins will play a key role in deciding whether or not the District raises taxes on the city's highest-earners as part of a plan to close the budget deficit. (Read where the candidates fall on the tax issue here.) Additionally, the leading candidates represent a new generation of political leadership that will be key to the city development in the coming years -- all but Orange are 40 or younger, have only served on ANCs or the State Board of Education and are largely unencumbered by ties to the District's political establishment. One of the five -- Biddle, Orange, Lopez, Mara, or Weaver -- is likely to be the next At-Large councilmember, and each and every vote is vital to their hopes to emerge victorious late on Tuesday night.
Sekou Biddle: Few people knew who Biddle was before January, when he beat Orange in the D.C. Democratic State Committee selection process to fill the seat vacated by Brown. His victory then was owed in large part to Kwame Brown's endorsement; but since then, any association with the troubled Council Chair (and his father, a former Biddle campaign advisor who was fired after making controversial remarks about white District residents) has made the fight for the seat more competitive than Biddle would have liked. Regardless, Biddle has gained the support of The Current newspapers and a number of progressive groups -- including Democracy for America, the Sierra Club, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and SEIU -- and proved his education bona fides by speaking knowledgeably on the issue on the campaign trail.
Strengths: Biddle knows education well, drawing upon his experience as a teacher and Ward 4 representative on the State Board of Education to speak on how to best reform the city's schools. He's also thoughtful about other issues and doesn't jump to conclusions before having heard as many sides as possible. He's undoubtedly progressive, but not dogmatically so -- he's been wary of proposed tax increases, siding instead with cuts in spending and increased government efficiency.
Weaknesses: Brown didn't only endorse him, but a number of former Brown campaign and council staffers have jumped on Biddle's bandwagon. That's not to say that Biddle can't think independently, but that he's perceived as being the inside guy when being the inside guy is both unpopular and unwise. Biddle's tendency to think through the issues also makes it seem like he's flip-flopping -- he originally seemed to be in favor of tax hikes before reversing course, and he's given conflicting answers on school vouchers.
Josh Lopez: You know the insurgent write-in campaign for Adrian Fenty that netted the former mayor close to 30,000 votes in November, much to everyone's surprise? That was Lopez's doing. The 27-year-old former Fenty campaign staffer and ANC commissioner has taken after his former boss and campaign like Fenty did in 2006 -- knocking on doors across the city. He's pledged to be a critical eye and vote on the council -- no one doubts his general dislike for Mayor Gray -- and promised to offer more thorough constituent services than what many At-Large councilmembers traditionally do. Though he hasn't benefited from media or mainstream endorsements, a number of small business and community activists have jumped behind him.
Strengths: Lopez is about as close to having Fenty back on the Council as you can get. He's also managed to run a surprisingly frugal campaign -- to date, he's spent less than $10,000 -- and stay above the fray when other front-running candidates go at each other. And at the fresh age of 27, he's showed political maturity that some candidates and officials twice his age don't. If elected, he'd be the first-ever Latino member of the council.
Weaknesses: Being 27 may make him energetic, but it also means that he's not the sharpest candidate in policy debates. Additionally, his associations to Fenty aren't all good -- the Fenty frat brothers that were at the heart of many of the scandals that ensnared him in his last year in office are hovering just on the periphery of Lopez's campaign, making many wonder how independent-minded he can truly be.
Patrick Mara: Mara, the only Republican in the race ("socially progressive and fiscally conservative," as he often touts at forums) is one for upsets. In 2008, he bested fellow Republican councilmember Carol Schwartz in a heated primary; last year, he unseated the incumbent to win a spot as the Ward 1 representative on the State Board of Education. Endorsed by the Post (along with the Examiner's Harry Jaffe and Jonetta Rose Barras, and former Virginia congressman Tom Davis), Mara sells himself as the best person to demand accountability and transparency on a Council short on both. On budgetary matters, Mara is strict about cutting spending -- he often pointed out the while the District and Charlotte, N.C. are of similar sizes, the District's government is roughly five times bigger than Charlotte's.
Strengths: Mara really has no connections or allegiances to the District's Democratic Party, so he's got nothing to lose in holding Councilmembers to account for their misdeeds. (He's often the only guy willing to identify Councilmembers by name when they cross ethical lines.) Mara has also pledged to meet with one Republican member of Congress every week to lobby for D.C. voting rights, an idea that carries extra weight given that he's been talking to his own about an issue on which the national and local Republican parties couldn't differ more. His crusade to cut spending and improve the climate for small businesses in the District would also be a welcome and needed change to the Council.
Weaknesses: Sometimes it's tough to tell if Mara is dogmatically against tax increases simply because he's a Republican, or because he legitimately believes that there's enough spending out there to be cut to avoid any tax hikes. This becomes most obvious when it comes to taxes on parking garages -- though they've remained the same since 1976, Mara opposes raising them just the same as he does increasing any taxes on individuals. (Needless to say, this is a one reason he's been supported by the pro-business Bud'sPAC and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.) Also, Mara has failed to answer a basic question -- what would it take for him to quit the Republican Party? Catania did in 2004 over the party's stance on same-sex marriage, but Mara has failed to say how much more the national GOP would have to do to D.C. before it becomes impossible for him to remain with the party.
Bryan Weaver: After losing to incumbent Councilmember Jim Graham in last year's fight for the Ward 1 seat, Weaver seemed to be happy to retire from campaigning -- until he was drafted to run by a committed group of supporters, that is. Since then, Weaver has brought his clever brand of progressive politics (he came to the District to attend Howard University and worked for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone) and YouTube campaign videos to the At-Large contest, performing strongly at candidate forums and attracting the endorsements of the City Paper, Greater Greater Washington, The InTowner, the Georgetown Voice, the D.C. YouthPAC and the D.C. College Democrats. Regardless, Weaver has battled the impression throughout the campaign that he's simply not going to win, evidenced most clearly when The Current endorsed Biddle even as it admitted that Weaver was the best candidate it had spoken to in 16 years.
Strengths: Weaver's been ahead of the curve on ethics -- during last year's run against Graham, he advocated for changes to the way money is raised for local campaigns, indicating that he could be a strong voice for openness and transparency in government. Additionally, he sees issues more holistically than most of his contemporaries, explaining how education reform, the provision of social services, job training and juvenile justice cannot be dealt with in isolation. And while he may be "unbendingly liberal" (as the Post dubbed him), he's shown the ability to be pragmatic when conditions call for it -- though opposed to tax abatements for big corporations setting up shop in D.C., as an ANC, Weaver voted for a $46 million abatement for a boutique hotel in Adams Morgan after helping negotiate a number of conditions related to who would work there and what they would get paid.
Weaknesses: People like to joke that Weaver is the Twitter candidate, but there's a certain amount of truth to that. Coupled with a relatively narrow Ward 1 base, Weaver isn't particularly well-known across the city. Had he run a longer campaign, that may have changed. But he didn't.
Vincent Orange: Orange, who has served on the Council and has run for mayor and council chair (he lost both), seemed like he was done with local politics after Biddle beat him in January. Until his March fundraising report, that is, showed him with $191,000 in the bank, roughly three times what any of his competitors had gathered. (He had $134,000 left as of last week.) He also polled far above the competition and drew in some big labor endorsements, making him something of a sudden frontrunner in the race. Orange has also benefited from a campaign tactic that dragged him down last year -- his aggressive criticism of Brown's personal finances -- and played up his experience as an independent-minded legislator.
Strengths: If experience counts for anything, it certainly has helped Orange in this contest. He knows the government better than most of his competitors, and speaks knowledgeably on budget issues. As fellow candidates have spoken somewhat vaguely about how the city can better spend its money, Orange listed a number of ways early on that the District could better collect on money it is owed to avoid increasing taxes on residents. And if you don't trust or simply dislike Kwame Brown, Orange might well be the guy to hold the council chair to account for questionable spending and ethics.
Weaknesses: Orange often plays up his eight-year record on the Council like it was full of nothing but positive achievements. The reality is that Orange, who has been running for some form of elected office for the better part of 20 years, is a creature of the city's political establishment, as much as he might claim otherwise. (It's tough to take him seriously on ethics, for example, when he raised close to $250,000 for a 2006 mayoral exploratory campaign and didn't disclose the names of the donors, a move his competitors at the time did make.) He's also prone to the political winds, changing his mind whenever it seems that that's the way the breeze is blowing. Finally, hearing a man who refers to himself in the third person makes it seem like Vincent Orange is out for just one person -- and that's Vincent Orange.
The Other Candidates: Hate us if you will for doing this, but we're going to lump the four remaining candidates in this category. They've generally been present on the campaign trail, but for a number of reasons have lagged behind in fundraising and polling. This isn't to say that they're not worth considering -- only that political races tend to divide between tiers of candidates, and these ones are on the second tier.
Alan Page, the Statehood Green Party candidate, has a tendency to say what you want to hear when none of his competitors want to say it. He's thoughtful and committed to a more just city, even though he's struggled to make his name known or really corner a specific issue for himself. Dorothy Douglas, who represents Ward 7 on the State Board of Education, is the only woman in the contest and has taken time to speak knowledgeably on education. Tom Brown, an imposing figure on the campaign trail, has worked in education, workforce development and job creation east of the river for years -- and when he talks about any of the three issues, you can tell. He campaign was slow to start, though, and his strongest selling points would seem to make him better-suited for a ward-based seat. (Ward 7's Yvette Alexander is up for re-election next year!) Arkan Haile has played the Keyser Söze of the At-Large Special Election, raising more than $10,000 early on before going off the grid. Despite a compelling life story that could have brought valuable diversity to the race, Haile hasn't been seen at a forum since, well, ever.
The election is tomorrow. It's not a primary -- it's the real deal. Anyone can vote. (Okay, fine -- if you're a 16-year-old that only recently immigrated from Canada or live in Maryland, you probably shouldn't try.) The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has all of the information you could hope to have, and you can follow them on Twitter (@DBOEE) for any breaking developments. Also, here's the city's official Voter Guide, with candidate statements. (Careful, it's a .PDF.)
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., but if you're standing in line as they close, they'll remain open until you've cast your ballot. Same-day registration is available, and all you have to bring is a D.C.-issued ID or a utility bill or bank statement to proves you live where you say you do.
Like we've done for the past few elections, we'll be reporting from the board tomorrow as results roll in. And for the sake of our sanity and yours, we're hoping -- and have been told -- that they should be in way earlier than last year's primary and general election.
Excited? Ready for this election cycle to end, and those mailers and campaign signs to disappear? Yeah, we are too. Until a new election cycle starts for the April 2012 primaries. Sigh.
That said: vote!