The Wilson Building houses the mayor's office and the D.C. Council… (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON…)
Character and ethics are dominating D.C. Council elections for a second year, as candidates clash over how to reform the city government as they campaign ahead of Tuesday's primary.
For the first time since Home Rule, the District is holding its primary for local offices in April instead of September to make sure the city complies with new federal requirements that absentee ballots be mailed overseas at least 45 days before the general election.
Along with the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, half the council up for election. There are contested Democratic primaries for one citywide at-large seat and for seats in wards 4, 7 and 8. Ward 2 council member Jack B. Evans is running uncontested in the Democratic primary, as is Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Two candidates are vying for the Republican nomination in Ward 7, setting up the local party’s first nomination fight since 2008. Green Party members will also vote Tuesday for their nominee for an at-large seat.
But much of the attention this year has been on the Democratic at-large contest, where D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange is trying to fend off three challengers. Orange was elected a year ago after he defeated Sekou Biddle and seven other candidates in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Kwame R. Brown (D), who was elected chairman in 2010.
Pending April’s special election, the D.C. Democratic State Committee had appointed Biddle as the interim council member. But he struggled during his campaign against Orange and Republican Patrick Mara, the top two vote-getters in that race. Biddle, a former Board of Education member from Ward 4, was hobbled at the time because he was being supported by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Brown, both of whom were battling ethics controversies.
Now, as Orange seeks a full term, Biddle is hoping his newfound status as an outsider gives him a lift as he tries to win back his old seat. Despite finishing third in last year’s race, Biddle is hoping to capitalize on voter frustrations with the city government by stressing the need to continue school reforms and new campaign finance regulations.
Signs point to a potentially volatile election. A Clarus Research Group poll released in late December found that 30 percent of voters approved the council while 55 percent disapproved.
This year, Orange appeared well positioned to win reelection after he took numerous steps to insulate himself from ongoing federal investigations into several District political campaigns. Orange, a former Ward 5 council member who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2006 and chairman in 2010, helped shape the ethics bill approved by the council in January. Orange has also been a vocal supporter of term limits and banning council members from holding second jobs, which his colleagues decided not to include in the ethics bill.
But Orange’s campaign has been knocked off kilter by recent news reports that his campaign received $26,000 in money orders and cashier’s checks last year from people or companies tied to Jeffrey E. Thompson, the city’s largest contractor.
Orange, the best-funded candidate in the race, is expected to run strong in Northeast and in communities east of the Anacostia River. Biddle fared poorly in those areas last year and hopes for a strong showing this year in Northwest and near his home in Shepherd Park in Ward 4.
One problem for Biddle is that Peter Shapiro, a former Prince George’s County Council member, is also mounting an aggressive campaign for the seat. Shapiro remains relatively unknown in the District but is better-funded than Biddle. Shapiro, who moved into the city two years ago, has made some inroads with progressive activists by saying he’s the candidate with the freshest perspective of the District.
Shapiro, a Chevy Chase resident, stresses the need for additional ethics and campaign finance reforms, including a ban on corporate donations.
The fourth candidate in the race, the Rev. E. Gail Anderson Holness, remains a wild card. Although poorly funded, Holness has performed well at candidate forums by stressing the need for the city to refocus on improving neighborhoods. Holness, a Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner, notes that she is the only candidate in the race who does not accept corporate donations.
There is also a Green Party nomination fight for at-large council between lawyer Ann C. Wilcox and activist G. Lee Aiken.
In Ward 4, council member Muriel Bowser (D) faces labor lawyer Renee Bowser (no relation), government accountant Calvin Gurley, community organizer Baruti Jahi, community activist Judi Jones and Max Skolnik, founder of an education nonprofit group in the Democratic primary.