Ethics issue looms over D.C. campaigns

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Voters in the District will decide Tuesday whether to reshape the D.C. Council in election contests that serve as a referendum on the makeup of a body that has faced a steady trickle of ethical problems in the past two years.

Tuesday’s election will mark the end of a heated battle for two at-large seats and less competitive races for chairman and ward seats and the District’s delegate to Congress.

The ballot also has three proposed amendments to the D.C. Charter that reflect the ethical cloud hanging over city government. The first one asks voters whether the council, by a vote of 5/6 of the members, should be able to expel a fellow member for a “gross failure” of the office’s standards of conduct. The next two questions ask whether a council member or the mayor should be “ineligible to remain in office and ineligible to ever hold the office again” if he or she is convicted of a felony while in office.

Council chairman’s race

The man chosen by his colleagues to lead the council after former Chairman Kwame R. Brown resigned amid scandal, Democrat Phil Mendelson, is expected to easily overcome sole challenger Calvin Gurley to retain the reins at the John A. Wilson Building. Mr. Mendelson was chosen as chairman in June, after Brown resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud.

Mr. Mendelson’s likely victory would free up his at-large seat on the council, setting up a special election in the spring. Observers say candidates who fall short in the current at-large race could be in a good position to vie for the seat.

David Grosso, a relatively unknown independent from Brookland who built up his name recognition by starting his campaign for an at-large seat a year ago, for one, doesn’t want to hear that.

“It’s the one hard-and-fast rule on my campaign, that you’re not allowed to talk about anything but this race,” Mr. Grosso said in a phone interview Friday.

Brown isn’t the only council member to resign in disgrace and be replaced by a special election. In January, Harry Thomas Jr. resigned from his Ward 5 seat for stealing $350,000 in public funds intended for youth sports programs. Democrat Kenyan McDuffie handily won a May special election to replace him.

At-large contest

Council member Michael A. Brown, an independent, is considered most at risk of losing his seat to an upstart challenger such as Mr. Grosso in one of the at-large council races.

As of their most-recent campaign finance filings, Mr. Brown had little more than $7,000 cash on hand to use in the final week of the campaign. Mr. Grosso had roughly double that amount.

However, Mr. Brown — first elected to the council in 2008 — can rely on momentum as both an incumbent and a familiar name to voters who remember his late father, Ron Brown, who served in President Clinton’s Cabinet.

Mr. Brown has faced a number of unflattering developments during the campaign. He announced that more than $100,000 had been stolen from his campaign, supposedly by a trusted aide. He has also been dogged by questions about his personal finances because of tax liens and The Washington Post reported on his poor driving record.

Mr. Grosso and Republican nominee Mary Brooks Beatty have hit away at Mr. Brown’s troubles, but the incumbent says voters care about his record on affordable housing and workforce development.

“Michael Brown is not in a position to defend anything because he hasn’t done anything on the council,” Mr. Grosso retorted Friday.

Mr. Brown told the crowd at a Georgetown forum in early October that he attends city events from morning to night in addition to his daytime duties at city hall.

“I treat this job as a full-time job,” he said.

Fellow incumbent Vincent B. Orange is the Democratic nominee in the left-leaning District, therefore considered a lock for one of the two seats in play — despite lingering issues.

“I’m running like I’m 100 points behind,” Mr. Orange said in an interview Friday.

Mr. Orange’s most notable issue is a series of mysterious money-order donations to his campaign ahead of a 2011 special election from Jeffrey E. Thompson, a city contractor who has been accused of providing $650,000 in unreported funds to Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign.

Mr. Orange asked the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance to look at the documents and has pointed to multiple audits that clear him of wrongdoing. He said he knew his audits would come back clean, and the issue “is behind me.”

“I’m moving forward,” he said.

While he has not been formally accused of anything, “you have that whole culture of corruption, and you’ve lost trust,” Ms. Beatty said in a Friday debate on WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi program.

As a Republican, Ms. Beatty attacked the one-party “groupthink” of the council on Friday and has accused Mr. Brown and Mr. Grosso of being Democrats in independents’ clothing. The distinction can be viewed as significant, since the law reserves one of the at-large seats up for grabs for a non-majority-party candidate — in other words, someone who isn’t a Democrat.

Besides Mr. Grosso or Ms. Beatty, other potential new faces on the council include A.J. Cooper, whose candidacy has taken off in recent weeks through high visibility along roadsides, in forums and interviews, and at early-voting sites. Leon Swain Jr., an independent who helped bust up corruption in the city’s taxi industry, and Ann C. Wilcox, the D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate, round out the ballot.

Other races

In Ward 7, Democratic incumbent Yvette M. Alexander faces an energetic challenge from “Civil Rights Republican” Ronald Moten, who made his stamp on the D.C. scene as a leader of the anti-gang Peaceoholics group with backing from former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Mr. Moten has exuded confidence down the stretch, arguing residents’ disappointment with Ms. Alexander’s record will lead to his victory, despite the fact he has an “R” next to his name in the heavily Democratic ward.

“I’m in it to win it,” he said Friday in an interview. “A lot of people are upset. The only thing Yvette Alexander can do is say I’m a Republican … I think I can pull it off.”

Several other ward races are really not races at all.

Jack Evans, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the council, is uncontested in Ward 2. Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, also faces no competition as her political star continues to rise.

And in Ward 8, “mayor for life” Marion Barry is expected to follow up his resounding victory in the Democratic primary with an easy win over independent challenger Jauhar Abraham, who also made his name in the District through the Peaceoholics organization.

Bruce Majors, an independent, and Natale L. Stracuzzi, a Statehood Green Party candidate, face an uphill battle to unseat Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting member of the House of Representatives who has served as the city’s “warrior on the Hill” since 1991.

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