Monday, April 30, 2007

In today’s special elections for two vacancies on the D.C. Council, the biggest questions do not focus on the three dozen candidates vying for the seats in Ward 4 and Ward 7 at all.

More likely, political junkies in the District will be watching the outcome of these ward races to gauge how Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is faring.

Just how deep do Gen. Greenhorn’s political coattails run? Will the results indicate a referendum on the mayor’s undemocratic schools takeover? Has the Fenty Frenzy fizzled? Are there those too disillusioned to cast a vote?

“The mayor is twisting a lot of arms,” said one Ward 4 resident, who asked not to be identified. This might explain why so many are unwilling to speak publicly.

“You hear a lot about ‘rubber stamps’ in Ward 4, but not so much in Ward 7,” this observer said. Interesting, has the cocky Mr. Fenty solidified so much power so soon? How? And from whom, for whom? We’ll have a better answer tomorrow.

Mr. Fenty handpicked one candidate early on to replace him in Ward 4 — Muriel Bowser, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and a Montgomery County government employee — and the dollars contributed to her created the largest campaign war chest for a ward candidate in city history. Many of those contributions to the mayor’s choice — and to lobbyist Michael A. Brown, the son of famed Democratic politico Ron Brown, her chief rival — have come from well-heeled people who live outside the ward.

“Muriel wouldn’t even be in the game but for the mayoral endorsement and the Fenty machine, and there is also a lot of resentment about that,” said the Ward 4 resident.

In the Ward 7 race to replace D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Mr. Gray waited to endorse Democrat Yvette Alexander. Observers say she was not his first choice. However, Victor Vandell has done his best to play up his connections to the mayor, having once been a member of his political machine.

Sad, but there have been rumblings for weeks that the outcome of today’s election — growing from campaigns steeped in heavy-handed political machinations — are foregone conclusions. The disenfranchised appear willing to sit out these special elections, asking why bother?

Bad move. Always vote for your choice, even if it appears he or she can’t possibly win. Some of the lesser-known candidates started a chant at community forums that independent-minded D.C. voters should show that their votes “are not for sale.”

“Are we going to [give] a rubber stamp to the mayor, or are we going to get another constituency-focused member on the council to the detriment of economic development in Ward 4?” asked another Ward 4 resident, who also asked not to be identified.

Of the 20 candidates vying for that seat, Ms. Bowser is the only one who supports the mayor’s schools-takeover plans.

Here is a caution: Not since the height of Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry’s empire have D.C. residents witnessed the two political branches of city government so happily wedded under the Fenty-Gray marriage. Those former councils moved in lock step with Hizzoner. They dared not disagree with his agenda. This unhealthy alliance ultimately proved a detriment to the taxpayers, the city’s finances and image and Mr. Barry’s personal life.

“The voters in Wards 4 and 7 have a choice between voting to support the newly established consolidation of the mayor and the city council’s power, or for the expression and will of the residents of the District of Columbia, but not both,” said longtime community activist Lawrence Guyot.

The good news is that so many people want to serve on the council. The bad news is that with so many candidates competing, the victor does not need a majority to win. Based on one political observer’s estimate, a candidate only has to pull 3,500 votes to win in Ward 4 today.

Robert Malson, a Ward 4 resident and Bowser supporter, suggests that the District will have to revise its election process to incorporate runoff elections when it is clear that the number of candidates in a particular race cannot possibly produce a plurality.

“It’s ludicrous to have minority election results and to be deciding on our council members this way,” he said.

This special election also raises another important political issue that strikes at the core of voting rights: the blatant hypocrisy of the mayor and the D.C. Council to encourage D.C. residents to seek a vote in Congress on the one hand while asking Congress to usurp the local voting rights of city residents on the other.

No matter today’s outcome, it is the democratic duty of the city’s leadership, based on the Home Rule Charter, to put the issue of nullifying the elected school board — under the misnomer of school reform — to the voters through a referendum as the charter requires.

Today’s special election presents a chance for the electorate to demonstrate how much they really do care about their precious voting rights.

Today is an important opportunity to send a message to the mayor and the council: Do not mess with our votes on any level or in any arena.

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