Voters have the chance to oust one-third of the D.C. Council in primary elections Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
The political races have placed several city lawmakers on the defensive after a roller-coaster year that featured sweeping ethics reform and a guilty plea from one of their colleagues, watering down the benefits of incumbency as popular sentiment turns against the legislative body. Yet a slate of energetic challengers in key races has been unable to present a united front for partisan voters.
In the District, where nearly 75 percent of registered voters are Democrats, primary elections are often more important than general elections, and the races for local office overshadow the presidential candidates whose names are on the ballots.
Democratic incumbents in three council races — Yvette M. Alexander in Ward 7, Marion Barry in Ward 8 and Vincent B. Orange in an at-large seat — have appeared vulnerable and lost key endorsements, yet their bases of supporters could help them rise above challengers who might split the remaining pool of voters.
“It’s definitely something to be concerned about,” said Tom Brown, a Democrat from Ward 7 who has emerged as Ms. Alexander’s most high-profile competition. “If I didn’t think I was the best candidate, I would definitely have considered supporting someone else.”
Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, will not sweat his bid to become the longest-serving council member of all time. Mr. Evans, who joined the council in 1991, has no opponent in his ward race.
Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, picked up key endorsements and the support of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and holds a financial advantage over Democratic challengers Renee L. Bowser, Calvin Gurley, Baruti Jahi, Judi Jones and Max Skolnik. The two Bowsers are not related.
As chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, Muriel Bowser garnered praise for crafting a comprehensive ethics reform bill before the end of last year, perhaps solidifying her place as Ward 4’s voice on the council.
But for council members in other races, much remains to be decided.
The race for the at-large council seat could go a long way in determining whether a federal investigation into prolific campaign donor Jeffrey E. Thompson is resonating with D.C. voters.
Mr. Thompson, whose network of associates delivered generous sums of money to almost all of the District’s sitting council members, was linked to a federal probe of campaign finances after agents raided his home and offices on March 2.
The timing was especially unfortunate for Mr. Orange, a Democrat who returned to the council last April after a special election to fill the at-large seat left vacant by Kwame R. Brown when he was elected council chairman. Reporters dug into a series of money orders Mr. Orange received last year from Mr. Thompson’s network, prompting the council member to eventually note they seemed “suspicious” and worthy of review.
Mr. Orange was among the largest beneficiaries of Mr. Thompson’s donations and is running a citywide campaign. While Mr. Thompson has not been accused of any wrongdoing, the at-large council race could provide insight into whether residents across the city will use their first trip to the ballot box since the scandal broke to send a message about the perception of pay-to-play politics in city hall.
Mr. Orange, a former council member for Ward 5 who unsuccessfully ran for mayor and council chairman in 2006 and 2010, has gained traction through legislative efforts to gauge the progress of elementary school students and temper the cultivation of medical marijuana in Ward 5. He also made headlines by offering ethics proposals, for which his colleagues provided little support, that would impose term limits and ban outside employment among council members. He unanimously won the endorsement of the Ward 5 Democrats last week.
His challengers in this year’s Democratic primary — Sekou Biddle, E. Gail Anderson Holness and Peter Shapiro — are capitalizing on the Thompson situation while pitching their own selling points.
Mr. Biddle served as an interim council member for three months before losing the seat last April to Mr. Orange.
Mr. Shapiro lives in Chevy Chase and served on the Prince George’s County Council from 1998 to 2004. The experience is a political blessing and curse, as he touts his legislative experience while his opponents label him a carpetbagger.
Mr. Shapiro notes that he has lived in the city for about half his life and sees his nascent foray into D.C. politics as a boon.
“If you want a break from the past, I’m the only one who is a break from the past,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Ms. Holness, a longtime educator, says her network of support is much bigger than anyone realizes.
“I think it’s going to work out in my favor,” Ms. Holness said. “They’ll go after each other, and I’ll just have my base.”
Ms. Holness is also quick to note that her campaign has not taken any corporate donations.
“I’m not going to buy my votes,” she said.
Last year, Mr. Biddle’s support from the likes of Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Kwame R. Brown became a liability when the powerful pair at the time faced scrutiny over ethics issues. This time, Mr. Biddle, a former member of the D.C. State Board of Education who presided over a task force on truancy during his brief stint on the council, has collected key support from The Washington Post’s editorial board and council member David A. Catania, at-large independent.
“Most of my effort really is about making a case for myself,” he said. “I feel like you have to make the sale on your own merits.”
If the at-large race serves as a gauge of voters’ feelings about the campaign-finance scandal, the Ward 7 race could illustrate their feelings about the mayor, whose first term has been hobbled by ethics inquiries.
Ms. Alexander, who replaced Mr. Gray as council member from Ward 7, remains one of the mayor’s most staunch allies on the council. But she has suffered from reports, including several in The Washington Times, that questioned spending from her constituent services fund and the ties between her staff and the corporate interests of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as it prepares to build two stores in her ward.
She is quick to outline the economic growth along Minnesota Avenue and initiatives such as EduCare’s state-of-the-art early-childhood education facility in Parkside.
“These are things that were put in place during my term,” Ms. Alexander said. “And I have to stay to make sure they keep moving forward.”
Ms. Alexander has to contend with four Democratic challengers who have been blunt in their criticism of her as an ineffective council member who does not have a proven track record of accomplishments despite nearly five years of service.
“I hear people calling for a change in the leadership, especially in Ward 7,” said challenger William “Rev. Bill” Bennett II, a Deanwood resident and pastor at Good Success Christian Church.
“I can count on one hand how many times you voted against the mayor,” challenger Kevin B. Chavous, the son of former Ward 7 council member Kevin P. Chavous, told Ms. Alexander at a March 26 debate hosted by the Washington City Paper. “You don’t represent real people. You do whatever’s being told to you.”
Ms. Alexander disagreed.
“People are not stupid in Ward 7,” she said. “They are very astute, politically. We have a plan; we have vision.”
One of her opponents, Tom Brown, has been recognized for his workforce development efforts a key strength in a ward afflicted by soaring unemployment. He also picked up endorsements from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and The Washington Post, a strong showing for a nonincumbent.
The heated campaign reached its zenith last week during a raucous debate at Ray’s the Steaks at East River.
Ms. Alexander fired back at Mr. Chavous’ accusation that she was the mayor’s puppet by mentioning Mr. Chavous’ arrest in December on charges that he solicited a prostitute an incident that resulted in a deferred-prosecution deal in D.C. Superior Court, but also largely eroded Mr. Chavous’ legitimacy as a candidate.
“Yes, I was arrested, everyone in here knows that, and I’ve still been getting support. Why? Because I’m unbroken, and I’m unbowed,” Mr. Chavous said. “I’ve been knocking on doors consistently. I never stopped campaigning, and frankly it doesn’t come up at doors. Because the people in Ward 7 have moved forward and so have I.”
Challenger Dorothy Douglas, a school board member, tried to rise above the din to instill some unity among the candidates.
“We still have to work together, we still have to work together, and we still have to work together,” Ms. Douglas said at Ray’s. “But I’m going to be the one who’s going to win.”
Don Folden Sr., who will be vying with Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten for the Republican nod on Tuesday, crashed the Democrats’ debate and gave a frank assessment of the state of the District. He said Ward 7 residents need to stand up for themselves to get jobs and other benefits so special interests and a cabal of select contractors do not tighten their grip on city hall.
Mr. Moten, a familiar figure at the John A. Wilson Building, was an ally of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty who received public funds to defuse gang disputes. He has emphasized his community work in his council bid and made headlines early in the campaign cycle by switching his party affiliation from Democrat to what he calls “civil rights Republican.”
No matter what anyone says, the battle for Democratic voters in this Southeast ward is a referendum on Mr. Barry, the man synonymous with D.C. politics as a former four-term mayor. Despite a career fraught with legal and ethics problems, he has maintained so much popular support that he is seeking his third successive term on the council.
“I appreciate Mayor Barry for his days as mayor, and he’s an iconic figure for his days as mayor,” challenger Jacque D. Patterson said. But appreciation for the former mayor, he argued, does not extend to Mr. Barry’s terms on the council.
“I think a lot of Marion Barry’s base has dissipated,” he said.
Critics point to Mr. Barry’s thin record of achievements as a council member and suggest a growing sentiment in Ward 8 to move past him. In 2010, a report by lawyer Robert S. Bennett concluded that Mr. Barry violated conflict-of-interest laws when he awarded a contract to his girlfriend and then tried to impede an investigation into the matter. Mr. Barry was censured by his council colleagues and stripped of his committee chairmanship.But the scandal did not seem to hurt his standing in Ward 8, which has embraced him despite a trail of scandals throughout his long political career.
Mr. Patterson and his fellow Democratic challengers, Darrell Gaston, Sandra Seegars and Natalie Williams who formerly served on Mr. Barry’s council staff are counting on Mr. Barry to lose steam in what, win or lose, is widely expected to be his final political race.
The stakes are high in the ward, which suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and is trying to lure tech companies and federal government jobs to the campus around St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Mr. Barry is undaunted, saying his popularity is so great that he can’t even get campaign donations from his constituents.
“They say, ‘You got this; you don’t need any money,’” he said in a recent interview.
Challengers say Mr. Barry’s storied career has reached its denouement, with their own reputations starting to meet or exceed that of the so-called “mayor for life.”
“People know me,” said Mr. Patterson, a former advisory neighborhood commission member who also worked for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “I have longevity here.”