- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

Candidates vying for party nominations and an eventual spot on the D.C. Council say most city voters are familiar with the dark cloud that has gathered over city hall amid a series of ethics-related scandals, even if they can’t explain what “bundling” is or why money orders are suddenly a key part of campaign-finance reform.

But a large number of those voters might not realize a primary election is scheduled for Tuesday.

Despite the colorful spectrum of campaign signs that lines city streets, this year marks the first time the District is holding partisan primary elections in April instead of September. The change allowed the District to comply with federal law’s mandates on collecting absentee votes in time for the presidential election in November. It also coincides with primary elections in Maryland and Wisconsin and saves money by combining the presidential and local races into one day at the polls.

But the shortened campaign season is a break from routine, both for candidates scrambling to garner name recognition and for voters who are used to mulling their options through the summer.

“A lot of residents are caught off guard,” said Jacque D. Patterson, a Democratic challenger hoping to unseat D.C. political legend Marion Barry in Ward 8. Although residents are starting to get the message, he said, “I still think turnout will be low.”

The last presidential-year primary election, held in September in 2008, generated a turnout of just under 13 percent of registered voters. Challengers in this year’s race for council seats from Wards 4, 7 and 8, plus an at-large seat, say a low turnout could work in their favor. By avoiding a barrage of support for entrenched and well-connected incumbents, they think a strong get-out-the-vote campaign could swing percentages in their favor.

Incumbent Yvette M. Alexander, who faces four Democratic challengers in Ward 7, said a series of candidates’ forums and press about the date change has “brought a lot of attention and excitement” that could actually drive up turnout.

“I think it’s good I’ve had competition, because it’s made people wake up,” she said.

Some voters have already cast their ballots, with more than 6,051 residents availing themselves of early voting at eight D.C. Board of Elections voting stations through Saturday.

Ms. Alexander joins fellow Democrats Jack Evans from Ward 2, Muriel Bowser from Ward 4, Mr. Barry of Ward 8, and at-large member Vincent B. Orange as candidates who can rely on the benefits of incumbency, notably name recognition and financial support. But they also contend with a negative connotation that has been assigned to the overall council, after a string of ethical lapses overshadowed the body’s work in December and prompted comprehensive ethics legislation by year’s end.

Clarus Research Group released a poll in December that said 55 percent of respondents disapproved of the council’s performance, compared with 30 percent who approved and 16 percent who had no opinion.

“Public sentiment has flipped from clearly positive to decidedly negative,” pollsters concluded.

Much of the investigative hubbub concerned campaign activities in 2010 and 2008 by Vincent C. Gray and Kwame R. Brown, now mayor and council chairman, respectively, and the theft of public funds by then-council member Harry Thomas Jr. that had been earmarked for youth programs. Yet a series of lesser transgressions around city hall and a March 2 raid on the offices of longtime political donor Jeffrey E. Thompson shrouded much of the council in a negative light.

Federal investigators appear to be looking at a number of contributions that were “bundled” by Mr. Thompson from his network of donors, including money orders that are difficult to connect to their source.

“This is a great year not to be an incumbent or not a former incumbent,” at-large candidate Peter Shapiro said, a reference to his opponent, Mr. Orange, the incumbent council member, and to another challenger, Sekou Biddle, who served on the council in an interim capacity for about three months last year. “I don’t think I run into anybody who isn’t aware that the council is sitting under an ethical cloud.”

Of course, each of the candidates is striking a positive tone as the hours tick down to Election Day, and taking pride in their own niche of support.

Candidates like Ms. Alexander say they have served with “utmost integrity” and must continue their vision for the city, while challengers view 2012 as their year.

“I don’t have an exact sense,” said Tom Brown, a Democrat vying for Ms. Alexander’s seat, “but I have had a number of people stop us in the street, and they made it very clear they support us.”

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