- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Stacks of pizza sat untouched, the salad bowls kept their plastic lids and roughly a dozen red-shirted volunteers sat in a circle Tuesday night, gazing at a lone television in search of pleasant news inside their small campaign office on Florida Avenue Northwest.

The supporters of D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent ousted by city voters on Election Day in favor of energetic challenger David Grosso, took an interest in good Democratic news out of Virginia and then came to life when the networks called the race for President Obama.

“What a blessing,” a supporter said, before stepping outside to cheer a bit and view the revelers who gathered on U Street and the fireworks they set off.

While Mr. Brown’s campaign aides looked for solace Tuesday night, a different kind of party rocked a French restaurant about a mile up Georgia Avenue.

Mr. Grosso, an independent, unseated an elected D.C. legislator for the first time since 2008, after a yearlong campaign that built his status from obscure former council staffer to front-runner. His surge to victory was an exercise in campaign-building and taking advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses, but it also suggested that D.C. voters are beginning to embrace self-described “progressives” over the liberal prototype the city generally has backed for years.

“The people of D.C. have chosen the right path,” Mr. Grosso said Tuesday night in an interview at Chez Billy in Petworth, where his supporters enjoyed beers on tap as the results trickled in. He outlined a to-do list that includes campaign finance and education reform while various supporters interjected to wish him well.

Numerous candidates had tried, and failed, to take advantage of discord among D.C. voters as ethical lapses piled up at the John A. Wilson Building over the past two years. But Mr. Grosso was able to tap into disgust with the status quo at city hall, also evident as voters approved three ballot questions that make it easier to expel elected officials for misconduct and keep them out of office if they commit a felony.

In the end, Mr. Brown was undone by a steady drip of reports about his personal financial issues and even his driving record — not to mention the sudden loss of more than $100,000 that was reported stolen from his campaign fund and lingering quibbles with his attempt to legalize Internet gambling in the District through a budget bill.

“Clearly, I gave my opponents the ammunition related to some of my personal matters,” he told his supporters Tuesday night as car horns blared for Mr. Obama in the background. “And those are issues that I have to deal with, related to winning and losing.”

The results also served as a reminder that the city’s makeup is changing, with the latest census noting the black majority in the District had slipped to barely more than 50 percent, after it peaked at 71 percent in 1970 as tens of thousands of white residents left for the suburbs.

As it so often does in D.C. campaigns, race emerged as an underlying theme in the election. Mr. Grosso, who is white, fared well in Northwest. Mr. Brown, who is black, got more voters in predominantly black wards in the eastern part of the city. But Mr. Grosso garnered heavy margins of victory in the areas that backed him and did well enough in battleground precincts to win.

He was voted onto the council on the same night that citywide voters affirmed another white lawmaker, Phil Mendelson, as the body’s chairman, leaving the 12-member council with five black members.

Some observers believe there is an emerging segment of city voters who, no matter their skin color, are bucking the labor-backed establishment in D.C. politics.

In the months that followed Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s victory over Adrian M. Fenty in the 2010 Democratic primary — tantamount to victory in the District — city residents could be sure that a liberal bloc of lawmakers like Mr. Brown would hold sway. In forums, Mr. Brown emphasized workforce development, affordable housing and his role as a staunch defender of the city’s social safety net.

But council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said there is a new progressive agenda that extends beyond “just dog parks,” exploring everyday concerns like housing along with smart transit options that work for all segments of the city’s population.

“I do think there is an emerging electorate of blacks and whites who identify as progressive Democrats,” Mr. Wells, who endorsed Mr. Grosso, said Wednesday. He said the nascent bloc of voters are distinguished “more by age than race, and Grosso tapped into that.”

Mr. Mendelson’s victory in the special election to serve as chairman through 2014 — completing the term left by Kwame R. Brown, who resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud in June — means he will officially vacate his at-large seat.

City voters will select a person to fill the seat in a special election this spring, and on Tuesday night Mr. Brown said he has not decided whether he will run. Instead, he kept an upbeat posture while thanking his campaign aides individually, shaking their hands and imploring them to hit up the food tables.

“Just take a whole pie,” he said, “don’t take a slice home with you.”

Mr. Mendelson showed up to share a few words with Mr. Brown. About an hour later, the chairman visited Mr. Grosso’s party for the first of many handshakes and photo opportunities.

Mr. Grosso, when asked if he thought his victory marked a pivotal moment in D.C. politics, paused for a second.

“Heck yeah!” he eventually replied. “Don’t you?”

Note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for the last time a challenger unseated an elected D.C. legislator. The error has been corrected.

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