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Sometimes, at least in theory, elections present voters with a true quandary—a bounty of worthwhile choices, in which picking the best of a field of rivals is a hard call, and where the end result seems palatable no matter what.
This fall’s contest in D.C. is not one of those elections.
Up and down the ballot, District voters will find themselves confronted with either no choice or with lousy ones. Which, on first glance, seems odd: One of the great recent mysteries of local politics is why incumbents keep winning handily despite growing frustration over the mounting number of federal investigations and other scandals plaguing the Wilson Building.
But then you remember that most of those scandals involve the way campaigns are funded, and the structural advantages the system hands to the folks already in office, and that mystery doesn’t seem so foggy.
No one could blame District voters lately for feeling like these campaigns never end. There will be a special election for D.C. Council chairman (on a separate ballot) conducted at the same time as the general election on Nov. 6; it’s the third special election the city’s seen in the last 19 months. The first one seemed innocuous enough—it was to replace Kwame Brown in an at-large seat, after he was elected chairman. But the second one replaced Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr. after he pleaded guilty to stealing from the city, and the latest will replace Brown following his own guilty plea to federal mortgage fraud. Sometime next spring, we’ll have another one—to replace Phil Mendelson, who’s all but certain to win the special election to become council chairman and will leave another at-large seat vacant. Could there be other elections for other seats? Perhaps only U.S. Attorney Ron Machen knows.
For now, here are Washington City Paper’s tepid endorsements for 2012. We’ll see you back here in the spring. —Mike Madden
President: Barack Obama
Forget that Guantánamo is still open, or that the stimulus wasn’t big enough, or that there was no public option in the health care reform law: On issues of local interest, District voters might be able to claim that President Barack Obama has disappointed us more than anyone else. With Democrats in charge of Congress, the White House did nothing for more autonomy or federal representation for D.C. Once the GOP took over the House, Obama traded away D.C.’s public funding for abortions for low-income women (which was widely supported here) to prevent a government shutdown. But we’ve got no reason to think Republican Mitt Romney would be any better on that front; based on the GOP platform, we suspect he’d be worse. And for D.C.’s poorest residents, the cuts to Medicaid, federal food aid, school lunches, and other social programs needed to pay for Romney’s tax plans and Pentagon spending would only exacerbate the difficulties of living in an increasingly wealthier city. As residents, the Obamas at least have engaged with the city more than most of their predecessors, frequently visiting our restaurants, inviting kids from D.C. Public Schools to tend the White House garden, and opening a farmers market down the block. Even if he won’t put “Taxation Without Representation” plates on the limo, Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy to have spent most of his life living in cities—which unlike so many national politicians, at least means he doesn’t think of urbanites as an entirely different species.
Delegate to U.S. House: Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor Holmes Norton has held D.C.’s nonvoting seat in the House for 21 years, through good times (when Democrats run the chamber, she gets to vote on some issues in the Committee of the Whole House) to bad (like when Newt Gingrich’s shock troops banned D.C. from even counting the votes on a medicinal marijuana ballot initiative). She’ll get our vote, mostly by default: Libertarian challenger Bruce Majors has signed Grover Norquist’s problematic anti-tax pledge, and the Statehood Green Party’s Natale Stracuzzi hasn’t bothered to update his 2010 MySpace campaign site with his plans for 2012. But in the future, we’d love to see a credible challenger with a real plan to get D.C. more power on Capitol Hill.
D.C. Council At-Large: David Grosso—and any other nonincumbent
The race for the two at-large seats is really just one contest, between independents David Grosso and Michael Brown. Democrat Vincent Orange is a virtual lock to win one seat; the other is reserved for a candidates who isn’t a member of the party that holds a D.C. Council majority, i.e., Democrats. But only Grosso and Brown seem to have enough name identification or campaign infrastructure to really contend. Chances are, both Orange and Brown will win reelection.
Which is too bad. Orange insisted this spring, when his colleagues selected Phil Mendelson as interim chairman, that he was “the best” choice for the job; seeing his sputtering outrage remixed by the Kojo Nnamdi Show was essentially the highest-profile thing he’s done since winning office. Meanwhile, LL reports federal prosecutors are asking questions about Orange’s 2011 campaign. Brown has championed progressive causes, but his own personal problems—failing to pay his mortgage, rent, or taxes on time, getting his driver’s license suspended frequently, working for a law firm that stood to benefit from an Internet gambling system he pushed, the as-yet-unexplained disappearance of $113,950 in his campaign bank account—have actually managed to make the D.C. Council’s ethics problem look even more dire.
A former aide to former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, Grosso has made ethics the centerpiece of his campaign, calling to end the council’s ability to vote on large city contracts and to require more disclosure of donations to D.C. campaigns. He’d expand affordable housing around the city, rather than concentrating it east of the Anacostia River, and he’d seek more promises to help District residents from companies that get tax breaks to move here. Another vote for ethics and sound policy is exactly what the council needs.
D.C. Council Chairman: Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council, Ward 2: Jack Evans
D.C. Council, Ward 4: Muriel Bowser
D.C. Council, Ward 7: None
D.C. Council, Ward 8: None
Remember what we said about “no choice” or “lousy ones?” This is what we mean.
In Ward 2, incumbent Jack Evans ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination in April, and continues that streak this fall. Despite that, he’s managed to find $311,253.14 worth of campaigning to spend his political supporters’ money on this cycle (even if only $4,296.51 of it came in the last few months). In Ward 4, incumbent Muriel Bowser crushed five primary competitors, winning 66 percent of the vote, and faces no challengers next month. She deployed an Evansesque $249,920.85 to get to this point.
Obviously, both will win. And both, clearly, are contemplating a run for mayor; why else spend six figures on races that are aren’t contested? Evans, in 21 years on the council, has helped bring significant developments to the District, especially downtown. But he’s also often appeared too friendly to big corporate interests that don’t really need help from government (an appearance his part-time job at lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs doesn’t alleviate). Bowser is proud of her ethics legislation, which became law this year, but given what some of her colleagues have been up to, it’s hard to avoid thinking it was too little, too late. Both, if they do run for mayor, should be aware of how disgruntled many of their would-be constituents are about the state of D.C. politics these days. Reading an easy win without any opposition as a mandate to continue the status quo would be a mistake.
The same goes for Mendelson, who’s kept a very low profile so far as interim chairman and is all but guaranteed to defeat challenger Calvin Gurley. The city could use some actual leadership from its politicians these days; once Mendelson is elected chairman, he should think about trying to provide some.
Their fellow councilmembers Yvette Alexander and Marion Barry are equally likely to win, though they do have opponents. In Ward 7, Alexander is challenged by Peaceoholics-co-founder-turned-irredentist-Fentyite Ron Moten. In Ward 8, Moten’s Peaceoholics partner Jauhar Abraham is taking on Barry. Neither incumbent’s track record has much to recommend another term, and we endorsed their rivals in the primary. Since then, Alexander’s done little to clear up why she spends so little of her constituent service fund on constituent service, and Barry has practically declared war on Asian businesses in his ward (though he later apologized). Moten and Abraham are passionate about their anti-violence cause. But there have been too many questions (including many raised by City Paper) about Peaceoholic’s use of District grants for D.C. residents to give either of them a vote on the city’s budget. If you live in Ward 7 or Ward 8, try writing yourself in. Certainly you could do as well as the 12 people on the council now.