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LL began typing this on Friday morning in Denver International Airport, still swelling with warm feelings from Sen. Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech the night prior.
“Change we can believe in”? LL believes!
Then he began to ponder the local electoral choices. What’s there to believe in?
Well, change doesn’t quite resonate in the District of Columbia quite the way it does in the heartland.
Whereas the feds have run up astounding deficits, city finances are in relatively fine shape. Whereas the Bush administration has intervened ill-advisedly in the affairs of other countries, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty rarely travels outside city limits. And whereas Capitol Hill lobbying scandals and excesses continue to horrify average Americans, no D.C. politicos have been ensnared in such wrongdoing: Mainly because the city has no voting members of Congress.
The good times in city government set the stage for the all-important Sept. 9 primaries. On the D.C. Council, you have six incumbents seeking to retain their seats, yet only two of those have credible competition.
So is there any change that LL can believe in?
Incumbent Kwame R. Brown has a question that he asks LL just about every time he sees him: “How’m I doin’?”
LL, lately, has been responding thusly: You must be doing something right, seeing as you have deposited several hundreds of thousands of dollars into your campaign account and have no competition on the Democratic ballot.
More specifically, what Brown does right is campaign—long and hard.
No surprise there. He got onto the council with a shoe-leather-fueled, insurgent door-knocking campaign that ended the political career of Harold Brazil four years ago.
And Brown embraces the “continuous campaign” as doggedly as Bill Clinton or Karl Rove. Last Thursday, on the floor of the convention before Obama’s speech, Brown told LL he’d made 79 campaign calls while in Denver. If that number strikes you as unusually precise, that’s because he had a list. He continues to schedule a seemingly endless number of fundraisers and employs an energetic staff to help him avoid the slip-ups that have befallen incumbents going back to Jim Nathanson.
If only Brown poured half as much effort into legislating.
The hollowness of his dais achievements come through in Brown’s boasts. He likes to talk up his “compliance piece,” a law he pushed through earlier this year against Fenty’s wishes that would step up enforcement of various District laws, primarily local contracting standards. Brown talks about it like it was a landmark in municipal progress. Progress, yes—for the select vendors-cum-cronies who feed off of the city’s LSDBE contracting gravy train.
Brown’s other signature achievement is the reopening of a beautifully rehabbed Phelps Vocational High School in Ward 5. That’s something Brown can truly be proud of, and he talks up vocational education at every opportunity. But for the chair of the powerful economic development committee, that’s thin gruel, indeed.
Hey, Kwame—been over to Good Hope Road SE lately?
Brown’s politics come straight out of the Marion Barry playbook—the good part of the Barry playbook, mind you, but still—building a political base by tending to bread-and-butter jobs concerns. What’s fallen by the wayside, amid his constant campaigning and hamhanded attempts to forge on-the-dais compromises, is effective oversight over the mayoral economic development office. And here’s some free political advice from LL: That’s a winning issue with folks from Tenleytown to Hillcrest who are upset over mayoral decisions on city development projects.
In any case, he’s better than Brazil, whom he now counts as a supporter. Connect the arrow for Kwame, but hear this, councilmember: You could be doing better.
First off, LL believes strongly that the non-Democratic set-aside for the two council at-large seats is despicable and undemocratic. See this week’s cover story for more on that.
But he is willing to set that point aside for the GOP primary, where for the first time since her 1994 mayoral challenge to Barry, incumbent Carol Schwartz is facing a real race. Given the circumstances, a different four-term veteran might have called in years’ worth of favors, raised a huge war chest, and put down the insurrection a la Prague 1968. Not Carol: she’s doing it the way she’s always done it—late (she refused to declare before June) and annoyed she has to do it at all.
Meanwhile, young Patrick Mara, a 33-year-old lobbyist and Columbia Heights resident, has been running a classic Fenty-style campaign, knocking on thousands of Republican doors and sending mailers to GOP voters thanks to cash from business folks pissed at Carol for her mandatory sick-leave bill. Tens of thousands in independent expenditures have been spent on additional mailers attacking Schwartz.
All told, this is certainly the most expensive Republican race in District history.
Understand that big biz backing hasn’t meant a whole lot in recent years. In 2006, biz darlings Scott Bolden and Linda Cropp both got absolutely smoked by competition that was either unknown to the biz types (Fenty) or utterly loathed by the biz types (Phil Mendelson). But those races weren’t solely focused on the small group of relatively wealthy, tax-hatin’ Republicans.
LL has no stomach whatsoever about the whining he hears from old-line Carol supporters, members of the D.C. Republican Committee primary among them, that Mara’s deep in “special interest” money.
Jesus Christ, people, you’re Republicans! You’re supposed to suck up all the business money!
Mara is a bright, well-meaning guy whom LL would like to see stick around regardless of what happens. But he can’t endorse a guy who, in an interview with WTOP’s Mark Segraves and Mark Plotkin earlier this year, showed a weak grasp of some basic District issues—not knowing the District’s minimum wage, the name of the fire chief, or how judicial selections work. And Mara simply won’t measure up to Schwartz’s dais theatrics—a key issue for weekly local-politics columnists. Now Schwartz may not break too many scandals from the dais, but woe to the department head caught in her vise—ask Chief Technology Office Vivek Kundra, who last month got a rare mid-summer beating, deserved or not, from Schwartz about a contracting controversy.
If LL were a Republican, perhaps he would be more susceptible to Mara’s tax-cutting, pro-biz message. But he’s not: Vote Carol, red team.
Ward 2 Democrat
“You have 75,000 residents, and you hear from the same 100 over and over again,” said incumbent Jack Evans during an July council picnic, “and then they don’t even vote for you anyway!”
One could read a comment from a political candidate like that two ways: The ramblings of a cynic who has overstayed his welcome or the insight of a pragmatist steeped in the realities of ward politicking.
Either way, there’s a reason that only two councilmembers, Evans and John A. Wilson, have served Ward 2 since home rule. It’s been typically immune to fits of neighborhood pique, moderated by its heavy population of seniors and professionals, and the loads of downtown money that come an incumbent’s way.
This year, though, neighborhood pique is responsible for Evans’ surprisingly strong challenge from Cary Silverman, a lawyer and Mount Vernon Square neighborhood activist. In an unsurprising feint, Silverman is pressing Evans on his focus on citywide issues to the detriment of home-ward concerns—Evans, of course, being Mr. Nationals Park—as well as his $250,000-a-year side job at the Patton Boggs law firm.
First off, LL is not a sucker for this full-time councilmember baloney. Such charges play well at candidate forums, but there are great councilmembers who have side jobs and lousy ones who don’t. LL sees the charges of inattention to constituent services as nothing beyond the usual grumblings encountered by an incumbent.
The real issue with Evans is whether he uses his council job at Patton Boggs to drum up city business. It’s a valid question, and one that could be easily answered if: a) the District’s disclosure laws were stronger; or b) Evans volunteered the information. The fact remains that Evans maintains no such conflicts exist, and Silverman offers no example of malfeasance beyond the unsavory enough connections behind the West End Library deal.
Over the years, from challenger after challenger, Evans has faced pretty much the same line of attack—that he’s a toady for the developers who’ve built the Verizon Center, the convention center, and the baseball stadium, not to mention various hotels and other projects.
Again, it’s a fine set of talking points. But whoever lands in the Ward 2 slot is going to have a built-in relationship with real estate moguls, and geography explains why. Ward 2 spans downtown plus the lion’s share of the city’s hip and close-in neighborhoods. It’s a place where upscale development is going to happen even if Karl Marx is sitting on the dais.
Silverman claims he’s going to represent the neighborhoods of Ward 2 more effectively than the incumbent. Well, LL has taken a look around and decided that those neighborhoods are doing pretty well under the current regime. Yes, there are plenty of crime problems and social divisions in this gentrified land.
But hey, Silverman has been a community politician for eight years. What has he done about this stuff? His signature neighborhood achievements are tending to your workaday NIMBY concerns—closing a porn shop, most memorably.
The other knock against Silverman is that he’s in the wrong primary. He has spent his professional career lobbying for some of the most unsavory corporate interests around, a record that meshes nicely with the Republican platform. To counteract his past, he has promised to quit his lobbying job and has told LL he has no plans to press tort reform or pro-pharma bills in the District.
As Evans and Silverman trade barbs on the campaign trail, a bigger force—Mayor Fenty—is at play in this election. Though Evans scoffed at Fenty’s light weight in his council years, he now embraces the mayor to the point that he’s become Hizzoner’s most reliable council defender. Evans has described his conversion as an honest one, having been convinced of Fenty’s depth of commitment; of course, there is no political downside to getting in good with the District’s chief executive. Fenty has thrown his considerable weight behind Evans’ quest for another term.
Fenty could learn a thing or two from Evans, who knows to show up in front of unfriendly crowds, answer tough questions without resorting to inane talking points, and somehow manage not to piss off people for no good reason.
Connect the arrow for Evans, who has earned four more years.
Ward 4 Democrat
Incumbent Muriel Bowser, elected 16 months ago in a special election, still labors in the Fenty shadow, with her political fortunes still tied to her patronage from her predecessor in the Ward 4 council seat and his political team.
Indeed, she’s been doing it the Fenty way, putting an extreme premium on constituent services to the detriment of legislative heft. Then again, 16 months with no council committee isn’t a huge amount of time to develop legislative heft. And, when challenged on the lapdog issue, Bowser’s become adept at throwing out a litany of items she’s broken with Fenty on—none of them dramatic.
Bowser’s competition offers no improvement.
Baruti Jahi, a past president of the Shepherd Park civic association, is a nice guy with decent neighborhood credentials, but he’s never been able to explain to LL’s satisfaction why he’s running. Crime’s been a concern of late in Ward 4; Jahi is running against a mayorally supported incumbent who has raised nearly $400,000 on the big idea of—wait for it—centralized orange-hat patrols.
Malik F. Mendenhall-Johnson, 30, has a better-than-average grasp of the issues, but, like Jahi, doesn’t offer any significant change from Bowser. And Paul E. Montague is famously bonkers, having been recalled from a Brightwood ANC seat in 2004 for disruptive antics.
Give Bowser a full four years.
Ward 7 Democrat
Like Bowser, Yvette M. Alexander has been operating under the shadow of a political patron—Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray—but she doesn’t take nearly as much criticism.
Perhaps she should. Asked by LL to name occasions on which she’s broken from Gray, she could name only the confirmation of Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso—which she voted against with a clearly skeptical Gray voting to confirm. Still, in her first 16 months, Alexander’s become more confident on the dais, and has thrown herself into her work as a junior committee member, taking a special interest in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services department.
If re-elected, it will be telling which committee Gray will leave to Alexander—whether it will be something hefty enough to build a legislative reputation on. In comments to LL, the former insurance regulator expressed interest in possibly taking the health-care financing portion away from David A. Catania’s health committee.
Alexander’s most serious challenge comes from a former supporter, Robin Hammond Marlin. On her campaign materials, Marlin refers repeatedly to her “loyalty that will not wane,” which does nothing to knock down rumors that she’s running because Alexander didn’t hire her for her council staff.
Her declared reasons for challenging Alexander include not consulting the community and moving too slowly on rec centers and the forever-delayed redevelopment of Skyland shopping center—yet another iteration of typical neighborhood grumbling.
Marlin, however, is more than a sight better than ANC member Villareal “VJ” Johnson, who wins this year’s Dwight E. Singleton Memorial Award for contentless campaigning. Johnson loves slogans: “Building Bridges, Connecting People” is his favorite, which he has plastered on water bottles and palm cards.
But when it comes down to what he’ll actually do in office, first up is a series of neighborhood meetings to determine “community priorities.” Here’s a hint for Johnson: Next time you run for office, figure out why you’re running first.
Barber John Campbell is a genuinely warm, well-meaning man, a small business owner in Deanwood, but that isn’t sufficient reason to oust an improving incumbent.
Connect the arrow for Yvette—she deserves a full term.
Ward 8 Democrat
The pool of candidates challenging incumbent Marion S. Barry Jr. is wide but shallow. Barely moist, in fact.
LL knew he was in for a tough decision when, during a Gertrude Stein Democratic Club meeting earlier this summer, two of the assembled candidates said they had pursued their challenges with the blessing of the mayor-for-life himself.
Barry’s most familiar challenger is Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, the Congress Heights rabble-rouser and former taxicab commissioner who has challenged for the Ward 8 seat twice before. She’s better financed for this run than others, thanks to the support of liquor-store owners who want her to overturn a single-sales ban pushed this year by Barry.
When S.S. is the best opposition candidate around, it’s fair to say there’s a leadership vacuum in Ward 8. Seegars didn’t help matters by knocking a pair of candidates off the Democratic ballot, including Anacostia development consultant Yavocka Young.
Also running are 22-year-old Howard Brown, a gifted public speaker who wants to “create an environment that produces a 100 percent graduation rate,” whatever that’s worth, and ANC member Ahmad Braxton-Jones has a record of outreach to troubled youth in the Woodland Terrace housing projects, but he can’t even figure out his own name. The ballot will read simply “Braxton-Jones” and his campaign materials urge folks to “VOTE BRAXTON.”
Given the lack of experience among the field, LL is almost tempted to endorse Barry in this one, if not for the parade of former LLs who’d drum him out of the reportorial profession. Well, there’s that, and Barry’s history of health problems, perpetual tardiness, constant flip-flops, and enduring cronyism.
LL’s pick is Charles E. Wilson. The 32-year-old management consultant and Anacostia resident doesn’t have a whole lot of governing bona fides aside from helping his neighbors rake in D.C. government money to fix their homes, but he’s shown a decent grasp of the issues and a willingness to forgo the usual Ward 8 pandering game. Which means he doesn’t have a chance in hell.
Democratic Shadow Senator
Is there anyone in town—federal officials included—who enjoys the trappings of public office more than Paul Strauss, shadow senator since 1996?
As LL reported last week, Strauss showed up in Denver with seven aides. (Fellow shadow Michael D. Brown had one; Eleanor Holmes Norton had five.) At least two of Strauss’s people, LL later noticed, sported Secret Service-style earpieces and wrist mics as they escorted Strauss around Denver, while meeting various party honchos and celebs.
LL’s view on essentially powerless offices goes this: Anyone who wants it too much is not to be trusted. And Strauss wants it bad, plastering the city with signs and politicking constantly.
But “Hollywood” Paul gets credit where credit is due, attracting a B-plus-list celeb (Hayden Panettiere), plus a couple of D-listers, David Keith and Melissa Fitzgerald, to a luncheon on voting rights in Denver last week—exactly the kind of stunt we expect out of the shadow delegation.
And drama prevailed early in this race, when D.C. Vote outreach director Eugene Dewitt Kinlow picked up petitions to challenge Strauss, only to reconsider within days after his employer told him he couldn’t both run for partisan office and collect a paycheck from the nonprofit.
Too bad—Kinlow would have been a fine choice.
Thus Strauss’ competition is Philip Pannell, the ubiquitous Anacostia activist who jumped in after Kinlow dropped out. Pannell manages to get all kinds of attention on a shoestring, but LL can’t in good conscience recommend a Pannell candidacy, given his record of quitting in a huff every organization he’s ever joined.
If, like LL, you’re a pragmatist who believes that a write-in vote is a thrown-away vote, vote Strauss. If not, write in Kinlow.
Democratic Shadow Representative
This is LL’s easiest pick of year, and not only because incumbent Mike Panetta was the only one who gathered enough petitions to get on the ballot.
Panetta has done a yeoman’s job in the unpaid shadow rep job, organizing the D.C. Olympic Team and raising a little bit of cash for the voting-rights cause. Panetta has also done more than any other local voting-rights activist to connect with the online netroots crowd.
Connect the arrow with confidence for Panetta.
Nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was rated among Roll Call’s 20 most powerful and influential members of Congress this year, and LL has no reason to question this well-considered ranking. In the past two years, Norton has done her typically fine job of keeping congressional hands out of the District’s hair, while keeping the flow of federal dollars coming, in particular for the Tuition Assistance Grant program.
Two more years for Eleanor.
Democratic Party Races
Democratic voters have their choice of three similarly named slates: the Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain slate, the Obama for D.C. slate, and the Obama for Change slate.
With names like those, the D.C. Democratic State Committee is unlikely to see a reprise of 2004, when a slate deemed “Running against Bush” unseated bunches of longtime members, including incumbent chair Bolden. Since then, the DCDSC has retained its long-established irrelevance, and poor financial stewardship of late has not helped.
The CW is that the Obama4Unity slate is the “reform” ticket, up against the old liners who have split themselves among the other two slates. The actual wisdom is that the picture is much messier than that, with plenty of old timers in the supposed reform camp.
Still, if slates are to be any guide when selecting your state committee members, go with Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain. Current chair Anita Bonds, running under Obama for Change, has shown extraordinary patience in dealing with LL’s nosy questions over the past year, but someone else—perhaps current vice chair and Obama4Unity honcho Jeffrey Richardson—needs a shot bringing the organization into line.
Things are slightly different when it comes to the two elected Democratic National Committee seats. For the female spot, Obama4Unity is running Miriam Sapiro, a top Obama fundraiser who has been a carpetbagger of sorts, getting involved in local affairs only recently due to Obama’s candidacy. LL says give the nod to Ward 4 Dems chair and Pepco exec Deborah M. Royster.
The real fun is in the national committeeman race, where two of the great characters in local politics are in a showdown: incumbent and former council Chair Arrington Dixon, running on the Obama4Unity slate, and former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., on the Obama for Change slate.
Though he has yet to figure out how Orange can justify wearing his trademark “5” pin in his new post, LL would relish an opportunity to keep V.O. in the mix. Vote Orange.