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On Oct. 6, the Washington Post editorial page made some bold declarations:

In its lead editorial assessing the previous evening’s vice-presidential debate, it characterized Vice President Dick Cheney as “cutting” and Democratic hopeful Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as “solid.”

In the second spot, the Post questioned U.S. military arrests of soldiers who have been suspected of spying. “[T]he Guantanamo cases suggest that more oversight is necessary,” opined the unsigned editorial.

And on the local front, in the third editorial, the Post made the stunning conclusion that D.C. still has an elected Board of Education—despite the newspaper’s vigorous support for a mayoral takeover of the school system. And two of the elected seats on the board are up for grabs on Nov. 2! “Voters have the task of becoming acquainted with four candidates for the vacant seat: Eleanor Johnson, Keenan Keller, Christopher McKeon and Jeff Smith,” wrote the newspaper about the race for the District 1 seat, which represents Wards 1 and 2 on the school board.

D.C.’s newspaper of record decided to wait in helping voters with that task, though. The editorial offered no information about the candidates beyond their names: “We also look forward to becoming better acquainted with the candidates in the days ahead and will offer further thoughts,” the newspaper concluded.

Whew. What a cliffhanger!

Actually, the Oct. 6 editorial seems in character with the Post’s recent status-quo approach to weighing in on local elections. In the Democratic primary, the Post decided to endorse three council incumbents in contested races with such definitive statements as this one, supporting Ward 7’s Kevin P. Chavous: “Mr. Chavous has been taking knocks for the quality of his constituent service. We have no opinion about that.”

Daring!

In District 1, however, the Post doesn’t have an incumbent to rubber-stamp: Current rep Julie Mikuta dropped out of the race after wavering for months about serving another term. Mikuta ended up collecting the signatures needed to get on the ballot, but a few weeks after the deadline, she started telling board colleagues that she would not go through with the election.

Mikuta’s October surprise has energized the school-board race.

But two of the board hopefuls haven’t benefited too much from the leadership vacuum. Former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Johnson has been dogged by controversy. Adams Morgan bar owner Bill Duggan in 2002 complained that Johnson hit up local businesses for money, to support a fellow commissioner whose nude-model drawing classes had fallen on hard times.

When LL called Johnson to ask why she was running for the school board, Johnson repeated to LL that she was running and promised to get back to LL with reasons. LL has yet to hear back.

A father of two children at H.D. Cooke Elementary, McKeon put his hat in the ring for obvious reasons: As a parent, he’s frustrated with the school system and its board. He says it boils down to bad management and poor oversight. “For decades, we’ve endured board members whose actions prove our children are not their real priority,” comments McKeon. “And why would they be, when a majority of current board members have no children of their own in D.C.’s public schools?” The self-described “entrepreneur, business owner, engineer, commercial fisherman, journalist, and former missionary” has valuable experience as a parent, but little experience working with the bureaucracy.

So the race comes down to Smith and Keller. Smith, a Howard University–trained lawyer and former teacher in the D.C. public schools, has been campaigning for months now with the slogan “Children over politics.” “He’s the only one who’s taught in D.C.,” says Wards 5 and 6 board rep Tommy Wells, who says he supports Smith. “Some of our board members seem to have declared war on our public-school teachers.”

Smith has a broad outline of reform: He applies the broken-window theory to D.C. public schools. “If no one cares about the facility in which these children are to learn, the natural inference…is that no one cares about the children who are to learn there,” writes Smith on his campaign Web site. He talks about lowering dropout rates and increasing teacher-retention rates.

The system couldn’t retain Smith: He taught in D.C. schools for less than a year.

According to Wilson Building sources, Smith’s candidacy has attracted the support of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. The councilmember tells LL he hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race. Asked about the candidates, Graham says Smith “came to me in January [for support]” and Keller “has a great deal to recommend him.”

Keller doesn’t take that as a recommendation. “Jim has been resistant to having conversations about the needs of schools themselves,” says Keller. “Jim wants to have political conversations about this race. If you look at Jim’s record on the council, he doesn’t focus on education issues. He hasn’t shown leadership in that area.”

Keller says he has the broad experience necessary for the board: He is senior counsel to the U.S. House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee; serves on several boards, including the National Child Research Center’s and the Metropolitan Police Department’s Police Standards and Training Board; and has a child at Bancroft Elementary School, where he serves on the local school-restructuring team.

Keller has specific agenda items: He proposes a school-district-wide curriculum and comprehensive facilities plan, as well as common-sense local-schools funding and special-education reforms.

He’s also had some experience in local politics. Last year, the Democratic party activist ran against A. Scott Bolden to chair the Democratic State Committee. He lost by a landslide. Keller says he ran against the party’s hidebound leadership. “Somebody had to take the first step forward toward rebuilding the party,” he says.

As the Post concluded, voters in Wards 3 and 4 have a race as well, which features incumbent Dwight E. Singleton, as well as Victor Reinoso, Laura McGiffert Slover, Tom Dawson, David A. Jordan, Hugh Allen, and Mai Abdul Rahman.

LL looks forward to becoming better acquainted with the candidates in the days ahead and will offer further thoughts.

Pinned Down

In the period of glasnost, visitors from the Soviet Union often presented lapel pins as gifts to foreign hosts.

Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. believes that Communist tradition isn’t worthy of a capitalist powerhouse like the District of Columbia. Agent Orange, champion of such Mom-and-Pop-shuttering big-box retailers as Home Depot and Costco, has racked up quite a few frequent-flyer miles of his own while accompanying wanderlusting Mayor Anthony A. Williams on jaunts last year to Brussels, last month to Paris, and this week to China.

At the Paris auto show, Orange says, he and Williams handed out U.S./D.C.-flag lapel pins while delegations from New York and Detroit had more lavish giveaways for the European car connoisseurs.

Mon dieu! Were the French not lining up for the councilmember’s kitschy freebies?

Given Ward 5’s important role in international affairs and diplomacy, Orange decided that he needed to correct this foreign-policy embarrassment: He has introduced a bill to increase the ceremonial budget of the mayor and council from $25,000 to $100,000 annually. The legislation would allow the mayor and councilmembers to solicit contributions for gifts and other junket expenses from private sources, as well. “We have now become the butt of jokes,” explained Orange when the bill came up for a vote last week. “When I was on the delegation to Brussels, they kinda laughed and said, ‘When we come to your country, you guys want to take us to dinner, but dinner means dropping us off at the front door of the restaurant.’”

Perhaps, instead, they were laughing at the councilmember’s pronunciation of moules et frites?

Orange received the blessing of his Committee on Government Operations by a 2-to-1 vote. Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, who often opts for Martha’s Vineyard as her destination of choice beyond Military Road NW, voted against the bill, because neither the mayor nor the council had submitted expenditure reports for the current allotment of money, and the council hadn’t budgeted for an increase. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz voted for the bill after offering an amendment to lower the cap on the ceremonial fund to $50,000, which would still double the current gift slush fund.

When the bill came before the full council, though, Orange moved an amendment to raise it back up to $100,000.

“I feel very much like a bait-and-switch went on here,” said Schwartz on the dais.

Orange reminded the council’s fashionista that she’s benefited from international hospitality. “She was on the delegation to Taiwan,” Orange told his colleagues. “She knows she was treated like a queen.”

The council approved the bill on first reading, 8 to 5, with Queen Carol voting no.

Orange Alert

In addition to his diplomatic mission to China, Agent Orange has been spotted all over town—at town-hall forums, meetings, and house parties—quite far from his sphere of influence around South Dakota Avenue NE.

What is the councilmember possibly up to?

Is he scouting out more sites for Home Depot?

Actually, he’s running for mayor.

Officially, right now, he’s exploring a run for mayor in 2006. On Saturday, Oct. 9, Orange held a mayoral exploratory committee meeting at Kelly’s Ellis Island Restaurant & Pub in Brookland. The ambitious legislator reports to LL that about 150 people attended, slamming the Ellis Island kitchen, which served up scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage to attendees.

“He packed Ellis Island,” says Ward 8 politico Jacque Patterson, who attended the meeting.

It was wall-to-wall with the usual suspects of Ward 5 politics, including former Orange campaign manager Pierpont Mobley, former Ward 5 Dems Chair (and current Vice Chair) Frank Wilds, and current Ward 5 Dems Chair Anita Bonds, who works for Mayor Williams as head of his Office of Constituent Affairs.

Orange says he’s collected $80,000 for the exploratory effort so far and has $200,000 in commitments. “The theme and the foundation I’m testing is protection, education, and prosperity,” says Orange. He says over the next six months or so, he’ll see how these innovative themes of improved public safety, schools, and economic development resonate with D.C. residents and then he’ll make up his mind whether or not to run.

“To me, it sounds like he’s definitely going to run,” comments Patterson.

In his exploring and soul-searching, Orange also mused on his potential rivals for chief executive. “I don’t think there’s been any economic development in Ward 4,” Orange tells LL. “I’m rather surprised that the leadership of Ward 4 did not keep the mayor’s feet to the fire…in terms of economic development of Georgia Avenue.”

Hmmm…what Ward 4 “leadership” could Orange possibly be referring to? Well, just ask anyone who watches the TV news: Ward 4 Councilmember and media sensation Adrian M. Fenty.

Fenty tells LL, however, that he’s not running for mayor at this time. “All I can tell you is right now I’m running for re-election on Nov. 2,” says Fenty. Fenty adds that his ward has seen a bunch of new housing developments and small-business openings since he came into office four years ago. “The residents of Ward 4 are not as focused on the big-box retail as much as family-based type of retail—sit-down cafes, restaurants, etc.,” he responds. —Elissa Silverman

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