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The 2006 campaign season began early, way back on Jan. 8, 2005, when then Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty formally kicked off the exploratory phase of his mayoral bid. On May 1, 843 days later, a special election for two councilmembers, including Fenty’s replacement, will finally bring this endless campaign season to an end.
Thirty-six candidates are vying to fill the empty Ward 4 and Ward 7 seats, and the gigantic fields don’t necessarily mean an oversupply of strong contenders. The luster on the candidates in both races comes from those who support them rather than impeccable grooming, qualifications, or long lists of accomplishments. In an attempt to bring this 28-month slog to a graceful close, LL offers his choices for Tuesday’s vote.
Ward 4: Most observers believe the contest comes down to two well-funded candidates who, if victorious, would carry ample baggage into the John A. Wilson Building. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Muriel Bowser and lobbyist Michael Brown have piled up record amounts of cash in their campaign coffers for the special election.
Both presumed front-runners collected boatloads of money from interests outside of the ward. If either candidate prevails, the big-money donors who helped push the combined war chests of the two candidates above $500,000 will come calling.
Brown has won the backing of D.C. political operatives and influence seekers who are not wowed by the youthful Fenty crowd. He’s getting support from old pals of his father, the late Ronald Brown, Chamber of Commerce types, and supporters of Linda Cropp who remain bitter about the stomping she took last September. The candidate is a skilled storyteller with a great personal presence—qualities sorely lacking on the D.C. political scene. But his path to the council is strewn with far too many disgruntled supporters.
Brown has an unsavory political history. He pleaded guilty to a federal campaign-law violation back in 1997. Former campaign workers say he short-armed them when it came time to pay up and part ways. Brown denies those charges. As boxing commissioner, Brown’s most high-profile accomplishment was bringing a fading Mike Tyson to town.
Like Tyson, Brown promises a lot more than he can deliver.
Many Fenty supporters are fond of pointing out that their guy was elected without owing anyone anything. He was ballyhooed as a populist who won every city precinct.
The opposite would be true for Bowser.
She has been showered with checks from those eager to win favor with a new and popular mayor. By putting out the word to well-heeled donors that a contribution to Bowser is a vote of confidence in the mayor, the Fenty arm-twisters have soiled his reputation as a guy who refused to worship at the altar of the city’s money-power nexus. That refreshing, short-lived fantasy is over.
Bowser will have about $175,000 to spend on her get-out-the-vote efforts in the final week of the campaign. (Brown will have to make do with a comparatively paltry $12,288.)
The embarrassment of riches doesn’t mean Bowser is a shallow candidate. Bowser is engaging, tough, and smart and has some government experience. She worked as an assistant director in one of Montgomery County’s government outreach centers. But her claim to be the energetic heir to the Fenty “constituents first” pledge has been greatly exaggerated by a well-oiled image machine. If elected, Bowser would owe nearly every ounce of her political success to the mayor. She might be capable of saying no to the fat cats who bankrolled her campaign. But when the donors report to the mayor or his henchmen that the underling is uncooperative, she may find her political patron isn’t so easy to brush off.
Voters should be wary of such an arrangement.
A better choice for Ward 4 is consultant Charles Gaither, a lifelong resident of the ward. Sure, Gaither carries the stain of being a one-time executive director of the practically worthless D.C. Democratic State Committee (see below).
But he matches the energy, passion, and single-mindedness of Bowser without sharing the big-money complications or a feudal relationship with the mayor. He’s also an honest man with a long record of service in the ward who is unlikely to be corrupted by the big-money politics that have come to characterize the operation of the D.C. government as of late.
Ward 7: In the race to replace Council Chairman Vincent Gray in Ward 7, voters face a choice similar to their Ward 4 neighbors. The contest appears to come down to hard-driving newcomer and Fenty imitator Victor Vandell and longtime political activist Yvette Alexander, who has Gray’s backing.
The chairman has invested a lot of political capital in Alexander. Her weightiest credentials involve membership in lots of Democratic Party organizations and her activities with various community groups. LL has a hard time ignoring Alexander’s charm and her ability to reach out to people. She would be a compassionate addition to the council. But a winning personality and great smile aren’t enough to get the job done for one of the city’s neediest wards.
If Ward 7 residents want a continuation of Gray’s short run as the Ward 7 representative, they will get it with Alexander. It is impossible to imagine her making a big decision without his guidance.
Vandell can’t shake the rap that he’s a relative newcomer to the ward and a creation of the Fenty machine.
Both criticisms are on target. Vandell moved to Deanwood about two years ago when he was a mild-mannered Ph.D. recruited to help set up D.C. Department of Health laboratories. He was a virtual unknown in the community before he volunteered as Fenty’s Ward 7 coordinator during the mayoral race. His name was unfamiliar to longtime residents before he tacked up Fenty-like green and white billboards on what seemed like every available space in the ward. Vandell was lucky enough to secure the backing of the Fenty-loving Washington Post, and he convinced some of the same folks who helped finance the mayor’s run to get behind him—including many developers.
But Vandell’s attempts to come off as a carbon copy of the mayor overshadow his upside. How he can claim to be anything but a blind follower of Fenty is a mystery. Besides, he looks even stranger in his film noir hat and long coat than his mentor does.
With the council soon assuming a key role in the effort to remake the D.C. Public Schools, education activist Iris Toyer seems the better choice for Ward 7. Toyer heads up the Washington Lawyers Committee’s D.C. Public School Partnership Program and is a founding member of Parents United for the D.C. Schools. With improving the schools at the top of the council agenda, no one in the field is better equipped to handle the serious challenges the body will face when the mayor finds out just how tough advancing student achievement will be. And Toyer will not owe her seat to big-time developers, the mayor, or the council chairman.
Democrats’ Checkbook Dwindles
For years now, the D.C. Democratic State Committee (DSC) has made a mockery of its position as the leading party organization in the city. The group’s marathon monthly meetings seldom accomplish anything, and in a town dominated by Democrats, it serves mainly as a forum for bickering about party rules and meaningless resolutions.
Now add financial disaster to the long list of DSC failures.
“I looked at our two bank accounts and found we have a balance of $327,” says DSC Treasurer Lenwood Johnson. The organization has an outstanding debt of $30,000 to the Hyatt hotel chain. The red ink piled up when the group made a reservation in January 2006 to hold its big Kennedy-King Dinner fundraiser and then bailed. “They booked the room a couple of times and then canceled,” says Johnson. “The hotel has threatened to take us to court.”
Back in November 2006, Johnson reports that the group had about $15,000 in the bank. But that was frittered away paying a former executive director and securing a new downtown office. The group is subletting office space from the National Council on Teacher Quality for $1,500 per month. The operation also sucks in another $300 a month on incidentals like copiers, paper, and phones. “When we had money, we’d spend it on the office,” says Johnson.
The group’s chairman, Anita Bonds, figures she’ll do what other state chairs do: “In other jurisdictions, elected officials are very involved in fundraising,” she says. And besides, the 2006 campaign season broke all fundraising records in the mayor and chairman’s race. Both of the winners have mountains of cash sitting around. Bonds mentions Fenty, Ward 1 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Chairman Vincent Gray as “committed” to helping raise money for the group. Neither councilmember would comment on Bonds’ claim.
Johnson isn’t so confident that the big-name pols will come through. “I will not say which [officeholders] are not so excited,” he says. “Let’s just say two candidates who went on to win in September—the state committee did not help them get into office.”
One of those would be Fenty, who is sitting on half a million dollars in excess campaign cash. The DSC is loaded with members who supported Cropp in the primary. That helps explain why so few pols feel it’s important to pay attention to the committee these days.
“We expect to do a Kennedy-King Dinner this fall,” says Bonds, of the fundraiser that hasn’t been held for three years running. In the past, the big annual bash raised tens of thousands of dollars to keep the organization afloat. “On the bright side, everything has been in the open,” says Bonds. “There has been no graft or anything like that.”
•Former Ward 5 councilmember Vincent Orange, now a Pepco lobbyist, has a reputation as a showman. But he also is known for taking a position and sticking to it. Now Orange is learning that life as a lobbyist doesn’t always make the principled stand so easy.
The Pepco regional vice president has split his contributions in the Ward 4 race. Back in January, before he entered the private sector, Orange coughed up $50 for the Muriel Bowser campaign. But according to the April 23 D.C. Office of Campaign Finance report, on April 10, Orange dropped $100 on the Brown campaign, a gift certain to be noted by the Fenty team.
Orange did not return calls seeking comment on why a newbie lobbyist would choose to piss off the mayor. Orange decided on a different strategy in Ward 7. He contributed to just one candidate, former colleague and Gray’s anointed successor, Yvette Alexander.
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