Two weeks ago, a phone poll of mysterious origin sized up what voters think of the 2016 race for Vincent Orange’s at-large seat. The poll’s hypothetical candidate list included Orange, former attorney general candidate Edward “Smitty” Smith, and frequent at-large hopeful Sekou Biddle. And then there was someone much more surprising: Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.
At first, the idea of a McDuffie at-large run seems crazy. He just won an easy reelection to his seat representing a politically active ward that could someday springboard him to mayor (or D.C. Council chairman, or attorney general). Running against Orange would mean crossing a pol who used to hold his own seat and potentially alienating activists in Ward 5.
But there’s one big reason McDuffie wants to change seats: the election cycle. McDuffie’s current seat is up for reelection in 2018, the same as mayor, attorney general, and chairman. But after 2016, Orange’s seat won’t be available again until 2020. By taking the at-large spot, McDuffie could run for higher office in 2018 without risking a position on the Council if he loses.
“Kenyan gets a free shot no matter what he wants to do,” says former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who took the poll.
For now, McDuffie is playing coy about his plans. But McDuffie ’16 chatter illuminates one of the strangest quirks of the city’s Home Rule government. Because of the Council’s four-year terms, some councilmembers can run for higher positions without risking their seats in government and the political bases that come with them, while others are guaranteed to lose their spots.
“It allows you to safely run for a higher position without any risk,” says former Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. “That’s the advantage.”
For politicians with grander ambitions, the seats representing Wards 2, 4, 7, and 8, as well as the at-large seats currently filled by Orange and David Grosso, are the prime ones to have. Their holders can run as many times as they’d like for higher offices without giving up their Council positions. Meanwhile, councilmembers in Wards 1, 3, 5, and 6, along with whoever holds the Elissa Silverman and Anita Bonds at-large spots, have to give up their seats if they want to run.
LL doesn’t expect many tears for the thwarted ambitions of District pols. But the off-cycle election advantage makes it more likely that councilmembers from the favored wards will rise to the city’s highest offices. Out of the four Home Rule-era District mayors who won the top job while on the Council, three—Marion Barry, Adrian Fenty, and Muriel Bowser—came from off-cycle seats (although Barry did risk his at-large seat to run for mayor in 1978).
To see this in action, just look at the 2014 mayoral race. At-larger David Catania and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells both ran for mayor and gave up their seats in the process. Meanwhile, Orange, who had to give up his Ward 5 seat to run for mayor in 2006, was able to indulge his longshot ambitions again while still staying on the Council after he lost. The same situation played out for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who could watch his own second mayoral run flop on Election Day, then look forward to another two years in the Wilson Building anyway.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says that the appeal of an off-cycle seat hasn’t lured many councilmembers into running.
“There’s some truth to that, but if you look at the last 40 years there’s been little actual evidence,” Mendelson says.
That’s not to say that nobody tries. In 1996, Harold Brazil, then holding the unappetizing Ward 6 seat, jumped to an off-cycle at-large seat ahead of the 1998 mayoral election. Brazil went on to lose the mayoralty to Anthony Williams. Thanks to his at-large move, though, Brazil stayed on the Council for seven more years.
Removing the off-cycle advantage that some wards have over others ranks a little bit below building the Georgetown gondola in terms of city priorities. In theory, the District could change all the Council seats to Senate-style six-year terms, but who wants councilmembers around for that long?
Alternately, the Council could go to three-year terms, which, thanks to ever-expanding election seasons, seems too short to ever stop campaigning. Given the rumors about McDuffie’s ambitions, though, maybe some councilmembers wouldn’t mind that.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery