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The resignation of former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, after he pleaded guilty to bank fraud, will probably lead to exactly what his victory in the chairman’s race did: a special election to fill an at-large seat.
Brown’s departure meant a promotion for current Chairman Phil Mendelson, who is almost certain to win a November special election to keep that job. That’ll lead to another special election to fill Mendelson’s old seat sometime next spring, which is what happened when Brown won the chairman’s race two years ago.
That race produced a crowded field with several candidates jockeying for the role of the reforming outsider, while a consummate insider—former Ward 5 Councilmember and Pepco lobbyist Vincent Orange—won. A year later, Orange beat more self-proclaimed outsiders in the Democratic primary to hold onto the seat.
Orange will likely win in November’s general election, and LL would bet so will Councilmember Michael Brown, defeating yet more “outsiders”—including independent David Grosso and Republican Mary Brooks Beatty—despite the several guilty pleas from councilmembers and campaign aides to the mayor and the resulting low public opinion of the city’s elected officials. For some reason, District voters just can’t quit their incumbents.
But it’s very likely that next year’s special election could be incumbent-free, presenting a golden opportunity for the previously vanquished reformer types to finally make it inside the Wilson Building. The question is: Will any of them want to?
Two years ago the D.C. Republican Party had a plan: run candidates in several ward races in the general election with the hopes of creating enough momentum to propel Pat Mara to victory in the special election Kwame Brown wound up winning.
It almost worked. Mara lost to the well-funded and well-known Orange by only 1,732 votes. Mara did most things right: He beat an incumbent for the Ward 1 school board race just before the special election, nabbed the Washington Post’s endorsement, and ran on a good-government platform at a time when Sulaimon Brown was becoming a household name.
But he was no match for Orange, who won large swaths of the vote in majority-black parts of town while Mara, Sekou Biddle, Bryan Weaver, and Josh Lopez split votes in the mostly white wards west of Rock Creek Park.
It was a bitter disappointment for the local GOP, which correctly saw the nonpartisan special election as the party’s best chance of returning a Republican to the council. It had been more than a decade since a special election led to a GOP victory: David Catania beat Arrington Dixon in 1997. (Catania left the GOP in 2004 to become an independent.)
So Mara must be chomping at the bit to seize this unforeseen second chance so soon after last year’s loss, right? Especially since the scandals at the Wilson Building have only gotten much, much worse. Yeah, not so much.
Mara says his official position at this point is, “I don’t know,” and sounds decidedly less-than-eager about the prospects of running a full-on citywide campaign again.
“I know how much it takes,” says Mara, who beat incumbent Carol Schwartz to win a Republican primary for an at-large seat in 2008 but lost the general election to Michael Brown, who had switched his party affiliation from Democratic to independent to be eligible. “Between me and there is about 72 community forums, several interviews…some people yelling at me, standing at Metros at 5 a.m. There’s a lot.”
Nick Jeffress, executive director of the DCGOP, says the wounds from the last defeat haven’t healed: “I know the last special election really took a toll on him and the confidence of the party.”
Still, Jeffress says Mara has been talking to people about a possible run. And Mara says he’s more likely to run if his party’s other candidates, Brooks and longshot GOP Ward 7 candidate Ron Moten, lose in November (which they likely will). Mara might just be playing coy—it is only September, after all, and the seat the special election would fill isn’t technically even vacant—but his lack of obvious enthusiasm for what seems like a pretty big gift seems contagious.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to get a reform-minded candidate in, and no one has come to talk to me about running for that seat,” says Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, a grand poobah of the city’s reform-minded voters.
Weaver, who ran unsuccessfully against Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham in a 2010 Democratic primary before coming in a distant fourth in the 2011 special, has bulked up his reform bona fides by spearheading an effort to ban corporate donations to local pols. That effort is tied up in court, where Weaver says all his current attention is focused. “I need to get through this court case before I think about the future,” he says.
Biddle actually served on the council after the Democratic Party appointed him to a vacant seat, but narrowly lost to Orange in a primary this spring for the rest of the term. He says he’s not “ruled anything out or made any decisions” about his political future.
Lopez says he’s not interested, while Grosso and Brooks say they are entirely focused on their current race.
So far, Peter Shapiro is the only previous candidate who called himself an outsider in a losing bid who has openly expressed an interest in running again, though he says he’s not yet made up his mind. “Not a lot has changed, it’s a pretty broken system,” says Shapiro. (Some Orange foes, meanwhile, still blame Shapiro’s long-shot campaign for drawing votes away from Biddle in this spring’s primary, helping Orange win the seat.)
If there are any other would-be reformer/outsider candidates out there who haven’t run before and are contemplating doing so, they’ve not made it onto the radar of the politically connected wags with whom LL speaks frequently.
Maybe it’s too early, but contrast this apparent enthusiasm gap with what happened in Ward 5, where Harry Thomas Jr. resigned at the beginning of the year after admitting to stealing more than $350,000 in city funds. Candidates were quietly lining up to be Thomas’ replacement months before it was clear that he was a goner. A total of 12 people eventually ran in a special election in May. The ultimate winner: Kenyan McDuffie, who trounced the field while running on a reform-oriented platform.
Wells says he’s approached people he’d like to see run next spring and told them “now is the time” to start running. “There’s no value to waiting on this,” he says.
Even before any special election next spring, there’s a first step within the ultimate group of insiders: the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The group will get to appoint a temporary replacement for Mendelson to fill the seat until a special election can be held (and after, if the temporary councilmember runs and wins that election). Anita Bonds, the head of the local party and former aide to Mayor-for-Life-turned Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, says she wants to try out council life.
“Hopefully, it’ll be a good match for me,” she says. “If it isn’t, I’ll be the first to own up.”
Doug Sloan, a campaign consultant to Orange who ran unsuccessfully against Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a 2010 primary, says he’s lobbying committee members for the appointment, too. His pitch: He could make the state committee more relevant in city affairs.
“There’s no reason in this one party city why the Democratic State Committee isn’t calling all the shots,” Sloan says. “They should be, but they’re not.”
LL’s doubtful that kind of message will resonate well outside of party insiders come special election time. Then again, if it wins Sloan the appointment, he’d go into the election as an incumbent. Which, unless District voters kick their habit between then and now, might just be all he’d need.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery