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In the last four months, Sekou Biddle has learned just how fast your luck can change in District politics.
In January, Biddle surprised even himself by winning a temporary appointment to an at-large D.C. Council seat thanks to the late backing of the District’s two most powerful elected officials. Last month, he surprised just about nobody by coming in a lackluster third in a special election for the seat, possibly because of that support by the District’s two most powerful elected officials.
Perceived as the insider’s candidate thanks to endorsements from Mayor Vince Gray and Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, Biddle sure looks to LL like he paid for Gray’s hiring missteps and Brown’s Navigator-fancy.
But Biddle doesn’t see it that way. In a lengthy interview, he goes out of his way not to pin his defeat on Gray’s and Brown’s missteps. “To be frank, those things didn’t help my cause,” is about as strong a statement Biddle would offer.
Instead, Biddle says his lack of name recognition, in an election nobody paid attention to, probably hurt him more than anything else. He thinks voters weren’t so much angry at Gray and Brown as they were ticked off at the government in general.
“People seemed to in general feel negatively toward the government and elected officials,” Biddle says.
Biddle was similarly polite toward Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who backed Biddle’s candidacy early in the race, but jumped ship to support the eventual winner, former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, just days before the election. Biddle disputes Alexander’s claim that he told her he wasn’t much concerned about winning votes in Ward 7—her stated reason for switching to Orange—but he doesn’t have anything bad to say about Alexander.
And when LL asks if Biddle has received any type of apology or even acknowledgement from either Gray or Brown that their missteps had hurt Biddle’s political career, the newest ex-councilmember seems surprised by the question. (For the record, though, neither Gray nor Brown offered Biddle any type of “my bad.”)
It’s certainly good form for Biddle not to badmouth his former colleagues, but LL has to wonder what election Biddle was watching. In January, Biddle looked like he had the election locked up: He was a Democratic incumbent with a résumé as an education reformer that would please any supporter of former Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, while at the same time enjoying the support of then-very popular Mayor Gray and Chairman Brown.
Elections, particularly special elections, are never a given, but if that momentum had continued through last month’s election, LL has to think Biddle would have kept his job. Instead, a series of scandals involving Brown and Gray left Biddle wide open to attacks from multiple candidates—most notably Republican Pat Mara, who torpedoed what was left of Biddle’s chances by nabbing the coveted endorsement of The Washington Post, which declared he was the more independent candidate.
But while Biddle wasn’t keen on pointing fingers at his political patrons for his defeat, he did allude to mistakes made by a familiar scapegoat: the media, including blogs and social networks, which Biddle says gave the public an incomplete picture of who he really is.
On that point, Biddle may have a legitimate beef. Sure, he won the D.C. Democratic State Committee’s appointment in part because Brown, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry worked members for him on the night of their vote. And sure, Brown probably supported Biddle in large part because Brown dislikes Orange, who had been the presumed favorite to win the appointment. But Biddle says those aren’t the only reasons why he won in January.
“There’s some element of truth to it, but there’s some element of truth to Paul Bunyan, too, but I don’t think he created the Great Lakes,” says Biddle. (LL briefly checked Wikipedia, and it appears there actually is not any element of truth whatsoever to the Paul Bunyan story.)
Biddle says he worked hard to win the DCDSC’s appointment by lobbying committee members one-on-one and stressing his background as an education reformer. He also submitted twice the required petition signatures to show that he had a viable base of supporters. Several of the votes cast for him at the committee’s meeting, Biddle says, had nothing to do with Brown’s support or any dislike of Orange. But Biddle says that side of the story was never told, and he got stuck with label of the insiders’ hand-picked beneficiary.
“It was odd to me that effectively… a narrative was created very quickly about me being some sort of insider that frankly did not pay any attention to anything that I had done or anywhere I had come from,” says Biddle, whose previous work included teaching and working for Teach for America, as well as serving as a school board member.
(Of course, LL can’t help pointing out here that Biddle—as an incumbent member of the council and a candidate who raised more than $175,000 for his campaign—could have probably done more to influence the narrative about him. Not every voter was a social networking-influenced myopic little twit, after all; media coverage of the race was light enough that it didn’t have to drown out his own message entirely.)
As for his future, Biddle plans on returning to work at a non-profit that promotes early education. But he hasn’t ruled out a return to politics, no matter how this last shot ended.
“It was worth doing,” Biddle says of his four-month council stint, adding that he still very much believes he has the “skills and expertise” to do the job.
Indeed, several Wilson Building insiders say Biddle showed all the makings of becoming a good councilmember in the future. And one political operative says Biddle was a quick learner on the campaign trail and would be a much better candidate were he to run again. (Plus, he can then make on-the-job training a part of his platform!)
But Biddle doesn’t appear to be hankering to get back to politicking any time too soon. He tells LL he’s psyched about getting to see his family again, after six months of campaigning, and notes that his 10-year-old son grew about an inch and a half since November—something Biddle says he only recently noticed.
And there just might be some international travel in his future. In the middle of the interview, Bryan Weaver—an Adams Morgan community activist who came in fourth in last month’s election, behind Biddle—drops by to shoot the breeze and offer Biddle a spot on a trip with at-risk students to Guatemala this summer. Biddle says he just might go.
HAVOC, WHAT HAVOC?
Biddle might have gotten a raw deal, but LL can’t say he’s entirely sad to see him replaced by Vincent Orange. Orange is lively, if nothing else, and is going to make covering D.C. politics much more exciting.
Witness his speech this week, after being sworn in as a councilmember. Claiming the hand of God was responsible for his “resurrection,” Orange alternated between promising to work with his new colleagues and taking not-so-subtle swipes at how crooked they are. (But that wasn’t LL’s favorite part; no, LL’s favorite part was when Orange said, “In closing,” then spoke for another nine minutes.)
“At this moment, at this time, and at this season, we have a tremendous amount of work to accomplish and a tremendous amount of damage to repair,” Orange began. “It’s not going to be easy, but it must be achieved.”
Orange, speaking from the dais of the council chambers to a crowd that included Mayor Gray, Chairman Brown, and the rest of the council, went on to outline how the District government had lost the “goodwill” and “respect” it once had from Congress, Wall Street, and the city’s residents.
“Our residents want a meaningful ethics committee to govern the activities of both the executive and legislative branches of government,” said Orange, no doubt referencing a special committee on ethics Brown promised, but has so far failed to deliver. Orange then went on to outline what his legislative priorities were, before saying that his agenda was “the people’s agenda.”
“We must refocus and begin to faithfully address the people’s agenda,” boomed Orange, who also made it a point to thank the Washington Teachers Union, which supported both Orange and Gray, but has had a slightly frosty relationship with the mayor of late.
But don’t let the barbs fool you, Orange said. He’s more than willing to work together with the people he dinged in his speech.
“I come to the D.C. Council, I come to the table not to disrupt, and not to create havoc,” said Orange. “I come as an independent voice with my sleeves rolled up seeking a consensus to an agenda worthy of consideration.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery