Is Patrick Mara the luckiest sonofabitch in D.C. politics?

He was looking that way until this weekend, when news broke that the sole Republican in the April special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat might be booted from the ballot for submitting petition signatures that appeared forged.

Suddenly, things seemed bleak for Mara. One need not be a handwriting expert to look at some of Mara’s petitions and instantly see there was something fishy going on. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics found the Mara campaign, which relied in part on petition gatherers who were paid by the D.C. Republican Party, submitted a total of 160 forged signatures. D.C. election law says “nominating petitions tainted by fraud…may be discounted in their entirety.”

But the BOEE decided to go easy on Mara. They only invalidated the forged signatures, leaving Mara with more than the 3,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot. (Ward 8 Democrats President Jacque Patterson, by the way, was booted from the ballot for not getting enough signatures.)

The ruling is another piece of evidence that Mara is on an incredible hot streak, one that he had mostly nothing to do with. He needs it. In a town with more than 10 registered Democrats to every one Republican, candidates like Mara require something close to divine intervention to win a council seat.

When current At-Large Councilmember David Catania first won as a Republican in 1997, the hand of God came in the form of his opponent Arrington Dixon, a political has-been the D.C. Democratic State Committee picked as an interim councilmember. Legends still persist of Dixon’s antipathy toward actually campaigning, and the archives are full of gems about Dixon’s lack of interest in governing. “For months, council members and staffers have complained that Mr. Dixon appeared to be not interested in government work, took few clear stands on issues and seemed more interested in playing golf than in mastering legislation,” The Washington Times reported after Catania’s victory. “Mail and packages piled up haphazardly outside his locked council office and staffers often shoved copies of legislation and memos under the locked door.”

Mara hasn’t been similarly blessed with a dud of a candidate. Democratic leaders, including Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, were determined not to repeat history; they coalesced behind Sekou Biddle, an ambitious and bright education reformer who should appeal to supporters of former Mayor Adrian Fenty and his public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Biddle’s not lazy, and he’s fully aware that he’s in for a tough fight.

But while Biddle might not be a bum, he’s now weighed down by the support of the very people who helped him nab the Democratic State Committee’s appointment to the council. And that brings us back to Mara’s good fortune. Biddle’s most influential backers are tied up in embarrassing scandals that have the whole Wilson Building—to say nothing of voters—gawking.

Kwame Brown’s appetite for a taxpayer-funded, “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigator couldn’t be better calibrated to produce maximum outrage among constituents. Then there’s the Gray administration’s colossal early screwups, which have already produced the politically explosive phrase “the FBI is looking into accusations” (even if nothing comes of the investigation, that’s something most elected officials like to avoid). The last few weeks have Gray’s critics feeling vindicated in their belief that he’d be some kind of Marion Barry-lite, while even fierce supporters fret about the mayor’s communications efforts.

If Mara can’t use these scandals to fire up a good chunk of the District’s 30,000 registered Republicans to come out and vote in the only election they have a shot of winning, then he has no business being in politics.

All of this puts Biddle in a tight spot. With little name recognition and not a ton of money, (he’s raised about $100,000 so far, but has spent most of it already) he’ll have to depend on Brown and Gray for help. If they can get their die-hard supporters to vote, that could be enough to put Biddle ahead in a low-turnout special election. (Which is why it still wouldn’t be a surprise if he wins.) Biddle’s campaign has strong links to the Kwame Brown machine—including Marshall Brown, Kwame’s father, who has been paid $5,000 by Biddle as a campaign “consultant.”

But Biddle seems to get annoyed whenever anyone suggests he’s the establishment candidate. “It’s a pretty broad group of people who have endorsed me so far,” Biddle says. LL suspects he’ll have to come up with a better way of distancing himself to fend off the onslaught of negative campaigning that’s headed his way.

“Sekou is the one who is in bed with Kwame Brown and the mayor,” says Mara. “We all make decisions, and Sekou made his.”

Similar firebombs have been lobbed Biddle’s way by candidates Bryan Weaver and Josh Lopez, who also stand to benefit from tagging Biddle as the establishment’s guy. Weaver’s positioned himself as a good government type who wants to clean up the council, while Lopez, who helped run the Fenty write-in campaign, is looking to benefit from Green Teamers who are still sore over their man’s defeat.

(And if his Twitter account is to be believed, Lopez seems to be outworking the rest of the field combined when it comes to knocking on voters’ doors.)

The only candidate who doesn’t seem willing to bash Biddle as the establishment pick is former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Which is interesting, since if the establishment hadn’t picked Biddle, it would have picked Orange; after Kwame Brown crushed him in last fall’s council chairman primary, Orange narrowly lost the Democratic Party’s appointment to Biddle.

Orange tells LL he’s not given much thought to Biddle’s political connections and how that might affect the race.

“I’m staying focused and trying to make sure I’m in a position to win,” says Orange.

Yeah, right. But Orange has put himself in a good position by raising more than $190,000 in less than two months, far more than any of his rivals. That kind of cash will go a long way toward boosting his name recognition (which is already higher than the rest of the field, probably in no small part to the fact that he left signs from his last campaign up for a long, long time), as well as toward paying for transportation in the all-important get-out-the-vote effort.

Which brings us back, again, to that lucky Mara. The more Democrats who run strong races and split the party’s vote, the better for the lone Republican. Will it be enough to win? LL isn’t making any predictions this far out. But stay tuned.

* * *

A SETTLEMENT FOR THE SETTLEMENT

It turns out David Wilmot, one of the city’s best paid and most connected lobbyists, will get to keep his group homes for the developmentally disabled after all.

As one of his last moves before waltzing out the door, former Attorney General Peter Nickles slapped Wilmot’s group-home outfit with $240,000 in fines and began the process to remove six homes from Wilmot’s care. Nickles’s action came after an independent monitor found that Wilmot’s non-profit, Individual Development Inc., had violated several terms of a 2009 settlement between IDI and the District.

Wilmot called Nickles’ actions politically motivated payback—Wilmot served on Gray’s transition team—and IDI went to court to try to block the fines and the takeover of the six group homes.

Last week, new Attorney General Irv Nathan said at an oversight hearing that his office had settled with IDI. The settlement hasn’t been approved by a judge and isn’t public yet, but Nathan said in written testimony that “the District will be receiving a substantial portion of the civil penalties that had been imposed, conditions have been improved, and we lifted the termination of these facilities, which allows the residents to avoid considerable disruption.”

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because Nickles gave virtually the same reasons when he agreed to settle with IDI two years ago. That settlement arose after Nickles sued IDI for allegedly mistreating its patients; Nickles said he settled because he didn’t want to disrupt IDI’s vulnerable patients and because IDI had promised to make improvements. The 2009 settlement also came shortly after Wilmot threw former Mayor Adrian Fenty a fundraiser.

In January, LL reported that an independent court monitor in a federal class-action case found several problems with IDI, including “serious concerns” about the low weight of some of its high-risk clients. The monitor also noted that IDI has a pattern of only making short-term fixes. “Although remedial action has been taken by IDI when informed of deficient practices…the correction actions have not been sustained over time,” the monitor wrote.

The monitor also wrote that various city agencies are “concerned whether future efforts to correct longstanding deficiencies will be sustained, especially once the period of intensive monitoring is ended.”

The contract for the independent monitor that was part of Nickles’ 2009 settlement with IDI expired at the end of last year. Nathan’s office declined to respond to LL’s query as to whether the latest settlement would include a monitor. Wilmot didn’t return a call from LL, either.

IDI, which operates entirely on public funds, has long been criticized by advocates of the disabled. Last summer, an inspector general’s report said Wilmot and another executive were being overpaid; for several years, Wilmot has drawn six-figure salaries from IDI, in addition to the money he makes lobbying city officials on a full-time basis. And, the Service Employees International Union has alleged Wilmot engaged in unfair labor practices. IDI’s frontline employees have also complained of shoddy pay and voted last year to unionize, over Wilmot’s strong objections.

Besides Wilmot, IDI’s board includes politically connected attorneys Fred Cooke Jr. and A. Scott Bolden.

Now it looks like IDI might be angling to offset any fines it has to pay with a tax break. At a separate hearing last week, Department of Health Care Finance Director Wayne Turnage indicated that leaders of group homes for the developmentally disabled are “pushing very hard” to invalidate a $3.7 million providers’ tax the council imposed. Turnage said he’d met with group home leaders and was looking for a “win-win” compromise.

But Health Committee Chairman David Catania told Turnage that any compromise was unacceptable. Catania warned Turnage, who is new to D.C. government, that the leaders of group homes like Wilmot are “connected to every level of this government.”

“They have gotten away with providing shady services at best by undercutting the salaries of their staff and by all getting rich in the process,” said Catania, before offering this warning. “And the last thing they want is for this committee to start investigation every part of their operations, which I am entirely willing to do. So I don’t want any compromise. I want the money; it’s a lawful tax.”

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