Anyone who follows local LGBT politics was nervously watching the D.C. Council race in Ward 5. The incumbent, Harry Thomas, Jr., was embroiled in a crowded battle to win the Democratic nomination. Normally, such a scenario plays to the incumbent’s advantage—the more people in the race, the more they split the opposition. But youthful community activist Delano Hunter not only had backing from the National Organization for Marriage—an organization opposed to same-sex marriage—but also from The Washington Post‘s editorial page. NOM had success backing candidates and ballot initiatives opposed to same-sex marriage elsewhere in the country. And the organization was galvanizing its allies locally in the run-up to the primary, asking its supporters to get behind Hunter, in addition to Doug Sloan, who unsuccessfully challenged D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
But in the end, NOM and the Post‘s blessing did not matter. Hunter lost and Thomas sailed to an easy victory securing nearly 62 percent of the vote. On Wednesday, the American Prospect‘s Adam Serwer declared in a tweet: “DC’s biggest loser last night wasn’t Adrian Fenty. It was the National Organization for Marriage.”
Serwer went on to do a nice job deconstructing NOM’s attempts to sway local politics. But it’s worth pointing out that Thomas’ victory wasn’t just of a product of NOM’s failures. Thomas—who has been lauded for taking a courageous move to support same-sex marriage in a part of town home to many older, religious African Americans and the Catholic University of America—it seems, built a broad, winning coalition and made a smart move to support D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray‘s ultimately successful mayoral run.
I asked Chuck Thies, a seasoned local political consultant, about what it takes to win Ward 5. Any successful candidate in the ward, which takes in much of the city’s Northeast quadrant, needs “blue collar and older African American” voters. While the southern fringe of the ward is gentrifying, in neighborhoods like Bloomingdale, Eckington and Trinidad, “the newer, younger, more socially liberal voters… aren’t a powerful enough constituency to unseat anyone who has the support of a large majority of the blue collar and older African-American bloc.”
To Thies, NOM is just another outsider national issues-based organization that failed to gain traction in a local election: “Very few organizations that come to D.C. with a political agenda find success. They think D.C. is easy to understand, but it isn’t. It’s not black and white, it’s not binary, and national issues that people try to foist upon us seldom play a meaningful role at the ballot box. We’re not guinea pigs, and we’re not pawns on a chessboard that some people would hope us to be.”
If you ask Thomas, the other big loser in Tuesday’s Ward 5 vote was The Washington Post‘s editorial page. Writes Chris Geidner of Metro Weekly:
The editorial focused on Thomas’s actions of ”trying to stop” Fenty’s various plans, but endorsed Hunter for running a ”grass-roots campaign,” while downplaying his opposition to marriage equality by stating that Hunter ”is not the homophobe his critics make him out to be.”
Of Hunter’s opposition to marriage equality, Thomas said the Post‘s editorial ”just dismissed it.”
Thomas called the editorial ”short-sighted” and warned that ”the paper really needs to look at the integrity of the editorial process and how it reflects on them.”
And what if Thomas had been an opponent of same-sex marriage? Even if gay-rights advocates would have been organized to run an opponent, it would taken a “very-skilled candidate” and “a shit ton of money to make the issue relevant,” Thies told me.
And that makes sense. Voters locally care more about bread-and-butter issues like jobs, crime and economic development than divisive social issues. And those were things Thomas hit on his road to victory.
Thomas, however, told Geidner that if he had opposed same-sex marriage, he “wouldn’t have been as successful.” Which means, hopefully, the 2010 elections will be the last D.C. sees of NOM.