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When running for political office, incumbency certainly has its benefits. You get your name in the paper all the time. You can send out newsletters on the public dime. You inevitably make deep-pocketed friends who donate to your campaign fund.

And, in Ward 7, you get to hold a “State of the Ward” speech.

Last night, that ward’s councilmember, Yvette Alexander, did just that in the vast expanses of the Kelly Miller Middle School auditorium, and damn if she didn’t do a good job of filling it up, attracting close to 300. (The turnout for her speech far outstripped the turnout for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty‘s state-of-the-District speech earlier this year, which was a low-key affair held in the cozy confines of a Ward 7 senior center.)

But here’s LL’s question: Was this simply an opportunity to inform her constituency, or, with the primary just over three months away, a campaign event in disguise?

Here’s some hints: Outside the school, a line of Alexander re-election signs had been planted. As folks walked in to the auditorium before a speech, a projector showed a slide show of pictures showing Alexander at work and posing with council colleagues, other dignitaries, and neighborhood residents. In the halls outside, city employees and business honchos stood next to displays pumping up new libraries, rec centers, commercial developments, and a new H.D. Woodson Senior High School (all of which Alexander would take credit for in her speech). Afterwards, attendees were invited into the Kelly Miller cafeteria for a spread that included fresh fruit, sandwiches, chicken wings, and some tasty little meatballs. (Yes, LL indulged.)

And then there was the speech itself, which detailed—-well, just about everything. That was after a renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a flag presentation by the Woodson JROTC color guard, an introduction by Ward 7 Dems leader Lee Wilson, a preamble from Alexander, and a ceremony distributing plaques to ward advisory neighborhood commissioners. And then the speech began, detailing everything from Alexander’s legislative accomplishments to development proposals to nonprofit earmarks. The whole show began shortly after 7 p.m. and didn’t end till 8:29.

President George W. Bush‘s state of the union speech this year lasted about 53 minutes.

All the pageantry came courtesy of Alexander’s constituent services account, according to her chief of staff, J.R. Meyers. What’s the difference between using campaign funds and constituent service funds? Well, the line is blurry as hell. Both are funded by private donors, but while campaign funds are devoted to getting a candidate elected, constituent services money—-up to $40,000 a year—-typically goes to things like rent and utility assistance for citizens.

Well, her only declared competition so far, Twining advisory neighborhood commissioner Villareal Johnson says he “didn’t have a problem with it.” Johnson, in any case, showed up and got a peck on the cheek from Alexander when he went on stage to get his ANC plaque. (He did take advantage of the occasion: When LL returned to his car after the event, he found some Johnson literature under his windshield wiper.)

Alexander denies cloaking a campaign event and says the timing of the event had to do with the fact she was sworn into office on May 15, 2007. “I wanted to celebrate a year in office. That’s why I chose to do it now.”

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, in attendance along with at-large colleagues Kwame R. Brown and Phil Mendelson, pioneered the practice in Ward 7 as Alexander’s predecessor. His speeches, though, happened in February. But Gray defends the practice: “I think you’re always running. You’re always being evaluated by those who evaluated you.”

LL pointed out to Alexander that she had outtalked the president. Quipped the rookie councilmember, “I can’t help it if I have more accomplishments in one year than the president’s had in two terms.”