At Large Candidates, First Look

A wax figure of Marion Barry, pictured here, greeted visitors to the unusual candidate forum at Madame Tussauds on March 16
A wax figure of Marion Barry, pictured here, greeted visitors to the unusual candidate forum at Madame Tussauds on March 16

Candidate Forums, at this stage in the campaign to fill the At Large City Council Seat vacated by Kwame Brown’s winning bid for the City Council Chair, are a little like large meet and greets. They resemble the political equivalent of speed dating.

The election for the seat isn’t until April 26, which leaves plenty of time for voters and interested parties to get to know the candidates, and vice versa. And there’s a lot to choose from in terms of quantity, with the quality being currently evaluated. Close to ten candidates are in the field, and one of them is already sitting on the council.

We went to a couple of these forums, one in the Downtown area sponsored by the Penn Quarter Association at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, another the Good Will Baptist Church sponsored by the Kalorama Citizens Associations in Adams Morgan. Another forum was recently held by the Georgetown Citizens Association.

Three things frame these forums and this election. Most importantly, this is a citywide election, and whoever wins will get some political cred for having citywide voter appeal. This is not a small thing, because of the second critical factor in this campaign: it is being waged with a noisy background of scandal and uncertainty—so much so that it almost seems like a re-waging of the Fenty/Gray mayoral race.

The third thing is that this is a time when candidates stake out their territory, test their appeal, make claims to being this or that kind of candidate. Like for instance “reform”—this time not of the schools, but of the city and its political culture—a word much overused here.

You’ll hear a lot of that from Joshua Lopez, the Georgia Avenue resident and seeming firebrand who is vocally calling for cutting the salaries of the city council members and who paints himself as an anti-establishment type who “will stand up to people.” He also presents himself as the first serious Hispanic candidate for a major citywide elected office.

Be that as it may, many—but not all—of the candidates gathered at the Penn Quarter forum in monumentally odd circumstances.

Surrounded by wax figures of presidents and politicians—a figure of Marion Barry, no less, greeted visitors to the forum as they walked down the stairs—the candidates were placed at a dais where life-size figures of the Jonas Brothers stood behind them, frozen in mid-performance, and Britney Spears, apparently working a strip pole, flanked the podium. Videos of Miley Cyrus and a gyrating Beyonce played on continuous reel in the background, which may explain the “flimsy top” reference in my notebook.

“I have to say this is the strangest setting for a forum I’ve ever attended,” Bryan Weaver, a veteran ANC commissioner from Ward 1 quipped. He too is a reformist, but Weaver, articulate and known for his community involvement in Adams Morgan for years, wants to reform the political culture. “You have to change things, you have to change the way the council doe’s things, and the way the mayor’s office does things. There are lots of good ideas, but it’s the implementation of policy that matters the most. We don’t have oversight about who gets contracts and how things get done. It’s all well and good to write legislation, propose change, but ideas, once they leave the council chambers, don’t seem to get implemented.”

Sekou Biddle is the focus of a lot of attention these days—the Washington born educator was named to the seat vacated by Brown by the local Democratic committee, pushed by both Mayor Vincent Gray and Brown himself. That might have been an advantage two or three weeks ago, but now it’s an iffy endorsement, which can be used by his opponents against him.

“It’s not about endorsements,” Biddle said. “It’s about experience, what you can do and what you can get done.”

He’s the only one who can say he’s a councilman, which does count for something, because he’ll have a lot more name familiarity, a heads up on the council culture and ways of business, and he can speak from the experience he’s gained. Biddle also comes from the Teach for America environment that brought Chancellor Michelle Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson to Washington. There’s no question about where Biddle stands on school reform, nor is there a question about his expertise.

Vincent Orange has had a lot of experience too, having served as Ward 7 Councilman before running for mayor five years ago. “I have more experience than anyone, I came with Mayor Anthony Williams, and together, all of us changed the political and practical environment of the city,” he said. “We got things done.”

With Orange, the problem isn’t experience, but familiarity. This is his second recent major run for major office, not counting his mayoral bid, and the first one, in spite of being endorsed by the Washington Post, ended in defeat against Brown in the race for chairman.

Then there’s Patrick Mara, the jaunty, young Columbia Heights residents, who reminds everyone that he is the only Republican in the race. A school board member—and an unsuccessful at large candidate several years ago, in which he helped oust long-time GOP council member Carol Schwartz—he calls himself progressive on social issues and conservative on financial issues. “I’m not your typical Republican,” he says.

He was late to the Adams Morgan meeting, saying, “You know, when you have a name like Patrick Mara, you get invited to a lot of St Patrick Day’s parties. I apologize for being late.”

Weaver hammers the theme of accountability and transparency, but he can get lost in the wonk and details sometimes, peppering his words with acronyms that not everybody is familiar with. But he also comes across as dedicated and smart, with no ax to grind. Lopez says he’s the outsider, but he’s also spent a lot of time working for Adrian Fenty campaigns and in his council office, according to his campaign biography. He also worked as a deputy manager of Muriel Bowser’s Ward 4 City Council Campaign.

The campaign has now become part of the background landscape, and that landscape sees Mayor Gray mired in controversy and Kwame Brown again under fire. The winner in this campaign gets something nobody gets right now: a fresh start.

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Thu, 10 Jul 2014 05:38:57 -0400

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