D.C. Dish

The Final Stretch

March 26, 2012

In one week voters will head to the polls to decide some interesting elections up for grabs in the District. Republicans will pick national committee members and a presidential hopeful. Here is a look at two of the more interesting Democratic races for D.C. Council.

Ward Seven: There may be an upset in the making. Tom Brown, an impressive candidate who is gaining momentum, has emerged to be the leading challenger to Councilmember Yvette Alexander. Brown has won a string of endorsements from the Washington Post, AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce and the progressive blog Greater Greater Washington. Neither Alexander nor Brown has a well-funded war chest; they are running on financial fumes. As such, this race may be decided by the campaign able to orchestrate a superior ground game. One advantage Alexander has: four opponents dividing the anti-incumbent vote. But watch out for Tom Brown.

At-Large Council: This is the marquee race. A few weeks ago, when it appeared as though Vincent Orange was cruising toward reelection, I was planning to write a column about how Orange's campaign could be a springboard for a 2014 mayoral bid. But not now. Orange has come under fire since news broke of the blockbuster Jeffrey Thompson money-order bundling scandal. Orange's various accounts of the circumstances around which he received campaign contributions tied to Thompson have thrown a monkey wrench into his political machine and his opponents are using every opportunity to capitalize on it. 

Key word: opponents. Plural. Sekou Biddle, Gail Holness and Peter Shapiro. In other words, anti-Orange voters have three options, which may benefit the incumbent. In the meantime, the challengers are pounding away.

Sekou Biddle is trying to reclaim the seat Orange took from him in a 2011 special election. Biddle won an interim job on the Council through an appointment process run by the D.C. Democratic Party. In the current race, he has positioned himself as an outsider. In fact, in his first piece of campaign mail Biddle does not mention a word of his tenure on the Council. He does, however, tout an endorsement from the Washington Post. Two weeks ago I wrote that the insurgent candidates should coalesce around the Post’s choice. Holness and Shapiro don't seem to have gotten the memo. Both believe they can win. They may be right.

Gail Holness, who describes herself as a "little Chihuahua" is relentless like a pit bull. Her performance at recent debates has been impressive.  Holness has a solid base in the faith community and, from what I have seen recently, some very enthusiastic Howard University students supporting her candidacy. She is also the only woman in the race, a distinction that will surely win some votes. And Holness knows how to work a crowd.  This Saturday she took the mic at a rally to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. A day later Holness delivered a sermon, "What if Jesus wore a hoodie?" Yes, Holness is a long shot. She has very little money and this is her first citywide campaign. But Holness's base does, in part, overlap with Orange's. If scandal-weary voters abandon Orange in droves, Holness may shock the world.

Peter Shapiro did not like my suggestion that he withdraw from the race to support Biddle. Who can blame him? At the time of the Post endorsement Shapiro had twice the cash-on-hand as Biddle. Shapiro's supporters reminded me that he is the real outsider in the race and pointed to Biddle's willingness to accept endorsements from Mayor Vince Gray, Council Chairman Kwame Brown, former Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. and other insiders during the 2011 special election. It is clear that Shapiro is not giving up. I have received campaign mail and two robo-calls from him. This past weekend I spotted his canvassing teams in Wards Two, Three and Five. It is also clear that progressive voters are not giving up on Shapiro. He has been endorsed by Greater Greater Washington.

Conventional wisdom suggests Orange, an incumbent with superior name ID and campaign cash, should still be favored to prevail. But without data from a recent poll and yet another scandal unfolding before our eyes, the At-Large race is officially too close to call.

Epilogue: this is my final column for The Dish. On Thursday I will begin writing for the NBC site, First Read – DMV.

Contributing to The Dish has been great fun and a privilege. The publisher has granted me wide latitude and never balked when I sought to push the envelope. Given the state of D.C. politics, what more could I have asked for?

Thank you for reading and especially for the comments posted here as well as to my inbox and in person.



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Orange Crushed?

March 14, 2012


Has a D.C. Council member seeking reelection ever experienced a worse week this close to Election Day than the one Vincent Orange just had? I don't think so.

Though he has not been accused of any wrongdoing, Orange has been at the center of a media feeding frenzy stemming from the campaign finance and corruption scandal that came to light after the FBI raided the home and offices of Jeffrey Thompson, a prolific contributor to campaign coffers.

Orange is mostly to blame for his time in the spotlight. At first, he refused to answer questions --and drove away in his car-- when asked about suspicious money orders and his 2011 campaign. Then an attempt to deflect criticism by attacking one of his opponents backfired (the gun-toting Republican who Orange criticized Sekou Biddle for hiring had been assisting Orange at the time of the gun incident). And most recently, Orange has offered differing accounts about how and when he received questionable contributions from Thompson.

Orange has seemingly thrown the damage control playbook out the window and instead decided to live in opposite world. From the beginning of this scandal he had two viable strategies for dealing with it: 1) circle the wagons, stonewall the media, declare full cooperation with authorities and stay silent so as not to compromise any ongoing investigations, or; 2) produce all the money orders and documents in question, fully detail his relationship with Thompson and agree to cooperate with investigators. Either strategy would have aided Orange in running out the clock until the polls close on April 3rd. The path he chose, however, is haphazard and now jeopardizes what should have been an easy reelection in a four-way race.

Clearly, Orange's opponents smell blood. At debates, in press releases, on twitter and via emails sent to supporters Biddle and Peter Shapiro have been forceful and unrelenting.

Gail Holness is also targeting Orange. While Holness does not have the financial resources to launch a widespread, damaging attack, her standing in communities rich with Orange supporters and her work ethic (I see Holness at political events as often as any other citywide candidate) and appeal may be siphoning critical votes from the incumbent.

Despite Holness's dogged foray into Orange's base, the dynamic of two ably-funded opponents targeting the same pool of voters is exactly what Orange needs. At last count Shapiro had $81,000 on-hand, Biddle $41,000.

For a roadmap of Orange's planned path to victory, look no further than the 2011 special election that delivered him to office. A field crowded with progressives of varying stripes --Biddle, Bryan Weaver, Joshua Lopez and moderate-Republican-with-crossover-appeal Pat Mara-- divided much of the good government, reform-minded electorate.

Now, a year later, with the At-Large race tightening, the question is: will progressives and scandal-weary voters rally around one candidate? Neither Biddle, who came in third behind Orange and Mara last year, or Shapiro is likely to bow out in deference to the other.

There is, however, an intermediary with the power to steer support to one of Orange's opponents: The Washington Post.

If the editorial board endorses Shapiro or Biddle, it is my hope that the other will stand down. Both candidates are smart enough to know that neither has a prayer without the Post.

Democratic Primary voters who seek change on the Council must be united on April 3rd. Progressives need to rally around one candidate.

I will be revealing my choice for At-Large Council in this column next week, the morning after I co-moderate a debate at the Black Cat. Unless, that is, the Post has endorsed by then. In which case I’ll be voting for their pick.

Chuck Thies co-hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org. You can follow him on Twitter @chuckthies

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Now Things Get Interesting

March 7, 2012

The dream of every insurgent candidate in D.C. has come true: FBI and IRS raids were conducted on the home and offices of a gargantuan political player, Jeffrey Thompson, who has ties to every incumbent Council member on the April 3rd primary ballot.

The details of what the Feds are pursuing remain unclear, but news accounts and intelligence gleaned from the political world suggest the possibility of straw donors and other illegal campaign activities. No charges have been filed.

Politicians in the District have spent more than a year under a cloud of suspicion and scandal. Battles about ethics and the conduct of elected officials have raged. One Council member resigned, pleaded guilty to two felonies and seems likely to be headed to prison in the coming months. Two separate federal grand juries are looking into the campaigns of the Mayor and the Council Chairman. A former Board of Elections and Ethics chair suspects "criminal activity" in the case of Kwame Brown. Many people believe that the Thompson probe stems from the potential misuse of money orders in Vince Gray’s 2010 campaign for mayor.

And now, with less than a month before voters head to the polls, Jeff Thompson --well known to local politicians, but by no means a household name-- has been placed under his own cloud of suspicion and with him every elected official who ever benefited from his largess.

It is called "guilt by association." The notion, despite being an ad hominem fallacy, is not a tough sell in an environment already contaminated with scandal, investigations, rumor, divisiveness and derision.

In the At-Large Council race, previously a quiet affair, Vincent Orange is coming under attack from his Democratic opponents Peter Shapiro and Sekou Biddle. A report by WAMU’s Patrick Madden tied donations received by Orange’s 2011 campaign to Thompson, an associate and her relatives.

Shapiro struck first. The WAMU piece quoted him seeking information about “questionable money orders” connected to Thompson. Biddle piled on by taking the fight to twitter where his campaign is asking Orange to produce copies of the money orders.

The news media picked up on the scrum. Orange has declared his campaign finances "clean" and is now launching an offensive aimed at his opponents.

Debates and candidate forums are plentiful this time of the year. Given the high stakes and increasingly hostile rhetoric, other skirmishes are likely. 

This is now the contest to watch. The ability of each rival to maneuver could determine the outcome of the At-Large election.

In the Ward races, the past campaigns of incumbents Muriel Bowser, Yvette Alexander and Marion Barry have received funding from Thompson. None of their opponents has yet to raise questions or demand answers about ties to potentially dirty money. I cannot imagine what they are waiting for and will be dumbfounded if they fail to incorporate this brewing scandal into a strategic attack.

A little over a week ago it appeared as though every incumbent would be breezing to re-election. But in politics, success and failure at the polls is often about timing.  An "October surprise" can derail a candidate seemingly headed toward victory.

While no one has suggested that Orange, Bowser, Alexander or Barry (Jack Evans is up for re-election, but he is uncontested) has done anything wrong or is of interest to the Feds, in an atmosphere polluted with scandal even the guiltless can suffer from an exasperated electorate.

Chuck Thies co-hosts the "D.C. Politics" show Thursday mornings at 11:00 am on WPFW 89.3 FM, streaming online at wpfw.org. You can follow him on Twitter @chuckthies

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