Thinking about the upcoming special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat brings on a certain sense of déjà vu.
The seat’s only open, after all, because its former occupant, Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, moved up to the council chairman’s seat following last year’s election. His chief rival for that job, Vincent Orange, is now running in the special election. So is Dorothy Douglas, who also ran against Brown and Orange in 2010. As are Bryan Weaver, who lost a primary challenge to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham last fall, and Josh Lopez, who spent October trying to rally Adrian Fenty’s supporters to write the latter in on the November ballot. Patrick Mara, who’s also in the race, ran (and won) the Ward 1 Board of Education seat last fall, too.
Questions at voter forums (including one sponsored by Washington City Paper) keep dwelling on last year’s issues: Is the District better off without Michelle Rhee? Should streetcars get funding? And, over and over again in different iterations, the same fundamental question that underpinned so much of the debate in 2010: How can the city best deal with the demographic changes it’s been going through for years?
Yes, the months since the last election have added a few new ones, about Lincoln Navigators, about relatives of powerful people on the D.C. payroll, and about whether the occupants of the Wilson Building do enough to keep an eye on either of those topics. Those questions, though, have mostly had the effect of boxing in Sekou Biddle, the guy who’s in the unfortunate position of occupying the at-large seat now up for grabs.
Like in any special election, turnout next week is expected to be light; a margin of fewer than 1,200 votes decided the last one, 14 years ago. Picking someone to support this time isn’t easy. There’s a lot to like about many of the candidates, but none of them are perfect.
On paper, Biddle makes a pretty good councilmember. He’s familiar with education issues and his policy ideas are progressive. But we can’t get behind the closed-door maneuvering that put him on the council in January—maneuvering that appeared to put Biddle in debt to three of the city’s more troubling pols: Brown, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. The insiders embraced him in January largely because of resentments left over from Vincent Orange’s campaign against Brown the previous fall. Today, Biddle can’t decide how to distance himself from the machine that launched him into citywide politics. He initially employed Brown’s father, Marshall Brown, a polarizing former Marion Barry campaigner. Then, last week, Biddle fired him over racially inflammatory remarks he made in The Washington Post.
Likewise, though we tepidly endorsed him last fall, we’re not thrilled about the fact that Orange is now considered this year’s man to beat. He’s become the establishment candidate, and now—like most politicians trying to coast to victory—the last thing he wants to do is say anything that might give a hint of what he’d do while in office. He’s against cutting spending, but he’s also against raising taxes. He’s proud of his record bringing big-box retail to Ward 5, which is better than bringing no retail to Ward 5. But it won’t help small businesses or would-be pedestrians if his development theory is applied citywide. His time as Pepco’s chief local lobbyist doesn’t bode well for his claims that he’ll push sustainable energy policies. He joined a protest outside the Post building recently over its education coverage, in a blatant pander to a union that’s backed him (a move that Orange probably knows won’t actually do anything for the teachers he says he’s helping). Last year, we thought he was a better pick than Brown for council chairman. But now he has opponents who are interested in things besides SUV upholstery.
Mara, who won the Post over, says the council needs tougher oversight of itself and the rest of the government, and he’s right. But his sense that taxes are way too high in D.C. doesn’t jibe with reality (many District residents actually pay less than they would in Arlington, Alexandria, or Montgomery counties). His reveries about gentrification in Columbia Heights only infrequently seem to be matched with a sense that the city could be doing more to manage the changes that have led a young, white Republican to want to live in the neighborhood. And though Mara’s no Tea Party aficionado, we’re not quite ready to enlist with the GOP.
Lopez may be working harder than most of his opponents, but a combination of enthusiasm and Fenty nostalgia isn’t enough. Like other former Fenty campaign aides, he landed a well-paid city job after the primary—which he quit to run the write-in campaign last fall, using leftover Fenty signs in a violation of election laws.
Few of the other candidates have raised enough money to make a serious bid. One of them, Arkan Haile, has steadfastly refused to appear at any campaign forums. We’re tempted to back the Statehood Green Party’s Alan Page, out of frustration over how Congress and the White House treat the District.
We’d rather endorse Bryan Weaver, though. He’s spent years working with—and for—at-risk kids in Adams Morgan. He’s demonstrated both a fierce commitment to fairness for all D.C. residents (he’d push for new tax brackets for high incomes, to help balance the city’s budget without putting most of the sacrifice on poorer residents) and a pragmatism that could keep him from being marginalized on the council (as Advisory Neighborhood Commission chairman, he negotiated a deal making hotel developers promise to hire local workers in exchange for a $46 million tax abatement, which is more than other city officials bothered to do). His irritation with the petty scandals at the Wilson Building is clear: He says he won’t take an outside job if elected, something other councilmembers do, despite salaries that are the second-highest in the nation at $125,583 per year. And he would join a growing urbanist bloc on the council that could improve everyone’s quality of life.
Here’s where we admit that Weaver isn’t likely to win. He got into the race in response to a social media-driven petition, making him the official candidate of myopic little twits at a moment when, politically, that could doom him east of the Anacostia River. And we see him around the neighborhood during the day a little more often than you might expect for a candidate in an upcoming citywide election.
But Weaver would bring a perspective the council seems to be missing now: someone who understands both the flood of young, mostly white, professional types the last census counted, and someone who also thinks about how the fallout from the trends that brought them here can leave longtime residents struggling. That’s the intersection where the District government—and all of us who live here—will find most conflicts come from over the next few years. That’s where the city needs a reasonable voice that can translate one side’s hopes and fears to the other.
Chances are you won’t vote April 26. But if you do, vote for Bryan Weaver.