Sekou Biddle Wants To Be Your Councilmember
Let’s get this out of the way: The ear-to-ear scar that runs atop the crown of Sekou Biddle’s skull is the result of some asshole blindsiding him with a pool cue in the mid-’90s when he was trying to head off a bar fight. The single whack, which the newest member of the D.C. Council says he never saw coming, happened as Biddle was trying to herd a buddy out of Quigley’s, a now-defunct bar near American University, before his friend and a stranger came to blows.
An associate of said stranger struck Biddle across his forehead and face with a pool cue, causing several skull fractures. To put his head back together, doctors took a “big chunk” of his skull for a bone graft “to fix the rest of it,” Biddle says.
There’s been plenty of curiosity about Biddle’s scar, not to mention the man himself, among the District’s political class since Biddle was appointed by the D.C. Democratic State Committee as a four-month fill-in at-large councilmember earlier this month. Just who is this dude, and how did he manage to come from virtually nowhere and win the appointment?
By his own admission, Biddle was one heck of a long shot to win the DCDSC’s pick. When he decided to run last fall, he put his chances at about 1 percent. Biddle says it was a combination of mobilizing dedicated volunteers, hiring the right experts, and just plain hustle that helped him capture “the imagination and interest of a pretty diverse constituency.”
Maybe—but it probably didn’t hurt that his main opponent, former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, rubbed new Council Chairman Kwame Brown the wrong way by telling voters Brown shouldn’t be trusted with a credit card during last fall’s primary campaign. Brown came to Biddle’s rescue, along with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., with some last-minute arm-twisting during the chaotic DCDSC appointment process earlier this month.
That kind of win puts Biddle in the awkward position of defending a process that many consider flawed, unfair, and pointless. It also wins him the label of a political insider who won a council seat with only 40 votes from members of the District’s anemic Democratic Party apparatus.
But Biddle says he’s not worried about being labeled as the party hacks’ pick, and says the appointment process is not as flawed as critics make it out to be. He argues the DCDSC’s requirements that all candidates get 1,000 signatures from registered voters, with at least 100 coming from each ward, was a legitimate way of winnowing the crowd to only serious contenders. He says his victory in the DCDSC’s appointment process represents his ability to show committee members that he could organize, fundraise, and campaign like a real candidate. Biddle also dismisses complaints about the DCDSC’s ability to appoint temporary at-large candidates as “just talk” from the chattering class that’ll disappear until the next time there’s a special election.
The bigger issue, Biddle says, isn’t how he won the DCDSC’s pick, but that most people in this town don’t know who he is. True, Biddle’s been a school board member since 2007, but that’s about as low-profile an elected office as one can have in this town. Says former Washington Teachers Union President George Parker of Biddle: “In a very limited interaction, he came across as a very reasonable person.”
Biddle’s low profile is probably a big reason why so many other people are either announcing their own candidacies for April’s special election or launching trial balloons to gauge their chances. Almost 20 would-be rivals have picked up petitions to run, but it’s still too early to know how many serious challengers Biddle will face. On Wednesday, Republican Pat Mara and former Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C Chairman Bryan Weaver announced they were running. Each have an easily identifiable base—something vital in a low-turnout special election, and something Biddle currently lacks.
The last special election, in 1997, was decided by 1,197 votes after the DCDSC’s pick, Arrington Dixon, ran what most watchers called a lazy campaign. A hardworking young upstart named David Catania, who was then a Republican, won. Mara’s probably not going to count on any indolence on Biddle’s part, but a super-crowded field of Democrats must be music to his ears.
The good news for Biddle is that his recent appointment means he now has the power of incumbency heading into April’s special election, a power that includes access to deep-pocketed political donors and more media attention—like this profile you’re reading now.
Biddle is a native Washingtonian who grew up in the much tougher Columbia Heights of the ’70s and ’80s. (These days, he lives in Shepherd Park, in Ward 4.) As a child he says he learned to spot heroin addicts and give them a wide berth when passing them on the sidewalk as he walked to school. “Most of the people who choose to live in Columbia Heights today would never have visited that neighborhood when I was growing up there,” Biddle says. “Right? You wanna keep it very, very real. That’s certainly a part of who I am.”
Biddle’s folks, who both worked for the federal government, stressed the importance of education early on, he says, and put in the legwork to make sure Biddle went to the right public schools. As proof of just how small a town D.C. can be, Biddle was a year behind former Mayor Adrian Fenty at Alice Deal Junior High School. At Deal, Biddle also became close friends with Doug Levitt, former Councilwoman Carol Schwartz’s son. Biddle was a regular at Schwartz’s home growing up. “He had a depth to him that a lot of young people do not have,” says the Republican Schwartz.
Biddle went to Woodrow Wilson Senior High School with Kwame Brown, whose dad had grown up with Biddle’s father in Lakewood, N.J. Biddle and Brown were not close friends in school. When asked who was the cooler kid back in the day, Biddle says, with no small amount of pride, “People knew who I was.” Biddle played sports, (football, basketball, crew) and dated the valedictorian, whom he later married. Brown says he was cool in other ways—like rarely making it to school.
Biddle went off to Morehouse College all set to prepare for some sort of lucrative business career. His plan was to work a few years, go back to school for a law degree or MBA, make a lot of money, then spend his silver years giving back. But somewhere along the way, inspired in part by routinely walking past Morehouse’s statue of Martin Luther King Jr., Biddle says he decided he wanted to “frontload” the giving back part of his plan. He joined Teach for America and taught two years in New York, then became a teacher in Atlanta. He returned to the District to teach at KIPP DC charter school before becoming the school’s director of community outreach. He’s currently the executive director of an early education program called Jumpstart for Young Children.
Biddle thought he would pursue teaching for a few years and then move on with his life to another career. “I just haven’t moved on yet,” Biddle says, adding that he’s still a teacher at heart, and improving education is his top priority as a councilmember.
“That’s where I’m reasonably convinced this whole thing is won or lost,” says Biddle, referring to the city’s future.
If that doesn’t sound familiar, then you weren’t listening to Fenty on the campaign trail last year. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Biddle as a more personable version of the former mayor. Besides the obvious shared physical similarities (both are bald, young and athletic), they also seem to share a basic idea that leadership means setting simple and bold goals and getting the right people in place to fulfill those goals. “I’m a no B.S. kind of guy,” says Biddle, who adds that he admires John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech about putting a man on the moon and bringing him back by the end of the decade. “It’s amazing in its simplicity,” Biddle says. (Biddle has also hired Fenty’s former political strategist, Tom Lindenfeld.)
But Biddle seems unlikely to mimic the antisocial qualities that cost Fenty so much goodwill and, in the end, his political career. Biddle’s already nabbed the support of several key Gray allies, including campaign manager Lorraine Green, and he says he gets on well with the new mayor, despite supporting Fenty during last year’s primary.
“Sekou has natural proclivities as a bridge builder,” says Levitt, Biddle’s childhood friend.
Biddle’s test won’t be whether he can build bridges, but how fast.
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MEET THE REAL BOSSES
This column, which will celebrate its 28th birthday this summer, began life covering the “other” Washington—Capitol Hill, K Street, and the like—with only the occasional mention of the juicy District politics that’s since come to define Loose Lips.
Rest assured, dear readers, this LL has little interest in the daily actions of this nation’s powerbrokers and even less interest in writing about them. But the District’s unique role as Congress’ municipal plaything forces those who care about local politics to pay attention occasionally to what’s happening on the Hill.
Washington City Paper tried to perform its civic duty in October, with a cover story profile of Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was believed to be in line to take over the subcommittee responsible for overseeing District affairs if Republicans won control of the House. The GOP easily took control of the House, but rising-star Chaffetz was tasked with more important things (namely, overseeing the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of junk-touching).
Instead, the District’s affairs will be overseen by freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina. Gowdy is a social conservative who fits the Tea Party mold. He’s also a former federal prosecutor who went to undergrad at Baylor University, which is known in LL’s native Texas for two things: Having a lousy football team and not allowing dancing on campus until 1996. (Gowdy graduated in 1986.) He beat incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Inglis in a primary, helped along by Inglis’ decisions to criticize Fox News Channel and vote for the Treasury’s bailout of Wall Street banks—neither of which were particularly popular moves in the conservative district, centered on Greenville and Spartanburg, that Gowdy now represents.
The other news from the Hill worth noting is the appointment of Missouri Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson to the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District’s budget. Emerson will play gatekeeper to her fellow House Republicans, who may want to sneak in policy-advocating riders to the city’s budget. Interestingly enough, Emerson was actually born in the District and raised in Bethesda, since her father worked at the Republican National Committee.
How much interest these two have in meddling with the District’s local affairs is as yet unknown. The best-case scenario would be none at all, leaving the District to run things by itself like every other city in the country. The worst case would be, well, the opposite of the best case. Congress—and specifically Emerson’s committee—still has to approve D.C.’s budget every year, even if lawmakers otherwise resist their impulses to play God here.
In any event, District residents can be sure that its elected officials have a plan. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was recently stripped of the symbolic ability to vote on certain measures by the new GOP-controlled House, told The Washington Post this week that she and Mayor Vince Gray plan to meet with Emerson and Gowdy soon and deliver a “hands off” message.
Hey, LL didn’t say it was a good plan.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery