Loose Lips

Sekou Biddle Wants To Be Your Councilmember

Sekou Biddle Seeks to Keep D.C. Council Seat

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.

Sekou Biddle Wants to Keep D.C. Council Seat

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.

* * *

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.

Send tips or suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

  • Barbara Wolfson

    Full disclosure: I've known Sekou since he was 12 years old and a classmate of my daughter at Deal. He is the same smart, savvy, even-tempered, energetic, open-minded person he was then, but now he has a solid track record that proves his dedication to educating ALL our kids and his commitment to our city. We are lucky to have him on the Council - and we need to keep him there.

  • WARD411

    Working for Kipp and Jump Start does not mean he can represent the entire city.

  • Tammie Knights

    I have known Sekou for over ten years- first as a colleague in education and now as a friend. Sekou has the intellect to dissect complex problems and the compassion necessary to develop solutions. But more importantly is how he approaches education reform and how I believe he will approach all reform efforts on behalf of DC. Sekou uses his own children as the barometer. If it isn't good enough for his own children, then it isn't good enough for any child and he is going do everything in his power to bring whatever is broken up to par. DC would be lucky to keep such a smart, straight-forward, dedicated person like Sekou on City Council.

  • Dave G

    @ Jack Matthews--He's running for city-wide office, which is why you see events in other wards. What you see isn't an outsider uninterested in his home ward; it's a person genuinely committed to solving city-wide problems and forging relationships with people of all stripes to do so. I urge you to seek him out at an event or send him an email and talk to the man. I'll bet my 40 years in Ward 4 that you won't regret it.

    @ Dave W--What might not be apparent from today's perspective of this race is that the establishment didn't create Sekou's candidacy. Rather, his getting in the race gave the Mayor, former Fenty backers and all these council members a serious, thoughtful and constructive candidacy that they could rally around.

    When the race for the interim appointment started Orange was supposedly a lock given his position in the DCDSC and Sekou was a relative unknown city-wide among a field of seven or eight candidates. Believe me, Orange did everything he could to leverage his insider status with the DCDSC to gain the appointment, which is a big reason the process played out the way it did. It's a testament to Sekou's abilities that in such a short period he could distinguish himself among a crop of more well-known politicians, gain the backing of such a diverse group of people (e.g., Fenty and Grey backers) and take down the DCDSC's guy.

    The interim process wasn't pretty for sure but don't blame Sekou for it. Instead we should thank him for taking the risk and be grateful that he presented such a serious candidacy that other elected officials went to work for him rather than let Orange pocket the appointment. Bear in mind also that the big time pols didn't come out for Sekou until he had already won over significant grassroots support among many of the DCDSC.

    The race is now among voters at-large, and not just the DCDSC, so I'm sure you'll be seeing and hearing a lot more from Sekou (e.g., about how education reform is the foundation of his platform because it's the right thing for our children and it's the bedrock for our future economic and social success as a city). I hope you listen with an open mind. I know it may seem odd to believe this of a politician but he hasn't won the support of these pols so at odds with each other because of promises he's made or strings they think they can pull. Rather, Sekou's earned it because he'll let you know honestly where he stands on an issue and agree or disagree he'll work with you to solve the problem.

    The man has integrity and this city -- especially its governance -- can use more of that quality.

  • Jack Matthews

    @ Dave G-Thanks for stating the obvious. We all know he is running for city-wide office but like all politics your base is LOCAL. For Biddle, thats ward 4. Majority ward 4 have not heard of this guy. The ones who have heard of him CANNOT recall any thing of substance he has contributed to ward 4. My questions to you are: What has he done in ward4?? What has he done on the school board? What has he done for any school in Ward 4 or city-wide? Does he go to ANC/Civic meetings, if so which ones? Show me some accomplishments from the school board??

    As far as seeking him out, i think somehow you got it backwards. He is the one seeking office and need votes. I go to my ANC and Civic meetings along with my PTA meetings. I have never seen Mr. Biddle. Maybe, I should go knock on his door?? Wrong. I bet my 45+years that I have lived city-wide that has never happen and will not this time.

  • Dave W

    @dave g-LOL. You are fool, if you believe the pols rallied around after he announced. He went to school with the chairman, their fathers are from the same town in NJ. etc

    Connect the dots my friend, things in life very rarely just happen. If he was half of what you think he is, then he would have won on the first ballot not the third with a bunch of arm bending and empty promises. LOL!!

  • Tim Mahony

    As someone who has worked with Sekou and sought his advice and assistance with issues related to LGBT bullying as well as education issues in general. He is someone who is passionate about education (the biggest issue facing the future of prosperity in DC)and making this a better city for all. I look forward to continuing to work with him as a council member and I know that he is someone who will continue to make this city a great place to live.

  • Nicholas Krump

    I've know Sekou for ten years as a friend, colleague and father. He's pragmatic, level headed and, no doubt, committed. He's able to engage in debate, consider both sides of an argument and make a choice without alienating others.

    What makes Sekou a top choice in the election is his ability to build relationships and develop partnerships. From his days in the classroom to working at KIPP to his current role in early education, I believe his frame is to build a community that is strong enough and dedicated to ensuring students get the best education.

    Let's face it, if we can't get education right in D.C., then when we, as a country, speak about democracy and our freedoms, then the message doesn't carry the same weight.

  • New Voter

    I have read that education is Mr. Biddle's strong suit. What has he done in education that makes folks feel that he should be on the city council? (I am not for or against him, please let me know because I will vote.) I see he works for Jumpstart but that is a job, did he pioneer a movement? Launch an education initiative? I know teachers and principals that have been around for 5-30yrs but they should not be council members.

  • http://www.browardarttherapy.com Eileen Misluk

    I have known Sekou since 2001 when I arrived in Atlanta as a young teacher with Teach for America, Sekou was my mentor. His dedication and stedfast demenor makes him the ideal candidate. There is no one more qualified and deserving than Sekou for this position.

  • Joseph Gervase

    Sekou is dedicated to understanding the challenges in any given situation, while quietly gathering information to fuel success. I worked with Mr. Biddle in a variety of group settings where his encouragement and unwavering committment to the improvement of a community never ceased to amaze me. I recommend him without hesitation!

  • ME4DC

    I have attended 2 of Sekou Biddle fundraiser events. (Ben`s & Smith Commons)

    By the way....my check was finally cashed!

    Honestly, I really enjoyed speaking with his wife and parents! They are really nice people!

    Something did hit me hard......Ron Moten was at the events! I have a BIG PROBLEM seeing him there.
    I know this a free country and you can go where you want but seeing Ron Moten made me questions somethings!
    (Just maybe he(RM)is still trying to be in the political circle!)

    Sekou...you need to watch the company that you keep!

    I like you but I am watching you and every move you make!

    Keep your nose clean for the shake of your Family, Friends and the City!

  • ME4DC

    @Jane.....Kelvin Robinson is a Jerk! Glad he took his name off the ballot! Kelvin is an embarrassment to himself! Jane are you Kelvin????

  • Kate

    During my two years of teaching in Atlanta Public Schools, Sekou provided invaluable support and advice to ensure that my students were receiving the educational opportunities they deserved.

  • Karn Engelsgjerd

    I've known Sekou Biddle since 2001, when we were both working as Teach For America program directors. His approach to training and supporting first and second year teachers was admirable. He worked hard, he built strong relationships with teachers, and he wasn't afraid to hold others to high expectations. I remember him speaking directly to corps members about the stakes of their success and why it was so important to make a difference in their classrooms and learn as much as possible so they could be informed leaders in the future. After decades in this work, I count Sekou as an informed leader.

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