Five Lessons From D.C.’s Elections (Plus One Bonus Lesson)
The mood at Vincent Orange’s house on election night last week sounds like it was pretty tense.
As election returns trickled in, Orange and challenger Sekou Biddle exchanged small leads. With nearly 80 percent of precincts reporting, Orange was down about 1,000 votes. At that point, Orange later told supporters at his almost-victory party, “the Internet went down in the house, we ran to the office” where he and his two sons furiously started crunching numbers on the uncounted precincts.
Orange says a close look at what votes were still left showed most of them would go his way. “We got this,” he and his sons started saying. And when the final tally came in, “we just went crazy.”
“It was just a great moment for us that we will always share. Just never give up, never give up,” a relieved-looking Orange told the San Antonio Grill that night.
Orange isn’t the official winner yet—there are absentee and provisional ballots left to count, which will be done Friday—but he’s the favorite to prevail in one of the closest squeakers the District has seen in a long time. The moral of Orange’s almost victory isn’t an after school special-esque takeaway on the importance of perseverance, though, no matter what VO says. Instead, here are LL’s 5 lessons from Tuesday’s results:
- Lesson 1: A lot of voters are pissed.
Forget what you may have read in the paper of record saying the District’s year of scandals “had so little practical impact at the polls.” Sure, all the incumbents besides Orange won easily. But the fact that the hapless Biddle came so close (and yes, he could still technically pull this off), propelled by angry voters looking to throw the bums—or more specifically, Orange—out is nothing short of a small miracle.
Orange has not been accused of any wrongdoing, nor is there any indication that he’s under federal investigation like Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown. But his close connections to Jeff Thompson, the Medicaid contractor whose home and offices were raided by the feds a month before the election, didn’t help him this spring.
Weeks before the election, Orange was forced by media pressure to release a batch of money order donations linked to Thompson with sequential serial numbers and similar handwriting. Even Orange, who has received more than $100,000 from Thompson and his network of donors, now says the money orders are “suspicious.”
The Thompson connection hurt Orange enough to let Biddle’s underfunded, disorganized effort make things close. Consider the deficits Biddle faced. In last year’s special election, Orange outspent Biddle $280,000 to $200,000. This year, the most recent campaign finance forms show Orange raising nearly $210,000 to Biddle’s $90,000.
Last year, Biddle also enjoyed strong union support, including mailers and poll workers. This year, Biddle was endorsed by the hotel workers’ union, but got significantly less legwork from the group. The reason, says one union official, is Biddle’s mess of a campaign. “Sekou never managed to find someone who was a good fit for the campaign and who knew how to run a solid operation.” says the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the race.
Biddle’s supporters were dismayed when he hired Vicky Wilcher to be his campaign manager. A former head of the D.C. Republican Party who also worked for Orange, Wilcher was arrested last year after mistakenly trying to bring a gun into the District’s offices at One Judiciary Square. Biddle and Wilcher parted ways early, but some of his supporters say her hiring in the first place was evidence of a certain level of dysfunction that persisted throughout the campaign.
One progressive city activist, who works in District government and asked not to be named, says Biddle had “multiple” meetings with supporters who were concerned that his campaign lacked direction and focus.
Some Biddle supporters also fault him for relying too heavily on the endorsement of the Washington Post, which Biddle certainly did try to milk for all it was worth (and more). You may have also noticed that Biddle was also endorsed by LL’s editors at Washington City Paper, not that that helped him any
Biddle says he’s already proved plenty of naysayers wrong by running a competitive campaign on a shoestring budget. He adds that his campaign was “extremely disciplined” with the limited resources it had.
Another problem? A charm deficit. Biddle has many positive qualities, but political star power isn’t one of them. He just doesn’t inspire supporters the way some pols can.
As evidence, look no further than the slightly disgruntled group of progressives who backed Peter Shapiro in the race. Shapiro, whose most recent political gig was as a councilmember in Prince George’s County, for crying out loud, won the endorsement of the influential blog Greater Greater Washington and a vocal group of activists. In the end, Shapiro only won 10 percent of the vote. But Biddle’s inability to attract and mobilize a constituency that was as eager as anyone to vote Orange out shows what a weak candidate he was.
“To say he’s only 543 votes out is pretty impressive,” says the city-employed activist.
Indeed it is, and woe to any politician who doesn’t understand Biddle’s strong showing.
- Lesson 2: It’s better to be lucky than good.
Of course, not all of Biddle’s supporters agree that he ran a crummy campaign. Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, a Biddle backer, says blame for an Orange victory would lie with Shapiro for not dropping out: “Sekou’s campaign was not the problem.”
To say some Biddle supporters are ticked off at Shapiro would be an understatement. Kempner alternated between calling him the Ralph Nader and the Newt Gingrich of D.C. politics (though LL notes that Gingrich isn’t exactly playing the spoiler in the GOP primaries—the District’s iteration of which, by the way, Mitt Romney won handily last week).
Shapiro, whose quixotic bid attracted support from former Orange campaign workers like Andi Pringle and Harold Gist, has ardently denied spoiling anything. But almost all of his votes came from the same wards where Biddle did well.
So it was a lucky break for Orange that Shapiro decided to run, and even luckier still considering the same thing happened last year. In the special election that made him an incumbent, Orange benefited from the fact that four candidates—Biddle, Republican Pat Mara, Bryan Weaver, and Josh Lopez—were all competing against each other for similar bases, while Orange had the mostly African-American voters in Wards 5, 7, and 8 almost all to himself.
Also lucky: Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who won with 42 percent of the vote. Her two main opponents split 44 percent.
- Lesson 3: Race matters, even if you pretend it doesn’t.
Compare maps of last Tuesday’s election results and the District’s demographics, and you might think you’re looking at the same map. Predominantly white precincts voted overwhelmingly for Biddle; predominantly black areas voted overwhelmingly for Orange. The results mirror the 2010 mayor’s race.
Yet neither candidate appeared willing to acknowledge the obvious. On election night, Orange told his supporters: “Let’s not break this thing down...This is about us coming together as a people. This is about all the wards.”
And last week Biddle said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show that there may be a racial divide in the city, but he didn’t know for sure, because “I’m not actually interviewing each individual voter to find out who they vote for.”
A full explanation of the District’s racial divide in the voting booth is the stuff of Ph.D. theses, but it’s fair to say African-American voters tend to be more skeptical about claims of wrongdoing by black candidates.
“All of them—the man sets you up,” an Orange voter told the Post on election day. “They check you as soon as you get there.”
- Lesson 4: Money doesn’t vote.
In 2010, Adrian Fenty showed you can raise $5 million and still lose badly. This year, shadow Senate candidate and ex-con Pete Ross repeated the lesson, spending $200,000 of his own money to get 25 percent of the vote. Total cost to Ross? If he wound up spending all of that money, then nearly $15 per vote. At that rate, he should have just offered to buy lobster rolls for anyone who backed him; it wouldn’t have cost him much more.
- Lesson 5: Ward 4 is king/queen maker.
As Ward 4 goes, so goes the rest of the city. In the at-large race, the ward—Biddle’s home—ended in a virtual tie between Orange and Biddle, much like the result citywide. In the 2010 mayoral race, the ward went big for Gray (though Fenty lived there) and helped assure his victory. Why is Ward 4 so powerful? Voters there turn out more reliably than elsewhere. In last Tuesday’s at-large race, Ward 4 had 10,758 votes, accounting for more than 20 percent of the total ballots cast, though it only has about 14 percent of the city’s registered Democratic voters.
All of this is good news for Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who won reelection with 65 percent of the vote last week. Bowser’s name is on the short list of potential candidates for higher office, either in 2014 or if the feds create a vacancy sometime sooner. If she does run, she’ll have a big base to start with.
- Bonus lesson: Ward 8 Councilmember-for-Life Marion Barry is still good at winning elections—and not so good at making victory speeches.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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