Loose Lips

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.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

  • Art

    Under "Lesson 2: It’s better to be lucky than good", you could also add the Biddle is lucky that that the Jeff Thompson investigation news broke not only before the primary, but close enough to the primary that it was fresh in voters' minds.

  • Really?

    Al you also forgot to add it doesn't hurt If you press secretary's boo also happens to be the "dame good" reporter for the Washington Post who just happens to be assigned to report on all things political in DC, including your potential boss who is running in a campaign for a council seat...Plus 5 points!

  • RealDC

    Biddle is a loser, the Charlie Brown of DC politics. Its always Lucy's fault for not being able to kick the ball. For Biddle, its Mara, its Shapiro, no, its you. You ran an uninspiring, race baiting campaign against a guy that everyone wanted gone. Now VO is playing with house money, 2014 will be interesting, Orange will have a free swing at the big chairs or he can sit back and lob bombs at Catania, Wells, Mendelson, Kwame, Cheh, oh yeah go get 'em Orange!

  • StrangeFruit

    Censorship at its best?

  • Race Matters

    Both these guys are not a good look.

  • seDCdude

    at RACE, is that figuratively what you speak of cuz damn biddle is one funny lQQn son of a gun...looks like the freak in that movie....damn I'm drawing a blank, SIN CITY!

    He was a wierdo at DEAL and he's a wierdo NOW!

  • InTheMixx

    I met Vincent Orange this past weekend in China Town. He was out with the family. Seems like a nice enough guy to me. Very polite.

    I do wonder, however, how common has it been in DC, hell, in politics, for poiticians to accept money from suspicious sources?

    I've never known politics to be a clean game. And it is a game, a game all about voter mind manipulation (my opinion). Make promises you don't intend to keep and keep them fighting each other to shield the fact that you haven't delivered on them.

  • IMHO

    Orange got rightfully whupped when he ran for mayor and went to stump for Pepco during the years where they ranked lowest in terms of service. Anyone remember the several winter snowstorm weeks that DC residents went without power in 2010-2011? Orange was the lobbyist for Pepco then, and I don't recall him doing a whole lot for DC residents to get the lights turned back on. Orange has not been a particularly effective legislator, which explains why an incumbent did not have it easy.

    That said, it's a shame that more of these "progressives" did not do a bigger GOTV effort and voter outreach in NE and east of the river. Ward 5,7, 8 and the "senior towers" throughout the city are where DC's real residents reside. The DC residents who bore witness, first hand, to the District's segregated past. The folks who can remember friends and family getting their first office jobs under Mayor Barry, the people who kept DC afloat when the rest of the country abandoned us, and the people who've in large part been left out of DC's economic upswing over the last 15 years. These are the people who care about what happens locally, the people who vote in the primaries. Orange reached out to these voters, and I'm guessing that many of them voted for the devil they knew, versus some unknown from Northwest.

    Until so called "progressives" reach out to DC's native born voters on issues that matter, they're going to keep losing. Surprising to me is how Biddle ran the same campaign and "education reform" platform twice, and lost both campaigns for the same reason (which, incidentally, also was an issue for Adrian Fenty): Education "reform" is now viewed with a lot of suspicion.

    In 2006, education reform for DC residents was supposed to mean improvements in neighborhood schools. Instead, Fenty's "reform" closed 23 neighborhood schools and left a lot of teachers without jobs. There have been some improvements, but folks voted in 2006 expecting a sea change they never witnessed.

    In case any "progressives" read this comment, mark my words: funny webisodes, shiny new websites and the endorsement of the Washington Post mean little to people who live in the part of town where unemployment and functional illiteracy are in the 30s, where crime is a problem, and where housing is becoming less affordable now that the dog owners are moving in.

    Quick history lesson: President Obama won the Illinois Senate Primary by going to Southern Illinois, and appealed to the things he had in common with the region's blue collar, majority white, rural voters. He knew that barely winning Chicago was not a winning strategy for a statewide election.

    Any "progressive" running in this election should keep this strategy in mind. Staying in "fortress northwest" is a great way to lose a city-wide election.

  • ProvincialDC

    Suderman's close but still off on lessons 3 and 5. It's not a white-black racial divide that mattered in this election so much as a wealth/education divide -- race just happens to be a crude proxy for wealth and ed in the city. Case in point, look at how many non-black voters voted for Biddle over Shapiro.

    If race was a factor in and of itself, it's in the sense that maybe some black voters in DC, particularly those in the eastern and southern parts of the city, have a very hard time trusting a candidate that has support from the city's non-black populations. I hope that's not the case but it's possible; we each have to look at ourselves in the mirror. It doesn't help though that some city pols and their supporters clearly play to that sentiment.

    Neither does it help making voting choices on the merits when some local journalists will label a candidate as "hapless" when the candidate's strengths are substance and integrity as opposed to gladhanding and grandstanding. Sizzle sells. Too bad the ability to run a flashy campaign in DC hasn't been positively related to the ability to govern wisely, or even avoid indictment for that matter.

    As for Ward 4, it isn't a "king maker," it's a bellwether. Orange ran strong there but I think Biddle did win it after all. It plays that role not because of high turnout -- that helps -- but because it's the most representative ward in the city. Wealthier, more highly educated voters (black, white, etc) in the ward's northern and western precincts went for Biddle, while Orange did better as you move south and east into the ward's less wealthly and less highly educated precincts.

  • SEis4ME

    Alan, talking about a lot of wild assumptions. Biddle, with his name recognition and hosts of endorsements couldn't unseat Orange. Both Orange and Biddle are, in part, victims of circumstances beyond their control. The Shapiro (supposedly progressive) crew were against Biddle because he was supported by Brown and Gray. The Biddle (supposedly progressive) were against Orange because they saw him as corrupt..the truth was less important. There wasn't a whole lot either candidate could do to unite the warring factions in their favor.

    Muriel Bowser will never be mayor. That's unless she runs against Tommy Wells.

  • SEis4ME

    @IMHO/Provincial, great posts!

  • NE John

    I offered my vote to Ross for $17.50. He came in at $15. To bad for him.

  • @SamuelMoore

    I don't see any reason to put "Republican" in front of Pat Mara under #2 for this article, it adds nothing.

  • InTheMixx

    Interesting IMHO. My thoughts exactly. As many elections that the Post/CP fall short on east of the River, you'd thnk they'd get it by now. Disrespecting the very people that go to the polls, even during primaries outside of a presidential election, is no way to win and it never will be.

  • drez

    good stuff by IMHO, ProvincialDC, and (am I really writing this?) SEis4ME.

  • Truth hurts

    Agree with Drez.

  • Anti-DC

    Orange's situation is beyond his control because no one on the council supports him. I am a "Free DC" activist and I do support his DC Emancipation initiative but why is it the media has not done a great job publicizing this week.

    We cry all day about DC being a statehood but we will not take the first step in celebrating the freeing of our ancestors.

    Biddle's reason for running on the council and his vision are very unclear. Not to mention his campaign operations are piss poor.

    For a man on the council that everyone hates, he takes care of his business and carries out his own agenda. I can respect that.

  • StrangeFruit

    Lesson #6: The Inside Job

    The most important of all, you gotta have someone on your staff dating a metro beat reporter to ensure you have the upper hand.

  • StrangeFruit

    I guess I'm in time out--moderation--since I'm a part of the groundswell regarding this rag's boy!

    All of my comments are going to moderation and not being released.

  • InTheMixx

    @Anti-DC, I agree about Emancipation Day. Particularly because this marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Act.

    Here are some events for those who wish to participate:

    President Lincoln's Cottage

    April 15, 2012, 2:30 - 4:30 p.m. Rock Creek Church Rd and Upshur St. NW Washington, DC. This free outdoor public program will feature noted Lincoln scholars and a musical program. Lincoln experts will include Harold Holzer, Dr. Edna Greene Medford, and the Honorable Frank Williams. The speakers will discuss Lincoln's role in the DC Emancipation Act, the media reaction to the act, and the role of the citizens of DC. The program will take place on the south lawn of President Lincoln's Cottage. Lincoln lived in this property when he drafted the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Free in DC - Scavenger Hunt

    April 16, 2012. A competitive city-wide mobile scavenger hunt will be held by Cultural Tourism DC in partnership with President Lincoln's Cottage, Ford's Theatre, and the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. Contestants will be taken to 11 sites around the city where they must complete challenges to rack up points for a chance to win prizes. The 30 competitors with the highest scores by the end of April 16 will receive gift bags courtesy of President Lincoln's Cottage and be entered into a drawing for the grand prize: a two-night stay at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel. The app will be available for download and use starting April 13 at http://www.scvngr.com.

    Tudor Place Historic House and Garden

    April 14, 2012, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. 1644 31st St. NW Washington, DC. An interactive experience of a Civil War camp with a tour on the grounds of the Tudor Place that includes featured interpreters dressed in costumes portraying Union and Confederate soldiers, enslaved workers, Union artillery units, and a discussion about the daily encounters of Civil War camp life in the District of Columbia.

    Mayor's Emancipation Day Program

    April 16, 2012. African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, U St. and Vermont Ave. NW Washington, DC. Panelists will discuss emancipation in the District of Columbia and compare the nexus between the struggle for emancipation and the struggle for full congressional representation, and statehood in the District of Columbia.

    Emancipation Parade

    Monday, April 16, 2012 - 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, between 3rd St. and 13 1/2 St. DC hosts a parade in honor the signing of the DC Compensated Emancipation Act of April 16, 1862, which freed 3,100 enslaved persons and ended slavery in DC.

    Emancipation Day Street Festival and Fireworks

    Monday, April 16, 2012 - 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Freedom Plaza, E Street, NW. For more information, call (202) 724-8174.

    Capitol Visitor Center

    The original DC Emancipation Act, signed by President Lincoln, is on loan to the Capitol Visitor Center and on display through September 9, 2012.

  • Keith B.

    Keep crying, StrangeFruit. MM's already explained why comments get stuck in moderation (the better question is why they don't just disable the system if they don't have the staff to run it) and it's not just you it happens to. So can the "wah wah censorship", just submit your comment again. 2/3 times it works.


  • StrangeFruit

    Keith B,

    Stop being the media's drone and swallowing everything that's fed to you. Critical thinking skills are a must when one ventures off the trailer park's grounds!

    In reference to moderation, comments with certain words are placed in moderation and the CP is censoring the ones that mention its former employee and his boo. My censored comment mentioned both, and after trying to submit it several times, it's still in time out.

  • Keith B.

    DeBonis DeBonis DeBonis

  • Keith B.

    Stop being a conspiracy-finding tin foil hat clown, leave that to 'tony'. Funny you talk about trailer parks, how many times have you been abducted?

  • Keith B.

    Consider your myth BUSTED

  • DJ Ren

    StrangeFruit: Please. Get back on the meds, or subject another comment section to your irrational bleatings, I beg of you.

  • StrangeFruit

    DJ Ren and Keith B,

    You guys need a enema, really!

  • Truth hurts

    Debonis and Dena. Wah, wah, wah.