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Posted at 2:11 PM ET, 01/ 7/2011

Sekou Biddle's ugly victory

By Martin Austermuhle

Just as they say that witnessing laws being made will make anyone lose faith in the legislative process, watching the D.C. Democratic State Committee make an interim choice to fill the seat vacated by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown was enough to make anyone abandon hope in democracy.

Fine, that may be a little dramatic. Internally, the process was democratic enough. Of the 82 members that make up the core of the District’s preeminent political party, 74 came out to cast ballots in a hotly contested battle mainly between Ward 4 State Board of Education member Sekou Biddle and former Ward 5 council member Vincent Orange.

Biddle won the first round of voting, 35-31, against Orange, but long-shot challenger Stanley Mays’ 8 votes denied him an outright majority. In the second round, furious caucusing by both sides ended in a 37-37 split. It was only in the third and final round – by which point Brown had appeared to press the flesh on behalf of his anointed successor – that Biddle claimed victory, 40-31.

Despite Biddle’s qualifications for the post, the process by which he was selected was about as inside baseball as you can get. Only the membership of the committee could vote -- and whether the balloting was secret or not remains somewhat unclear. Additionally, thanks to odd provisions of the Home Rule Charter, Biddle will have little time to get comfortable in his new position – he still has to contest an April 26 special election that Orange and a mélange of other candidates have already vowed to participate in, though almost everyone in the room admitted that an interim selection was a huge leg up in the special election.

The entire process should be scrapped and rethought. Unlike at-large seats, ward-based posts remain unfilled until a special election is held. This makes both more and less sense. More, because by not having an interim selection process limited to party insiders, ward seats can't be handed out as virtual forms of patronage. Less, because ward seats are more important and should thus be filled more quickly. (Both wards 4 and 7 had no representation on the council when the body voted to turn control over D.C. schools to the mayor, for example.)

In an ideal world, any vacancy on the council would be filled through a special election conducted in a timely fashion. But making that happen would require either an act of Congress or a city-wide referendum. Legislation is currently before Congress to drop the waiting period between a vacancy and a special election from 114 to 70 days, but there’s no move yet to scrap the internal appointment process Biddle benefited from.

Beyond that, the D.C. Democratic State Committee needs to catch up with the fast-changing city around it. Yes, most District voters are registered Democrats, but there’s a growing contingent of independents – 72,000 and counting. Additionally, for its lack of electoral successes, the local Republican Party is widely seen as more professional and dynamic than its Democratic counterpart. There have even been proposals to scrap the party system altogether – after all, in a city as broadly liberal-minded as the District is, being a Democrat, Independent or Republican doesn’t really matter all that much.

As Biddle and Orange battled it out Thursday, Bryan Weaver, who challenged Council member Jim Graham for his Ward 1 seat last year, watched from the back. Weaver, who was credited for running a creative campaign against a strong incumbent, is the subject of a nascent effort to draft him to participate in April’s special election. Also in the crowd was Josh Lopez, a young Fenty firebrand who coordinated the insurgent campaign to write in the mayor's name in November’s general election. Lopez has already collected the signatures he needs to get on the ballot in April.

Weaver and Lopez, along with many others like them, are symbols of the crossroads local D.C. politics seems to have reached. They’re all products of party politics in one way or another, but they also seem to see the value in finding new and creative ways to reach out to voters – many of whom may be new to the city, others who may have soured on the city’s longstanding single-party rule. Neither of them may succeed this time, but the spirit of their campaigns could eventually become more the rule than the exception.

None of this is to belittle Biddle, who came across as sincere and ready for the challenge ahead of him. He can rightfully take credit for a hard-won victory – though one won through a closed and dated process.

Martin Austermuhle blogs at DCist. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Martin Austermuhle  | January 7, 2011; 2:11 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., D.C. politics, HotTopic, Local blog network  
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Thank you for speaking out and noting how flawed this process really is. I am an Independent and have vowed never to vote for any Democrat running for office in DC just because the party is so corrupt. We need non-partisan elections in DC.

Posted by: blankspace | January 7, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Most everything in DC is flawed and corrupt. If you really want improvements you need to embrace your right as a US citizen to move a few thousand yards into MD or VA. DC was not designed to have people live in it and complaining about that fact has changed nothing for hundreds of years. Now, many people benefit from how screwed up it is, and if you don't feel you are one of those folks then your path is clear. Can you see it?

Posted by: plugugly7 | January 9, 2011 7:24 AM | Report abuse

much better reasoned piece than the original in-at-the-kill hastily written critiques full of blind outrage and sputtering at everyone. but can you please spell Stanley Mayes' name right? damn. on the moment in the sun his mama and us ward oners should at least get confirmation that it's the guy we all know (and that reporters care enough to get it all right).

Posted by: create_communitas | January 9, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I have no idea why any members of the DC City Council believe they have an unfettered right to decide who a DC Council seat should be held by. That statutory and Constitutional right belongs to the residents of the District of COlumbia. The City Council members who decided they favored Mr. Biddle because the Council needs "new blood" flies in the face of the number of years some of them have been on Council, especially Mr. Barry. If we need new blood he should have retired years ago.

Council member Kwame Brown's arrogance is only exceeded by his inability to balance his personal and household checkbook. Of course, the first thing he would do upon assuming the Council Chair's position is to spend $13,000 for renovations for his office which the District cannot afford.
District residents can and will decide who will hold the at large Council seat without any advice from sitting City Council members.

Mr. Orange has far more education and experience balancing City books than the rest of the council has. We are in the financial straits that we are in because of the City Council's failure to tell Fenty NO. Mayor Gray has imposed a halt on all capitol projects not yet started as should have been several years ago.

A voting DC resident.

Posted by: emwl923760 | January 9, 2011 4:08 PM | Report abuse

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