D.C. Council: Plenty Of Heat, Not Much Light
However he fares across the rest of the country, Barack Obama stands to win in the District by Soviet proportions--Democrats talk about winning as much as 95 percent of the vote. (John Kerry won 89 percent in the District; even Michael Dukakis won 83 percent.)
For many D.C. voters, the only real contest on the ballot will be the D.C. Council at large seat now held by Carol Schwartz, the only Republican on the council.
Schwartz lost the September GOP primary to a dynamic young upstart named Patrick Mara, who knocked on thousands of doors and had big piles of money from businesses upset by Schwartz's advocacy of a bill forcing employers to pay for their workers' sick leave.
Now, Schwartz is mounting a write-in campaign against Mara, three independents and the Statehood-Green candidate. (There are two at-large seats on the ballot this year, but under the District's byzantine and anti-democratic electoral system, incumbent council member Kwame Brown (D) is virtually assured of reelection, while the other seat is reserved for a non-Democrat.)
The real contest is between Schwartz and Michael Brown, the perennial candidate who served on the city's boxing commission and has run for mayor and Ward 4 council member. Brown, who is the son of Ron Brown, the late Democratic Party chairman, has some big advantages: He's well-known in much of the city, he's an attractive, charismatic guy who spends a lot of time on cable TV speaking on behalf of Obama's campaign, and he's the leading black candidate going up against two white contenders. And he's on the ballot.
He's also the candidate many council members want to see defeated, though they won't attach their names to that sentiment. Whether it's the annoying robocalls his campaign makes to D.C. residents, his involvement in a business dispute with a retailer at the Washington Convention Center, or his advocacy for big spending programs, council members say Brown would be a less than welcome addition to their ranks.
But voters get to make that choice, not politicians. Despite Mara's energetic, grass-roots effort, in the neighborhoods, Brown and Schwartz are winning most of the attention from those who attend campaign events.
The two differ sharply in style and--as they've shown at neighborhood forums and in a debate on WTOP radio--substance. Schwartz opposes a congestion tax; Brown says he's not sure. Schwartz opposes paying schoolchildren for good attendance and performance; Brown likes the idea. Schwartz supports making Peter Nickles' job as attorney general permanent; Brown says he's not sure. Schwartz says she wouldn't vote to raise taxes in this economic crunch; Brown--you guessed it--isn't sure (he says he'd look at raising sin taxes but thinks it's "irresponsible to promise no new taxes in this climate.")
On a council stocked with eight first-termers among its 13 members, "what we need is a little old blood, people who know where the bodies are buried," Schwartz tells audiences, who seem to like the idea that she's a watchdog who gives bureaucrats a hard time at council hearings.
Brown counters with promises that sound worthy, but would require massive new spending. He's the populist in the race, railing against the city's deal to build the baseball stadium, seeking protections for D.C. school teachers whose jobs have been threatened by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and calling for a new community college, an expanded university, new pre-school programs, and protections against gentrification.
Mara offers D.C. residents, including many occasional or first-time voters who are inspired to come out this year for the presidential race, an odd mix: He's a fiscal conservative who's tough on crime and says he's well to the left of both national parties on social issues. He is, for example, the rare D.C. candidate who favors legalizing single-sex marriage.
To gauge how aggressively the candidates might go after the scent of corruption in city government, I asked them to explain why the council has failed to approve a new operator for the D.C. Lottery, which the Fenty administration wants to hand over to a new company that promises to bring the District $5 million more than the current contractor provides.
"A pox on both of their houses," Schwartz said of the two local firms--current operator LTE and challenger W2I--that have teamed with big international lottery operators to bid on the D.C. Lottery contract . "The old group has not served us well. We don't make the money we should make." But she is wary of the challenger too, noting that the family that runs W2I ran into trouble with housing code violations at an apartment building they owned and a fatal stabbing at a nightclub they owned on U Street NW.
But the stalemate over the contract has gone on too long, Schwartz said. She now believes "we should just go ahead and approve the new company."
Mara also wants the contract to go to the challenger. "If we don't approve this contract, we are really discouraging people from bidding on our city's business," he said. "Decisions should never be based on campaign contributions."
Michael Brown said he doesn't know enough about the controversy to take a position. "I really don't have enough information to make a judgment either way," he says. "We need to do a better job of competing, but I just don't know enough about the politics of this."
"Everyone knows everyone in our town," Brown said. "Anytime you do a deal, it's going to be highly likely that you know someone in government. The question in cases like this is can you make the process transparent enough that people have confidence in the outcome?"
But when I asked Brown whether the lottery contract has stalemated because of the bidders' political connections and campaign donations, he said, "No, I don't know that that's the case."
I put the same question to Schwartz and she would not discuss the details on the record.
In contrast, several other council members are frank about what's really going on in the lottery deal.
"All the people involved in this are politically connected," said Marion Barry (Ward 8). "This thing is as red hot as a baked potato."
It's "politics," pure and simple, said Jim Graham (Ward 1).
LTE owner Leonard Manning, a frequent contributor to council members' campaign funds, "supported Linda Cropp for mayor and the mayor wants Leonard out--that's what you hear," said Kwame Brown (At Large). "We kind of need to grow up and get beyond targeting people who are someone else's friends." But even if he believes the roots of the standoff lie in a petty political dispute, Kwame Brown is ready to jettison LTE and give the contract to W2I. "Five million dollars is a lot of money," he said, "and if you can save it, you need to do that."
By Marc Fisher |
October 28, 2008; 8:14 AM ET
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