Sekou Biddle’s ugly victory
Just as they say that witnessing lawsbeingmadewillmake anyone lose faith in the legislative process, watching theD.C. Democratic State Committeemake aninterim choice to fill the seat vacated byD.C. CouncilChairmanKwameBrownwas enough tomake anyone abandon hope in democracy.
Fine, thatmay be a little dramatic. Internally, the process was democratic enough. Of the 82memberswhomake up the core ofD.C.’s preeminent political party, 74 came out to cast ballots in a hotly contested battle mainly betweenWard 4 State Board of EducationmemberSekou Biddle and formerWard 5 councilmemberVincent Orange.
Biddlewonthe first round, 35-31, againstOrange, but long-shot challenger StanleyMays’s 8 votes deniedhiman 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 pointBrown had appeared to press the flesh on behalf of his anointed successor— that Biddle claimed victory, 40-31.
The process was about as inside baseball as you can get. Only the membership of the committee could vote— andwhether the balloting was secret or not remains unclear. Aditionally, thanks to odd provisions of theHomeRuleCharter, Biddle will have little time to get comfortable in his newposition— he still has to contest anApril 26 special election thatOrange and a mélange of other candidates have already vowed to participate in.
The entire process should be scrapped. Unlike at-large seats, wardbased posts remain unfilled until a special election is held. Thismakes 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.
Inan ideal world, any vacancy onthe council would be filled through a special election held in a timely fashion. But making that happen would require either an act of Congress or a citywide referendum. Legislation is currently before Congress to reduce the wait between a vacancy and a special election, but there’s nomoveyet to scrap the internal appointment process that Biddle benefited from.
Beyond that, theD.C. Democratic StateCommittee 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 all its lack of electoral successes, the local RepublicanParty 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, BryanWeaver, wholaunched a strong and creative challenge to CouncilmemberJimGraham for his Ward 1 seat last year, watched from the back. Weaver is the subject of a nascent effort to drafthiminto April’s special election. Also in the crowd was JoshLopez, a young Fenty firebrandwhocoordinated the general election campaign to write in themayor’s name. Lopez has already collected the signatures he needs to get onthe April ballot.
Weaver andLopez, andmany others like them, are symbols of a crossroads forD.C. politics. They’re all products of party politics in one way or another, but they also seem to see the value in finding newways to reach out to voters— many ofwhommay benewto the city, others whomayhave soured on the city’s longstanding single-party rule. Neither of themmay 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, whocame across as sincere and ready for the challenge ahead. He can rightfully take credit for a hardwonvictory— though onewonthrough a closed and dated process.
Martin Austermuhle, DCist