Old and New at the At-large Council Debate

Four of seven candidates for the two open At-large City Council seats showed up for an Oct. 4 debate at St. John’s Church, sponsored by Georgetown Business and Professional Association. Two of them were faces so familiar that it seemed like déjà vu all over again. Two were brand new faces, more or less, on the political scene. One of them was a Republican, the other was a self-styled, newly minted independent.

It was an afternoon with At-large Councilmembers Michael A. Brown and Vincent Orange and challengers Mary Brooks Beatty and David Grosso.

The two incumbents—Brown and Orange—share a long history of familiarity in the District and have often run for office, not always successfully. Brown, son of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, has instant name recognition and a big personality. “I haven’t been around that long,” he said to us when we caught up with him at the forum. “It just seems that way.” In fact, Brown ran for Mayor in 2008 but dropped out near the end of the campaign and threw his support to Council Chairman Linda Cropp, who lost to Adrian Fenty. Brown also ran for the Ward 4 seat, vacated by Fenty, but in a candidate-heavy field he lost to the Fenty-supported Muriel Bowser, who is up for re-election this year. Four years ago, Brown, a live-long Democrat if there ever was one, ran for the At-large Council spot, once held by Republican Carol Schwartz, perhaps one of the last of the generally moderate-liberal GOP politicians around. Schwartz, who had lost her primary to Patrick Mara, ran as a write-in but both she and Mara lost to the newly-minted independent Brown. District law requires that at least two of the at-large seats be held by non-Democrats.

Orange also seems to have been around longer than he actually has in terms of his political presence. He first ran unsuccessfully for a Ward 5 seat, then won two terms in the seat most recently vacated by Harry Thomas Jr. Orange ran for mayor the same year that Brown did, but also lost in the Fenty sweep. He then ran in a pitched battle against Kwame Brown for the council chairmanship in 2010 but lost despite an endorsement by the Washington Post. Orange then ran for Kwame Brown’s old at-large seat which had opened with his move to Council Chair and won in a close race over Sekou Biddle and Republican Patrick Mara. (Kwame Brown resigned from the District Council this year.)

The new faces are Mary Brooks Beatty, the personable and veteran advisory neighborhood commissioner from Capitol Hill, who was a past president of Women in Government and helped spark the H Street Corridor revival, and David Grosso, the 41-year-old who has been a staffer for former Ward 6 City Council member Sharon Ambrose and counsel for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, working on the D.C. statehood issue.

Both Beatty and Gross seem more optimistic than most newcomers in a year when the D.C. government and mayor are not being held in high regard: the council chairman has been forced to resign, another councilman is in prison and the mayor’s 2010 campaign remains under a cloud of suspicion and investigation. Incumbents like Brown and Orange—both of whom have had issues on campaign fundraising—are vulnerable to attack and voter backlash. Brown recently reported that a large amount of his campaign funds had been stolen by a trusted aide, and it was reported that Orange had received campaign contributions from a developer who came under investigation for his part in the mayor’s campaign finances.

At the forum, Orange said flatly that he was in favor of term limits, a popular idea given that the District Council is heavy in long-serving members. “Of course,” he said, “you could serve two terms on the council, maybe move on to at large seat, go on to the chairmanship, and who knows maybe run for mayor.”

Brown was attacked by Grosso for his financial affairs, which he dismissed. “Look, in politics, you have people whom you trust and when they break your trust, it happens. People will steal. That’s a fact, and that’s what happened, nothing else.”


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