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Handicapping the At-Large Councilmember Race

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The DC City Council has four “at-large” members who are elected in citywide races. Councilmembers have four-year terms, and two of the at-large seats are up for election every two years.

The Primary Election

Ten Democratic candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination for at-large Councilmember, and not one is well known throughout the city. The only well-known candidate, Arrington Dixon, former Chairman of the City Council and ex-husband of Sharon Pratt Dixon, who later became Mayor, turned in nominating petitions with an inadequate number of signatures, and was eliminated from the ballot.

In addition, none of the candidates’ campaigns is well financed, and the press has almost completely ignored the race — so little-known candidates have had little chance to get name recognition with the voters.

Who, then, has a chance to win the nomination? Four candidates may have a large enough base of supporters to gain victory in a vote that will be fragmented over a large field. William H. Bennett, II, formerly directed the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs for Mayor Marion Barry, and has Barry’s endorsement. While Barry has never before demonstrated that he has political “coattails,” it may not take much to win this race.

Phil Mendelson is well known and respected among a core of civic activists because of his work in his local community, as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, and as a staffer on the City Council, but he is not well known to many voters, especially outside of the Northwest and white communities.

In addition, Mendelson’s support may be split by Bill Rice, a former reporter on local politics who is also well known to civic activists, and who is spending a lot of money on a flood of posters. Normally political posters convince few voters, but in a race where most voters don’t know any of the candidates’ names, the name recognition that comes from having a poster on every lamppost could be decisive.

Finally, Sabrina Sojourner is currently DC’s “shadow senator,” who is elected to an unpaid position to lobby for statehood. This position isn’t taken seriously by many, but the position does give her some citywide recognition.

The campaigns of candidates Charles Gaither, Phyllis Outlaw, and Kathryn Pearson-West have been largely invisible, as have been the campaigns of elected school board members Linda Moody and Don Reeves, who are attempting to move up to the Council from the school board. Finally, Greg Rhett has concentrated his campaign in his home ward, Ward 7, positioning himself to run against Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous in two years.

The General Election

In the general election, each party will have only one nominee. Voters may vote for up to two candidates, and the top two vote getters will win the two at-large positions. The Democratic nominee will face the unopposed candidates of the Republican Party (David Catania), the Statehood Party (Hilda H.M. Mason), and the Umoja Party (Mark Thompson), as well as four independent candidates (Sandra Butler-Truesdale, Sandra Seegars, Maliz Z. Shabazz, and Beverly J. Wilbourn).

Normally, the Democratic candidate will automatically win one of the two at-large seats, and that will probably be true this year, too — enough DC voters automatically pull the Democratic lever so that a complete unknown — or a yellow dog — could win on the Democratic line.

However, both the Republican and Statehood Party candidates are incumbent Councilmembers and very strong candidates. David Catania, the Republican, won a special election last year, and has been one of the hardest working, most effective, and most reform minded members of the Council ever since. He will be one of the few candidates in the race with a large base of enthusiastic — not just lukewarm — supporters, and there are signs that many activist Democrats support his candidacy. The Statehood Party candidate, Hilda Mason, 82, is the only member of her party ever to have been elected to office, and she has been at-large councilmember since 1977. While age has certainly slowed her, she remains popular throughout the city, and her name recognition greatly exceeds that of all the other candidates.

The four independent candidates and the Umoja Party candidate certainly face an uphill battle against the Democrat, Catania, and Mason, but anything could happen in this general election.

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