April 21, 2011 at 3:30 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Council candidates compete for LGBT vote

From left, Mara, Orange and Biddle. (Blade photos by Michael Key)

At least four of the nine candidates running in the April 26 special election for an at-large D.C. City Council seat are aggressively courting LGBT voters in a race that political observers say is highly unpredictable.

With special elections known for yielding a low voter turnout, LGBT voters could be the deciding force in the election if they coalesce behind one candidate, according to activists following the race.

Many of the city’s LGBT activists are supporting Democrat Sekou Biddle, a former Ward 4 school board member who won an interim appointment to the at-large Council seat in January. Biddle has expressed strong support for LGBT rights.

But Democrat Vincent Orange, a former Ward 5 Council member, and Republican Patrick Mara, a Ward 1 school board member, have surprised some LGBT activists by recruiting prominent LGBT supporters and by waging active campaigns targeting the LGBT community.

In the Ward 8 race for a vacant seat on the city’s Board of Education, veteran gay Democratic and Ward 8 civic activist Phil Pannell is leading a field of nine candidates in money raised and spent, according to a campaign finance report he filed on April 18, the last report to be filed before the April 26 election.

Pannell has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage, in a ward where the majority black population is known to be more conservative on social issues. The Ward 8 Council member, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, was one of just two of the city’s 13 Council members who voted against the same-sex marriage bill that the Council approved in December 2009.

“I’m running on a platform that supports the very best in public education for all of our youth, including LGBT youth,” Pannell said last month after receiving the endorsement of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political organization.

He is the only gay candidate running in the April 26 election, which was called to fill two school board seats – one in Ward 8 and another in Ward 4 – in addition to the at-large Council seat.

His campaign finance report shows he has raised $21,307 as of April 18, with $17,225 coming from a personal loan he made to his campaign. The report shows Pannell spent $10,672 on campaign-related activities as of April 18.

Pannell’s closet rival in the money department is LGBT supportive D.C. home rule advocate Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, who raised $11,133 and spent $3,000 as of April 18. Pannell had $9,471 in cash on hand for the remaining week of the campaign, his finance report shows, compared to Kinlow, who had $7,633 in cash on hand.

The at-large Council seat became vacant after Democrat Kwame Brown, who held the seat, won election last year as D.C. Council Chair. The city’s Democratic State Committee appointed Biddle to fill the seat on an interim basis in January until a “permanent” Council member was chosen in the April special election.

Since the at-large Council seat held by Brown was scheduled to come up for election in 2012, the winner of the special election on April 26 must also stand for re-election in 2012.

Orange has raised more than $261,000 in campaign funds as of April 18, the last required campaign finance reporting period before the election. Biddle’s April 18 finance report shows he has raised just over $175,000 for his campaign, putting him in second place in money raised. Mara’s report shows him in third place in the money department, with $60,559 raised.

Many of the city’s political pundits believe Orange and Biddle are the frontrunners in the race, with Orange having the advantage in funds raised as well as an endorsement by the city’s influential municipal employees union. Biddle has been endorsed by Mayor Vincent Gray, City Council Chair Kwame Brown, and several other Council members, including gay Council member David Catania (I-At-Large).

Mara received the endorsement of the Washington Post, which billed him as a needed independent voice in a city government dominated by Democrats. The Post backing is expected to give his campaign a boost in Wards 2, 3 and 6, where voter turnout is often higher than in the other wards.

Orange came out against same-sex marriage when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006. Earlier this year, he announced he had changed his position on the issue and now fully supports the right of gays and lesbians to marry under the city’s same-sex marriage law. He also pointed to what he called his long record of support on other LGBT issues during his tenure as a Ward 5 Council member.

Mara emerged as an early supporter of same-sex marriage when he ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in 2008. He has billed himself as a “fiscally responsible and socially progressive” Republican who strongly supports LGBT equality. He notes in his campaign literature that he was the only one of the nine candidates now running for the at-large seat who testified in favor of same-sex marriage when the same-sex marriage bill came up for a hearing before the City Council in 2009.

Biddle has said he spoke out in support of the same-sex marriage law when it was pending before the Council. He notes that he was an advocate for LGBT youth related issues during his tenure as a school board member.

Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bryan Weaver, a Democrat, has also spoken out in support of LGBT issues at candidate forums across the city. He, too, spoke out in support of the same-sex marriage law and backed an ANC resolution endorsing the proposed law as it was pending before the Council.

Biddle’s gay supporters, including leaders of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group that has endorsed Biddle, say they believe Biddle will capture the lion’s share of the LGBT vote. They acknowledge, though, that other candidates are challenging Biddle for the gay vote and could capture some of that vote.

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, said that similar to nearly all D.C. elections since the early1980s, virtually all candidates running for public office in the District express support for LGBT equality. According to Rosendall, D.C.’s LGBT community – unlike other cities and states – has the luxury of setting a higher standard for selecting candidates based on their knowledge, understanding and sophistication on specific LGBT and AIDS-related issues.

“It’s not a matter of just saying I support you,” he said. “It’s a matter of demonstrating an understanding of the issues and showing what they will do to address them.”

GLAA, a nonpartisan organization, has rated candidates on LGBT and AIDS-related issues, along with some broader issues, since the group was founded in 1971. Based on candidate responses to a questionnaire and their record on LGBT-related issues, the group assigns them a score ranging from +10, the highest possible rating, and -10, the lowest rating.

In the at-large Council race set to be decided on April 26, GLAA gave Biddle and Weaver a +5.5, the highest rating among the nine candidates in the race.

Mara and Statehood Green Party candidate Alan Page received a +4. Orange received a +3.5 and Joshua Lopez, a Ward 1 Democrat and aide to former Mayor Adrian Fenty, received a +2.5.

Each of the candidates expressed support for all of the LGBT issues and positions raised by GLAA on the group’s questionnaire, including strong support for the city law that legalized same-sex marriage.

The remaining three candidates in the at-large race – Democrats Tom Brown and Dorothy Douglas and independent Arkan Haile – did not return the GLAA questionnaire and had no record on LGBT issues known to GLAA, prompting the group to give the three a “0” rating.

In addition to Kinlow, four other candidates running against Pannell in the Ward 8 school board race expressed general support for LGBT rights and pledged to back policies supportive of LGBT youth attending the city’s public school system during a candidate forum sponsored by the Stein Club. The five are Sandra Williams, Tijwanna Phillips, Larry Pretlow II, and Cardell Shelton.

The other three candidates in the Ward 8 race – Trayon White, R. Joyce Scott and Anthony Muhammad – did not attend the Stein Club forum and have not publicly disclosed their positions on LGBT issues.

Biddle, Mara and Orange have been the most visible of the nine candidates running for the at-large seat in the LGBT community during the past two weeks. Biddle, among other things, hosted a “meet and greet” reception for the LGBT community at the gay nightclub Town last week.

With the assistance of Pannell, who is supporting him, Orange spent Saturday night, April 16, campaigning in several D.C. gay bars, including the Southwest D.C. nightclub Ziegfeld’s, where he spoke to the crowd. Another two Orange supporters, gay Democratic activists Barrie Daneker and Lee Brian Reba, organized an LGBT fundraiser for Orange scheduled for Thursday night at Nellie’s Sports Bar, a gay venue on U Street, N.W.

The Mara campaign, meanwhile, placed full-page ads promoting his campaign and outlining his support for LGBT issues in the Washington Blade during the past two weeks.

The April 26 special election is open to all registered D.C. voters of all party affiliations as well as to independent votes.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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