March 28, 2012 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. prepares for primary

Political observers say Democratic opponents with the backing of LGBT activists have a shot at unseating Council member Vincent Orange in next week’s primary. Orange once opposed marriage equality but later changed his mind. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The District’s influential LGBT vote was expected to be divided on April 3 in the hotly contested race for an at-large D.C. Council seat held by Democratic incumbent Vincent Orange.

Orange and four of his Council colleagues — Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) — are running for re-election in the Democratic Party primary. Evans, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, is running unopposed.

Similar to nearly all past elections, the winner in the primary is expected to win the general election in November in a city where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

But unlike most D.C. primaries in recent years, where almost all incumbents win, political observers say Democratic opponents with the backing of LGBT activists have a shot at unseating Orange and Alexander.

And the president of the gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans of D.C., Robert Turner, says gay Republicans are joining their moderate to progressive fellow party activists to wage a spirited challenge for at least three Council seats in the November election.

Based on the candidates running, most LGBT activist leaders say they don’t expect the election outcome in the April primary or November general election to change the D.C. Council’s overall longstanding support for LGBT equality.

“I do not see any changes that will impact the LGBT community,” said gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein. “We are a strong community with the support of the majority of the Council today and that will continue,” he said.

Alexander and Barry were the only two Council members that voted against the city’s same-sex marriage law when it passed in the Council by a vote of 11-2 in 2009. Both have been supportive on most other LGBT issues in the past.

However, the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance this year assigned Alexander and Barry a -3.5 rating on LGBT-related issues in a rating system with -10 as the lowest possible score and +10 the highest. (A full listing of GLAA’s ratings of all D.C. Council candidates and the candidates’ responses to GLAA’s questionnaire on LGBT-related issues can be viewed at glaa.org.)

The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, has endorsed both Alexander and Barry in past elections. This year the club endorsed Ward 7 challenger Tom Brown over Alexander. The club didn’t make an endorsement in the Ward 8 race after none of five Democratic candidates running were able to obtain a 60 percent vote from club members to secure an endorsement.

The club also endorsed Bowser in the Ward 4 race, who’s favored to emerge as the winner over five Democratic challengers. Bowser, who voted for the same-sex marriage bill, received a +6.5 rating from GLAA.

Orange wasn’t on the Council at the time of the same-sex marriage vote. He came out against same-sex marriage when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006 but said he changed his mind on the issue a short time later. He says he now strongly supports the city’s marriage equality law and points to his past support on a wide range of other LGBT-related issues during his tenure as a Ward 5 Council member from 1999 to 2007.

GLAA, which assigned Orange a rating of +0.5, says Orange lost points for backing a number of initiatives opposed by GLAA, including a bill to make permanent certain locations in the city designated as “prostitution free zones.” Many of the city’s gay activists have joined transgender rights leaders and civil liberties advocates in calling for repeal of the law that created temporary prostitution free zones, saying it has been used to target and “profile” transgender women for police harassment on grounds that they appear to be engaging in prostitution by merely standing in certain parts of the city designated as prostitution free zones.

Orange said he no longer supports the bill to make the zones permanent. The bill calling for making them permanent was introduced by Alexander.

He is being challenged by former D.C. school board member Sekou Biddle, who was appointed to the at-large Council seat for less than a year in 2011, before losing it to Orange in an April 2011 special election. The seat became vacant in January 2011 after Council member Kwame Brown, who held the seat, won election to the post of Council chairman. Biddle received a GLAA rating of +5.5.

Also competing for the seat in the April 3 Democratic primary are Peter Shapiro, a former Prince George’s County Council member who recently moved to D.C., who also received a +5.5 GLAA rating, and E. Gail Anderson Holness, a Ward 1 Democratic activist and pastor of D.C.’s Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, who received a -1.5 GLAA rating.

Biddle and Shapiro have expressed strong support on LGBT issues. Both have lined up support in the LGBT community, with the largest number of prominent LGBT activists backing Biddle. Holness, who has called for a voter referendum on the city’s same-sex marriage law, failed to obtain a single vote at a Stein Club endorsement meeting earlier this month.

Biddle finished ahead of Orange in the Stein endorsement vote but fell five points short of the 60 percent needed for an endorsement. Gay supporters of Orange and Shapiro said support for their respective candidates prevented Biddle from winning the club’s endorsement, saying the development indicates Biddle’s support in the LGBT community may be declining.

They note that the Stein Club endorsed Biddle over Orange in the April 2011 special election, in which Biddle finished in third place behind Republican Patrick Mara and Orange, who won the election.

Biddle supporter John Fanning, a longtime gay Democratic activist, said polling data shows that Biddle has emerged as Orange’s strongest challenger and has a shot at beating Orange if the opposition vote isn’t evenly divided between Biddle and Shapiro.

Biddle has been endorsed by gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), and former rival Mara, a pro-LGBT school board member from Ward 1 who campaigned for the city’s same-sex marriage bill when it was pending before the Council.

Stein Club President Lateefah Williams said she believes challenger Tom Brown has a reasonable chance of beating Alexander in the Ward 7 primary. But similar to the at-large race, Williams and others seeking to replace Alexander say Alexander is likely to win if what they believe is a majority of the electorate opposing Alexander is divided among several candidates. Brown received a GLAA rating of +3.5.

Five candidates in addition to Brown are running against Alexander in the primary, including Kevin Chavous Jr., son of former Ward 7 Council member Kevin Chavous Sr., who also received a +3.5 GLAA rating.

Also running unopposed in the primary is D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is considered to be among the strongest supporters of LGBT rights in the U.S. Congress; and shadow U.S. House candidate Nate Bennett-Fleming. Both received endorsements from the Stein Club. GLAA doesn’t issue ratings for federal offices.

The Stein Club didn’t make an endorsement in the race for the city’s shadow Senate seat, in which incumbent Michael D. Brown is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Pete Ross. Both have expressed support for LGBT rights.

Republican Mary Brooks Beatty is running unopposed in the April 3 D.C. Republican primary for the at-large Council seat. In the Statehood-Green Party primary, Ann Wilcox and G. Lee Aikin are also competing for the at-large Council seat. Brooks received a “0″ GLAA rating for not returning the group’s questionnaire and not having a known record on LGBT issues. Wilcox received a +0.5 rating. GLAA said she, too, did not return the questionnaire but received a half point for her record of support as an attorney for the gay direct action group Get Equal.

In the Ward 7 Council race, longtime community and anti-crime activist Ron Moten, who has helped the former LGBT gang Check It convert into a youth organization promoting a fashion clothing line, is running for the Republican nomination. He is being challenged by GOP candidate Don Folden Sr. The Log Cabin Republicans of D.C. has endorsed Moten and Brooks. Moten received a +1.5 GLAA rating.

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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