Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said a low voter turnout and a barrage of editorials by the Washington Post attacking him on an ethics issue played a key role in his defeat in the city’s April 1 Democratic primary.
Political newcomer Brianne Nadeau, a civic activist and communications firm executive, won the primary by a decisive margin of 59 percent to 41 percent in a development many political observers considered an upset given Graham’s stature as a four-term Council member.
“The bottom line is she brought out her people and my people didn’t respond,” Graham told the Blade in an interview on Tuesday.
“I’m not bitter. I’m not unhappy,” Graham said. “I’m not resentful. You know, it took me a while to decide to even run. I got a very late start,” he said. “It’s another adventure for me in life.”
Graham acknowledges that the ethics charge filed against him over his taking sides in a Metro development contract matter that led to his Council colleagues voting to reprimand him played a role in the outcome of the election.
But he said the decision to move the primary from its traditional date in September to April 1 also prevented him from running a campaign as effectively as he would have liked. Graham noted that the traditional September primaries came at a time when the Council was in recess for the summer.
“I found it very hard to campaign, be a chairman of a committee, to be a full-time Council member, and to be a fundraiser,” he said. “It’s very, very hard to do it all in a difficult race. If you have an easy race it’s not a problem.”
Graham also took strong exception to claims by some in the LGBT community that it’s no longer necessary to have an openly LGBT Council member in a city in which virtually all elected officials and all serious candidates – including Nadeau – are strong supporters of LGBT rights.
“Well they’ve said that before,” said Graham. “So why don’t they tell the Victory Fund to shut down?”
He was referring to Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national LGBT organization that raises money to elect openly LGBT candidates across the country.
“And is Harvey Milk going to turn over in his grave?” he said. “It’s absurd on its face. There’s no need for a Victory Fund? There’s no need for an NAACP? There’s no need for the National Council of La Raza? It’s absurd.”
Washington Blade: We’d like to get your perspective on why the Ward 1 election turned out the way it did. Some of your supporters are pointing to the Washington Post’s criticism of you in its editorials.
Jim Graham: Well you know it was 27 editorials in about 11 months — all negative, all on a single person. It does have an impact. There’s no question about that. But I think ultimately the answer to your question is simple, because her people came out and voted and my people, for whatever reason, did not respond the same way.
So, you know, that’s what happened. So she won. And I think to some extent I was running against the Washington Post…
And the bottom line is she brought out her people and my people didn’t respond. I don’t know if it was because of the weather or the early primary or what it was. People have said to me, well run again as an independent, and there will be a greater turnout. There may be some truth to that but we’ll never know.
Blade: It was a record low turnout.
Graham: Oh my God, I had precincts where the voting was at 17 percent. And there were precincts which she carried by a vote or two that, had they voted, she would have lost. But that’s all just academic at this point.
I had a cordial exchange of emails with her. And if she wins the final election I offered to help her with the transition if she wants.
Blade: In terms of your own campaign, did you do things differently based on what you were facing?
Graham: You know you can do that Monday morning quarter backing. She got more votes, and it was a very light turnout, and that coupled with the changing demographics in the ward and the Washington Post editorials. And there was a general feeling for change because of all of my Council colleagues who have gone to jail or who are going to jail. And with Gray, what [U.S. Attorney Ronald] Machen did to Gray is unbelievable in its impact on the votes. All of that made it a very difficult election for me to win. And she was shrewd and tactical. That’s what I would say.
I’m not bitter. I’m not unhappy. I’m not resentful. You know, it took me a while to decide to even run. I got a very late start. I raised a lot of money in about five weeks, but – but I got the feeling for what I needed to get. It’s another adventure for me in life…
I’m not feeling cross or angry or any of those feelings. I really am not. I’m just feeling like, OK, let’s get on with it. Now, this nine month interregnum – oh my God. And you can see what’s happening because with Mayor Gray’s administration there are people who are leaving. He’s lost his transportation director and there’s going to be more that will follow. People have to look for jobs for themselves. It’s a very difficult time…
I found it very hard to campaign, be a chairman of a committee, to be a full-time Council member, and to be a fundraiser. It’s very, very hard to do it all in a difficult race. If you have an easy race it’s not a problem…
I never ran a campaign like this. My campaigns were always in August or September or late July. It was hot, but you only had one purpose in life, which is to run an election. I had a lot of purposes this time.
…If you have a tough campaign, wow. You’re trying to chair a hearing; you’re trying to prepare for a hearing plus all the other demands on your time. It’s very difficult actually. So I’m not sure I want to have it in June also.
Blade: Some people have said during this campaign that it may no longer be necessary to have an openly gay member of the D.C. Council because all the candidates and incumbents are so supportive. They say straight allies are now just as capable of advancing LGBT issues as an LGBT Council member.
Graham: Well they’ve said that before. So why don’t we tell the Victory Fund to shut down? And is Harvey Milk going to turn over in his grave? It’s absurd on its face. There’s no need for a Victory Fund? There’s no need for an NAACP? There’s no need for the National Council of La Raza? It’s absurd. Why are they saying that?