In last week’s Democratic primary election, several challengers defeated incumbents. Some attribute the victories to the election being held in April rather than later in the year, among other factors. Those who assert this viewpoint are seeking excuses, as the mayoral and Council races were all won by double-digit percentages, so it is highly unlikely that the timing of the races impacted the results.
Sure, it is possible that the winning percentages may not have been as great if the primary was held later in the year, but the belief that it would have impacted the outcome of some of the races is wishful thinking by those who are unhappy with the results.
More than likely, if the primary was held later, some of the candidates may have waited longer to enter the race, so there is no guarantee that there would have been a longer campaign period. The main benefit that may have slightly shifted the winning percentages would have been the ability to campaign in the spring, rather than in the winter. That said, there is no evidence that the low turnout in the primary is the result of the election’s timing. There was plenty of information about the election in the media. Rather, it is more plausible that the electorate willingly chose not to participate for a multitude of reasons.
Nevertheless, in future elections, the primary should be held closer to the general election. By holding the primary in April, incumbents who were defeated have a nine-month lame duck period. That is simply too long and can potentially be disruptive to the District accomplishing its goals during this time. We now have a lame duck mayor presenting a budget to the D.C. Council. That’s quite an incentive for Council members to disregard some of the priorities that the mayor presents. Mayor Gray simply does not have the same power post-election as he did prior to the election. It also gives the mayor almost a year to implement changes as he sees fit, with no regard for how the electorate might react.
In addition, we have lame duck Council members in Wards 1 and 6. It will not have an impact in Ward 6 since Council member Tommy Wells’ chosen successor, Charles Allen, prevailed in the Democratic primary after Wells chose not to seek re-election to his Council seat to run for mayor. Thus, the transition between Wells and Allen will be seamless and I do not believe that Ward 6 residents will disregard Wells during the lame duck period. It may, however, impact Wells’ ability to negotiate with his Council colleagues.
In Ward 1, where Brianne Nadeau defeated Jim Graham in his Council re-election bid, Graham’s lame duck status may have more of an impact. Though Graham publicly pledged to ensure that there is a smooth transition between him and Nadeau, constituent services may be murky over the next nine months. Graham is highly regarded in the area of constituent services, but after a contentious race, there may be a portion of the electorate that is confused about whom to contact in constituent service matters. Highly engaged voters may understand that Graham is still the Council member for the next nine months, but lesser engaged residents, who often are the ones that need the most assistance, may not understand. There also is not much incentive to introduce legislation or to build coalitions with colleagues over legislative or budget battles.
Hence, the nine-month lame duck period will result in a lengthy timeframe in which some elected officials do not feel beholden to other legislators or to the voters. In reality, the negative impact will probably be limited because all three lame duck elected officials—Mayor Vincent Gray and Council members Jim Graham and Tommy Wells—have too much integrity and care too much about their legacies to not work hard until their last day in office. All the same, to be on the safe side, the primary date should be moved back in future elections, so we never have to deal with a lengthy lame duck period again.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political operative and LGBT rights advocate. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @lateefahwms.