DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a "game changer"
Left: October 2012 cover of the Midcity DC community magazine, featuring At large Council candidate David Grosso, with endorser Tommy Wells, Councilmember, Ward 6.
Disclosure: I voted for David Grosso and Ann Wilcox, Statehood Green candidate, for the DC City Council At-large election. (But that doesn't mean I don't apply the cool eye of critical analysis to the vote.)
While the election results on Tuesday were unusual in that David Grosso, a purported outsider, beat an incumbent, Michael Brown ("Win Big Where You Can, Hold Steady Elsewhere: How David Grosso Unseated Michael Brown" from DCist) it's not correct to call this an example of "game changing" in any substantive way, although there is no question it is an example of the electorate not voting for someone with various issues, when presented with a viable, well-financed, alternative .
From "The 2012 Local Election: A Game Changer?" by the Hill Rag group of publications:
In the evening's biggest surprise, David Grosso (I) beat Michael A. Brown (I) for the second At-Large seat. Brown is the first incumbent to go down to defeat since 2004. Grosso garnered 68,362 votes to Brown's 50,335. ...
In Ward 3, Grosso was undoubtedly helped by the endorsements of the Current Newspapers and the Washington Post. The strong endorsements of former Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who served as Grosso's campaign chair, and Councilmember Tommy Wells were the key to success in the Ward 6. Wells was the only sitting councilmember to take sides in the race. ...
The growth in the District's population, driven by gentrification, has shifted the power center of the city to the west. Brown's defeat may well therefore mark the decline in political influence of the city's old line African-American eastern communities, who powered Mayor Vincent C. Gray to victory in 2010.
Note that the Post has an analysis of the election, "A Grosso win, or a Brown loss?," that takes a position somewhere between the Hill Rag piece and my analysis below.
Basically, the point I am making is that someone who worked for a City Councilmember for years, and then worked for the Congressional Delegate, and then got a job as a high-level lobbyist ("government relations") for a regional health care organization that is regulated by DC Government is not an outsider, even if he has an interesting upbringing ("David Grosso is trying to upset Michael Brown" from the Washington City Paper) that is definitely outside of the norm.
From the Washington Informer article "Orange, Grosso Win At-Large DC Council Seats":
Grosso had the strong support of D.C. Council member Tommy Wells [D-Ward 6] and notables such as former D.C. Council member William Lightfoot; John Hill, who served as executive director of the D.C. Control Board and chief executive officer of the Federal City Council and Jacque Patterson, former president of the Ward 8 Democrats.
Similarly, in 2004, when Kwame Brown defeated then Councilman Harold Brazil, in this case in the primary, Kwame was an insider too, as his father had been a chief lieutenant for Marion Barry in his earlier terms as Mayor ("Loose Lips Daily: Marshall Brown Edition" from the Washington City Paper; "Marshall Brown: Washington, D.C. Historian" from the Tenley Times blog).
In both cases, leading up to the election the Washington Post had published a steady stream of articles about misdeeds-various problems of the incumbent--deservedly, no question--which certainly helped the challenger (e.g., "City Job Was Found for Brazil Aide;" "Michael Brown, gambling man").
In both cases, because of their positions within the system, Grosso and Kwame Brown were able to raise monies and develop a strong campaign organization, giving them coverage and presence throughout the city, lots of literature and campaign signs, and workers at most of the poll sites on election day and at the early voting polling sites (if applicable).
These aren't examples of game changing, just moving pieces around within the Growth Coalition (see the past blog entry "A superb lesson in Growth Machine politics"). But it's never pretty when you're cleaning house.
A true example of game changing would be electing someone not already a cog in the system running the city.
So in this election that would have been someone like AJ Cooper, Leon Swain (although some people considered him part of the system, being as he was former chair of the DC Taxicab Commission), a Republican like Mary Brooks Beatty, or Ann Wilcox, the Statehood-Green Party candidate
Many Councilmembers have previously worked for City Council before becoming elected. This means they have experience interacting not only with supplicants, but future campaign donors, even if at the same time it means that they are prepared and can hit the job already knowing what is required. (Another element of this is people who worked for or were connected to City Council in some way end up becoming real estate developers.)
One true "game changer" that does come to mind is David Catania ("Catania to become independent today," Post). He won office during a special election, when turnout was low, defeating Arrington Dixon, who was a longtime fixture in local politics, and during a period when city politics was at its nadir--the city was in financial receivership, Marion Barry was again mayor, etc.--and at least some people were fed up. Although he has his issues now too ("David Catania has a new $240,000-a-year job" from the Post), having been in office awhile--though I faithfully vote for him every time he is up for re-election and I voted for him when he ran against Arrington Dixon.
The Statehood-Greens haven't had someone on City Council since 1999; the Republicans since 2009 when in a Tea Party-esque move, in the primary they defeated the "too-liberal" incumbent with a candidate more conservative, Pat Mara, who was more palatable to the faithful. But in the end, he was too conservative and too new to the electorate to get elected in the city at large. Ultimately, the most important palate choosers are the electorate and the cute move backfired.
Likely, this has doomed the Republicans to permanent outsider status, despite the lament in some quarters ("Impotent DC GOP needs change at the top" from the Washington Examiner) for Republicans to be more significantly active in the city, and their role in bringing down Councilman Thomas for financial theft ("Republican Who Uncovered Harry Thomas, Jr. Theft Claims Harrassment During Campaign" from DCist).
Once upon a time, it may have been possible, during special election opportunities, for outsiders to get elected to Council, even in Ward races, but with the 2006 election cycle, that changed.
After Adrian Fenty became mayor and Vince Gray became Council Chair, they both changed the paradigm for ward races, integrating the campaigns for their replacements into the city-wide campaign and funding and pay to play system. (See "LL's Special-Election Picks" a 2007 article from the Washington City Paper.)
Fenty endorsed Muriel Bowser (who as a Montgomery County government employee, was not outside the system) and Vince Gray endorsed Yvette Alexander, and people who wanted to be in the game with Fenty and Gray understood that they had to support and fund their annointed candidates, making it almost impossible for an outsider to get into the game and run as a credible opponent.
I think it's still possible, but very difficult, for outsiders to get elected in a ward election. The incumbent would have to be subject to the same drumbeat of criticism that contributed to the defeat of Harold Brazil and Michael Brown.
There is one sitting Councilmember who is that vulnerable. For him to be defeated, the campaign to defeat him in the next election cycle would already have to be underway.