A crowded field of candidates and uncertain voter turnout promises to make the April 26 election of a new D.C. City Council member an exciting and boisterous process, some political observers say.

“When you have special elections it’s pretty much a free-for-all,” said former councilman Vincent Orange.

Orange was one of 11 candidates that met the Feb. 16 deadline to submit 3,000 signatures indicating their intent to run for the at-large Council seat vacated by now-Chairman Kwame Brown. But one, Calvin H. Gurley, has already been disqualified in the challenge process, which ends Feb. 28. The Board of Elections and Ethics has until March 15 to complete its signature validation process.

Mark Plotkin, WTOP’s political analyst and commentator, said so far the contest seems a two-man race between former school board member Sekou Biddle, whom the D.C. Democratic State Committee selected to temporarily fill the vacant seat last month, and Orange, a Democratic heavyweight in the city.

“It’s Biddle’s election to lose and he can lose it,” since he lacks charisma and name recognition, Plotkin said. “The entire establishment is for him (he’s been endorsed by the Mayor Vincent Gray, the Council chairman and five other council members) but Orange has name recognition.”

Orange, 53, a Northeast resident, garnered 50,000 votes in last year’s mayoral race. He said the race comes down to experience—and the former lawmaker, attorney, certified public accountant and business executive has plenty.

“The fact that I am an independent voice with strong experience in finance and job creation, that’s what the city needs…we’re in a crisis right now,” he said. “We need someone who can hit the ground running. We don’t have time to train anybody because people are suffering right now.”

Still, the contest’s outcome is far from certain, Plotkin said, given special elections’ historically anemic voter turnout and the fact that everyone, including Republicans and Independents, can vote.

“Turnout is a lot lower, generally, in special elections than in normal elections,” said Alysoun McLaughlin, spokeswoman, Board of Elections and Ethics.

In 1997, the last special election involving a citywide race, voter turnout was 7.4 percent, she said.

It was in that year that Arrington Dixon, a former council chairman and Democratic National Committee member, unexpectedly lost to then-Republican David Catania in what Plotkin called a “freak election.”

“There is some precedence that in a low-turnout election, Republicans and Independents voted en masse ,” the political analyst said. “It’s a wild card….it’s really an open race.”

And that opens the door to the only Republican candidate, board of education member Patrick Mara.

“I think he has a very good shot of winning this election,” said Paul Craney, executive director, D.C. Republican Party, pointing to Mara’s no tax hike platform and his election to the school board, where he represents Ward 1. “Ward 1 is the most racially diverse ward…and he was able to win there based on his work ethic and his experience…and that translates well for this election.”

The open election also offers an opportunity to Alan Page, an attorney, artist and Statehood Green Party candidate, who is, among other things, advocating “a progressive income tax in the District.”

“Our city faces a looming budget crisis, and those of us with the most to give should be called to step forward and help save our city,” he said on his website.

Page’s win would inject some diversity into a Council that currently comprises of 12 Democrats and one Independent—as would that of Democratic candidate Joshua Lopez, a 27-year-old of Guatemalan descent. Lopez is the lone Latino in a field of seven Black and two White contenders. The City Council is currently comprised of seven African Americans and six Caucasians.

“D.C. claims to be a progressive and diverse city but their immigrant population—and that encompasses Africans, ‘Caribbeans,’ Asians and Latinos—has no elected voice,” said Lopez, a 2010 campaign aide to former Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Lopez hopes may lie on Hispanic voters, Fenty supporters, his youth and his “outhustling” of the competition.

“I’m out there every day knocking on doors, going to community meetings, going to Metro stations in the morning…. The candidate who goes out there and works the hardest and gets their message out there will win in April,” he said.

For the next few weeks, District voters can also expect to hear messages from Democrats Biddle, Orange, Ward 8 Democratic Party Chairman Jacque Patterson, Ward 1 activist Bryan Weaver, Southeast resident Tom Brown and former Ward 7 school board member Dorothy Douglas, the only woman; and Independent candidate, Arkan Haile.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO