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Is Scandal Fatigue Bumming Out Voters?

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Is Scandal Fatigue Bumming Out Voters?

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DC Council member Vincent Orange is trying to hang on until Election Day.

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“Kick the bums out!” is a battle cry that can strike fear in the hearts of elected officials. A scornful public is usually volatile and dangerous.

Such should be the case in the District, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a politician not embroiled in scandal.

For instance, every incumbent Council member on Tuesday's Democratic Primary ballot has at one time received campaign contributions from mega-bundler Jeffrey Thompson, whose home and offices were recently raided by the FBI in what appears to be a sweeping campaign finance investigation. None have been accused of any wrongdoing, but in a city where its two top officials, Mayor Vince Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown, are under federal investigation and one former Council member is soon to be heading to jail, you might think politicians touched by controversy would have trouble seeking reelection.

Instead, rather than having to face residents motivated by outrage, incumbents appear set to waltz back into office via a disaffected electorate.

Scandal fatigue is setting in.

I have been to campaign events in every Ward and seen nothing more than sporadic excitement for the challengers. While the same can be said of the incumbents, they already have a base of loyal voters and the resources necessary to pull off a win. The wet blanket atmosphere that has been this election season is playing to their advantage.

Insurgents can only compete if the public is actively seeking alternatives to current office holders. Residents wearied from scandal are likely to stay home while old, battle-tested alliances not easily derailed by controversy march their supporters to the polls.

Look no further than the contest for At-Large Council to see the impact of scandal fatigue. For two weeks earlier this month the incumbent, Vincent Orange, found himself at the center of the Thompson imbroglio. A self-inflicted media mishap suffered by Orange when he sped off in his car leaving a reporter standing in the dust, followed by a string of shifting accounts regarding his involvement with Thompson ordinarily would have been enough to soften up an incumbent for the kill. Indeed, his opponents smelled blood and pounced. And piled on. But voters did not respond. Though forums and debates held after Orange’s disastrous fortnight were livelier, the crowds were of average size and none of his opponents seemed to benefit from a groundswell of support.

Have District voters lost all hope for change? It was only six years ago when Adrian Fenty swept into office on beliefs that a new era was arriving. In the wake of Fenty’s epic political demise, scandals have dominated the headlines.

Surrender? Let’s hope not.

There still may be an upset in the making. Orange is not out of the woods and his opponents, Sekou Biddle, Gail Holness and Peter Shapiro, continue to hammer on him. In Ward 7, Council member Yvette Alexander is facing a surging opponent. Her chief rival, Tom Brown, has won endorsements from labor, the business community and progressive organizations.

Perhaps District residents are a sleeping tiger that will awaken on Tuesday.

In order for that to happen, though, voters must vote.


Chuck Thies is a political analyst and consultant.  His columns appear every Tuesday and Thursday on First Read DMV. He co-hosts "DC Politics" on WPFW, 89.3 FM. Since 1991, Chuck has lived in either D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Email your tips and complaints to chuckthies (at) gmail.com or tweet at @chuckthies.

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