Photo by Sheila Sund on Flickr.

Vincent Orange has been a terrible at-large member of the DC Council. David Garber is running to unseat him in the coming Democratic primary, and now there are reports that Robert White will jump in as well. Can DC avoid the vote-splitting that has stymied reformers’ past electoral efforts?

In his last primary in 2012, Orange faced a crowded field of challengers. In the end, Orange won the nomination with 42% of the vote. Sekou Biddle got 39%, Peter Shapiro 11%, and E. Gail Anderson Holness 8%.

Many voters, including a lot from the Greater Greater Washington community, were torn between Biddle and Shapiro, both of whom would have been good councilmembers in their own right, not to mention far better than Orange.

The same thing happened in the special election the previous year, when Orange got into office with 29% of the vote versus 25% for Patrick Mara, 20% for Sekou Biddle, and 13% for Bryan Weaver, all of whom, again, would have been good councilmembers.

What’s so bad about Orange?

Vincent Orange made headlines in 2013 for intervening to stop public health officials from shutting down a wholesale food business with a rat infestation.

Orange was admonished by the then-new ethics board. He was the first public official to face sanction by the board, which was created after multiple councilmembers resigned for ethical issues spanning a spectrum up to outright corruption.

Orange has a poor record on housing and transportation as well. He rushed to propose a blanket moratorium on homeowners adding onto their homes or renting out parts of their houses in row house zones. His overly broad (and likely illegal) bill would have exacerbated DC’s housing crunch and shut the doors to new residents.

When the council was hotly debating whether to tax out-of-state bonds, Orange agreed to support an amendment by Tommy Wells on the condition that Wells would agree to set aside $500,000 for an Emancipation Day parade at the Lincoln Theatre, whose board Orange serves on.

David Garber. Image from the candidate’s website.

Will the field narrow before the primary?

At David Garber’s campaign kickoff, supporters likened him to Brianne Nadeau, who took out long-serving Ward 1 member Jim Graham in part by focusing on Graham’s scrapes with ethics issues.

Nadeau also had one more advantage: a clearer field. She was able to build up a strong enough campaign that others decided not to run as well.

That’s now not going to be the case. Personally, I like both Garber and White and would love to see both on the council. But I worry that both will draw from overlapping, though not identical, bases of support, again threatening a vote split.

Robert White. Image from the candidate’s Facebook page.

Absent technology to fuse the two into a super duper “Dobert Warber,” either one of them would have to singlehandedly amass more votes than Orange, or convince the other to drop out of the race either early or late in the process. (Or the DC Council could institute instant runoff voting or some similar system, though that’s very unlikely to happen in time, if at all.)

In places with real competition between two parties, primaries serve this role. There’s a vote, and most of the time the loser of a primary goes and supports the winner in that same party. But everyone’s a Democrat this time. In some places, like California, the primary is nonpartisan, and the top two winners go on to the general even if both are Democrats or Republicans. We don’t have that either.

In a presidential primary, the series of state primaries and caucuses helps winnow the field by demonstrating which candidates have real electoral strength and which don’t. DC also does not have any kind of rotating set of ward primaries.

What could narrow the field?

What to do? We need some sort of mechanism for fairly identifying one who has the better electoral strength, whether through polls or some other method. Both candidates should then take a pledge that whichever one wins this kind of pre-primary will go up against Orange one-on-one.

To get candidates to sign on, voters, volunteers, and donors also need to agree only to support a candidate who himself signs the pledge and/or to ultimately support the pre-primary winner.

If I had more time, I’d try to meet with candidates, political operatives, big donors, and others behind the scenes to push this idea. But I don’t, so I’ll just write it on a blog. What do you think?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.