Photo by samdupont on Flickr.

Amid biting budget forecasts, endemic unemployment in struggling neighborhoods, bursting juvenile crime and many other burdens, DC will fill Kwame Brown’s at-large seat as he becomes chair. It’s a very important position, one of just 13 men and women who will steer a city of 600,000 through tough times.

The city’s Democratic clubhouse of about 80 people, the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC), is in charge of anointing this next at-large councilmember. They’ll choose an appointee on January 6.  You won’t get a crack at voicing your preference for the seat until the citywide special election, open to candidates of any party stripe, on April 26.

For the most part, the candidates for the temporary appointment do not appear to know what they’ll do in that seat, for this city, in these challenging days.

That’s the cold but unavoidable summary of a recent evening spent with the leading candidates for the DCDSC appointment. Seven candidates presented themselves before the holiday break to a standing-room-only crowd of DCDSC members, guests from the public, and members of the media.

Bruce DePuyt of TBD valiantly attempted to tease out their views on grappling with endemic unemployment, education reform, juvenile crime, the threat of a meddlesome GOP House, the threat of a rattling piggy bank, and every other malady of governance known well to District residents.

With the exception of Sekou Biddle, a member of DC’s Board of Education, the candidates presenting themselves simply stated their repeated beliefs that serious issue X or Y “should be looked at,” “needed to be addressed,” “must be discussed,” and more.

I’m fairly certain that looking at tough issues, addressing tough issues, and discussing tough issues were the reasons Bruce DuPuyt and every other soul in the room gathered that evening.  Exactly what the candidates thought should be done about any of the serious issues, however, remained a mystery by nightfall.

Most stunning is that these vague rhetorical outputs too often emitted from candidates Vincent Orange and Kelvin Robinson, a former member of Council, and a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Anthony Williams, respectively.

DC’s record-setting HIV/AIDS infection rates?  Not a word about the struggle to keep reforms moving forward at DC’s long-troubled Office of HIV/AIDS Administration — a struggle literally of life or death for thousands of District residents, especially in the wake of the departure of the reformist Dr. Shannon Hader. 

Affordable housing?  Not a mention of a single policy idea or tool.  Versions of “The Rent is Too Damn High” seemed to suffice, as opposed to, say, any mention of inclusionary zoning, defending percentages in new developments for affordable units, protecting displaced residents at locales such as Barry Farm, or perhaps beefing up DC’s Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Juvenile crime?  The candidates wish to break the news to you that it is occurring, and that troubled youth would probably benefit by way of some options in filling their recreational time.  Congratulations to the candidates, however, for actually referencing an agency name in this instance: DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.  Specifics, it seems, may wait.

Biddle provided the evening’s only standout policy suggestion: that earmarks from members of Council should perhaps die, having too often wallowed in a lack of programmatic accountability.  Biddle also stood out for articulating the cold truths of unemployment in the District: that job growth is actually not the most serious challenge, rather it is a question of hacking away at literacy and other achievement gaps in equipping more residents for steady employment.

Council business that is finished and done, such as the bag tax or street cars, provided light piñata fare for some.  Meanwhile, legislative fantasy appears on the horizon for others, like a special tax for Members of Congress, shutting down the 14th Street Bridge until we achieve a commuter’s tax, erecting a massive public hospital with God-knows-what funds that simply don’t exist, and doing something or other about the prices of all those new condos around town.

Through the cold fog of all this, what emerges for now: Sekou Biddle holds the greatest promise, but must demonstrate policy grasp beyond his comfort zone of education.  Kelvin Robinson and Vincent Orange manage to convey the impression they haven’t previously wrestled with the city’s challenges, policy solutions, or even agencies.

Former ANC1B Commissioner Stanley Mayes puts forward rhetoric equal in quality to that of Orange and Robinson (take from that what you may).  Civic activist Calvin Gurley is able to chew the notional fat in a somewhat engrossing manner, and School Board member Dorothy Douglas brings a big heart and the homespun flavor.  Saul Solorzano’s candidacy only raises the question of DC’s latino population deserving a stronger place in our fabric of governance.

The one selected by the DCDSC on January 6 will have a tremendous leg up on competitors for the citywide election in April.  The tragedy and the promise of the District teeter on a fulcrum right now.  The DCDSC’s decision, and then yours in April, could scarcely be more important.