The last year has not been great for Jim Graham.
As Metro’s board chairman, the Ward 1 D.C. councilmember became one of the most public faces of a dysfunctional transit system that couldn’t seem to move passengers around without killing them or its employees.
Back at the Wilson Building, Graham’s former chief of staff, Ted Loza, got popped by the feds in September for allegedly trying to take a pathetically small $1,500 bribe in exchange for pushing legislation to benefit cab drivers. (Loza has maintained his innocence. Graham says he knew nothing about alleged bribes, and he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing).
Pouring salt in the wounds: a brutal exposé in this paper that detailed the extremely close relationship Graham had with Loza—including the creepy detail that the councilmember paid for one of Loza’s love interests to have an abortion.
At least one incumbent usually loses their council seat in each D.C. election cycle. Based on his recent turns in the media, you’d think this would be Graham’s turn.
Yet less than a month before election day, he seems to be doing just fine. He’s raised more than double what his two opponents combined have raised. The money, among other things, has enabled Graham to commission a poll—conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake—that showed him cruising along with 68 percent while his rivals languish in the single digits. (Lake’s reputation took a beating last winter when she helped client Martha Coakley lose Edward Kennedy’s deep-blue U.S. Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown.)
Still, neither of Graham’s opponents, Jeff Smith and Bryan Weaver, seem to be building much momentum. So just what does it take to beat a guy in this town?
A common handicap among incumbent councilmembers over the last decade is that they got reputations for being complacent, in contrast to energetic-looking new competitors. In a city with few major ideological divisions, hard work—or at least a reputation for hard work—becomes the deciding factor. Mayor Adrian Fenty got his political start by simply outworking Charlene Drew Jarvis in Ward 4. Hizzoner’s current challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, won his seat on the council by saying his Ward 7 predecessor Kevin Chavous was similarly out to lunch.
The longer you serve in office, the harder it becomes to hold on. “People thought I had lost touch, and clearly I had,” Chavous says.
But for all of his troubles, Graham is someone you’d have a hard time casting as a slacker. He says he’s worked 12-hour days “everyday except Sunday” during his dozen years as a councilmember. And, he notes, he doesn’t have an outside job so he can be totally devoted to the council. (Being a councilmember is technically a part-time gig, and some members like Jack Evans and Mary Cheh keep their day jobs.)
Graham says Jarvis’ and Chavous’ fate won’t be his own. “They fell into a trap, they fell into several traps,” he tells Loose Lips. “First, they underestimated their opponents, which I have not done. Then, they were overconfident of their own chances, which I resist every single day.”
Apparently, resisting overconfidence is a tough job: “All I have [to] do is walk around and know how much I’m appreciated,” Graham says. “I don’t let that go to my head, and I know that I can’t take anything for granted.”
Voters who don’t have time to experience the appreciation by ambling around town with Graham can see for themselves: His campaign website has a picture of Graham standing next to the more than 6,000 thank-you letters he’s received from his constituents
And when Graham says he doesn’t take his opponents lightly, he means it. Poll results notwithstanding, the Graham campaign dug into Smith’s and Weaver’s pasts and provided LL with little tidbits of opposition research. In Smith’s case, it involved a couple of run-ins with the law that never resulted in serious convictions.
In Weaver’s case, it was a $1,000 grant that Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C—which Weaver serves on—approved in 2004 for a non-profit he runs. Weaver recused himself on the discussion and vote over the grant, ANC minutes show, and Weaver says the money was used to buy supplies, including Spanish-English dictionaries and Rigoberta Menchú books, for the at-risk youth he takes to Guatemala. Weaver adds he’s never drawn a salary from the non-profit organization.
“I’ve tried to stay above all of this,” Graham says. “But the fact of the matter is, there is a record here that needs to be examined… People should know who they are voting for.”
A former aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone and a longtime Ward 1 community activist who’s served seven years on the ANC, Weaver says he’s running because the city needs a councilmember who’s more devoted to playing a stronger role overseeing city services and agencies like Metro. “I really just view that Councilmember Graham has punted on oversight and responsibilities,” he says. The city’s ethics laws need an overhaul, too, he says, because Graham’s large number of corporate donations give the appearance of “pay to play” politics.
Smith, who served as a school board member from 2005 to 2007, has tried to make the city’s education reform efforts a central part of his campaign. Despite multiple attempts he couldn’t be reached by deadline, but on WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, he said he’s running to take care of the two major concerns Ward 1 residents have: “They want to be safe and they want to live in a neighborhood where they can be proud about the schools.”
Even if the challengers say they’ll be more industrious than the incumbent, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be as devoted as Graham to one thing: Personally spinning their own political images. When The Washington Post’s Paul Schwartzman wrote about Graham earlier this month, Graham declined to be interviewed for that article—but called and e-mailed Schwartzman’s editors to complain that questions Schwartzman posed to others suggested an anti-Graham bias.
Graham now says he was “pleased” with the final story—though it would have been unfair “but for my intervention.” Post enterprise editor Marc Fisher says Graham complained “incessantly” about the piece for a solid month before it ran, to anyone at the newspaper who would listen. But Fisher denies that any punches were pulled due to Graham’s complaints.
As it happens, Graham also called LL and LL’s boss to pre-complain before the first word of this story you’re reading now was written. What concerned Graham, he says, were reports that some “bitter” former staff members were speaking ill of him.
Which is probably a valid concern, given that some of his former staffers are now working for his opponents. Denise Wiktor, who worked for Graham for four years, is Smith’s top campaign aide. She says Graham treats people who aren’t loyal to him “very badly.” (Another Weaver-supporting ex-aide echoed the complaint, but only after insisting on anonymity—which isn’t a great sign of confidence in Graham’s vulnerability).
But in the small world of D.C. politics, it’s no surprise that the sort of people who’d run a campaign might have had first-hand experience in the ward—which, for the past 12 years, would have meant working for Graham. “You’re bound to have a couple of people who had unhappy experiences who have become bitter, for whatever reason,” Graham says.
What’s more surprising is the identity of one ex-staffer who’s apparently still part of the campaign mix: Loza. Most pols would have bought their legally embattled former chiefs a one-way ticket to Antarctica. But according to Ernesto Giron, who runs the Adams Morgan restaurant Churreria Madrid, Loza came in recently and badgered Giron’s wife about the restaurant displaying a Weaver sign instead of a Graham sign. Giron says Loza’s message to his wife was clear: “It wasn’t a good idea to go with the losing team, it’s not a good idea to make an enemy out of Jim Graham.” Loza couldn’t be reached for comment. (Hedging political bets seems common in D.C.: Quite a few Ward 1 storefronts display all three candidate’s signs, and plenty of other businesses around the city have signs for both Vincent Gray and Adrian Fenty for mayor.)
Graham says Loza is not part of his campaign at all, and his former aide was only taking a sign to Giron’s wife because she supported Graham, while her husband did not. Giron says that’s not the case, and his wife was upset by the visit. “Of course, she was going to agree to put a Graham sign up after she was told it’s not a good idea of making enemies of a Ward 1 representative,” Giron says. “But I told her this is not El Salvador in the ’80s. You can support [whichever] candidate you want.”
Mr. Brown, Tear Down That Wall
Take heed, Vincent Gray: You are not the only elected official to be caught breaking city regulations on home improvement.
Gray’s tortured quest to get a fence built on his property is well known by now. Less known is the fact that At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, now running to succeed Gray as D.C. Council chairman, ran afoul of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the summer of 2005, his first year on the council.
Records show Brown got a $500 ticket for replacing a retaining wall on his house without a permit in June 2005. Brown’s campaign spokesman James Jones says the wall in the councilmember’s Hillcrest home collapsed on a Friday, and Brown hired some guys to work on it over the weekend.
“It wasn’t the kind of thing where you didn’t want to just not do anything about it,” Jones says.
Brown was literally in line at the DCRA on the following Monday when he got a phone call telling him he’d been given a stop-work order, Jones says. So he promptly got a permit and paid the fine.
Brown has talked openly on the campaign trail about his run-in with DCRA, Jones says, adding that the ticket and fine were a result of “unfortunate timing.” And perhaps some politics.
“Usually DCRA is not that responsive,” Jones muses. “They can’t seem to find a way to close up abandoned houses or even find a way to identify abandoned houses around the city, but when Vince Gray or Kwame Brown does something, they seem to be very quick in reacting…I’m not saying that there was any conspiracy here or anything; I just think there was an inspector who was in the neighborhood.”
Jason Cherkis contributed to this story.
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.