Can the D.C. Council chairman’s mayoral campaign be any weaker?
How much does mayoral contender Linda Cropp weigh these days? Has she shed a pound or two this summer?
Though such questions sound like barroom chatter at some U Street watering hole, they actually go to the heart of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary. The race has five major candidates, with Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty leading the pack in most polls and Cropp in second place.
Shortly after Cropp launched her bid, the 58-year-old chairman of the D.C. Council was asked if she worried about keeping up with her younger opponent, the 35-year-old Fenty. The Ward 4 councilmember was already generating buzz by engaging in an unprecedented door-knocking blitz of the city.
The question was whether Cropp could pull off a stoop-hopping campaign of her own. She declared to a group of reporters that by the end of the campaign, she’d either curse Fenty for making her walk up and down so many stairs or thank him for helping her lose weight.
With just days left in the primary race, Cropp was recently asked where her feelings fell on the curse-thank continuum. “It’s both,” she replied. “I’m both cursing him and thanking him.”
It was a fitting response for a politician who, throughout her 26-year career, has been preoccupied with avoiding conflict. When asked at a Ward 8 mayoral forum to describe her leadership style, Cropp replied, “I like to lead by consensus.”
Well, the consensus is that Cropp has grafted her legislative MO wholesale onto her mayoral campaign. When you base a career on nothing but conciliating among your council colleagues, you’re not left with a lot of bullet points for your mayoral mailers. On the key matters of her nearly 10-year reign as council chairman, Cropp has sat right in the middle of things, literally and figuratively.
She helped craft a compromise to reconfigure a D.C. school board that is half-appointed, half-elected, after the mayor pressed to take over the school system.
When top-flight school superintendents steered clear of the District because of the city’s confusing school governance structure, she backed the so-called education collaborative, a body that includes the mayor, councilmembers, and board members but has no authority.
Even during the baseball debate that thrust her into the mayoral contest, Cropp’s position was so muddled that many voters still aren’t clear on whether she almost screwed up the deal or saved baseball for the city.
And on one of the pivotal issues of her campaign—pounding the pavement, that is—Cropp again made nothing but compromises. She’s never come close to matching Fenty’s street-by-street barrage. Her failure to walk the streets is a big deal, reflecting her unwillingness to reach beyond the familiar confines of the D.C. establishment. Her message falls squarely in the middle of the road as well, consisting of lukewarm recitations of her record. She’s opted to win the election by reaching consensus one meet-and-greet at a time.
When talking with prospective voters this summer, Cropp has emphasized her experience and familiarity with the workings of the D.C. government. As of Labor Day weekend, the message hadn’t moved them. Cropp is reluctant to discuss her message, saying it’s strategic information she’d rather not share with the Fenty camp. She would only say that on the campaign trail, “People started asking: ‘What is the difference?’ It’s clear to me I have to explain why I am best prepared to be mayor.”
The day Cropp launched her candidacy, she offered up a counter to Fenty’s fleet-footed juggernaut, some visible evidence that her campaign would rival Fenty on the Energizer Bunny front. She tapped longtime D.C. political consultant Marshall Brown to run her field operation. If Cropp needed an inside track to undercut the Fenty strategy, Brown was the right choice.
Brown is the kind of guy who demands relentless energy from his candidates and believes in visibility-enhancing outings above all else. Political observers snickered at the idea of Brown directing Cropp into the streets every evening for months on end.
Even so, Brown assured reporters that his candidate would follow roughly the same canvassing game plan that brought Fenty and Brown’s son, Kwame Brown, into office—namely, blitzing street corners and front doors. “You know I wouldn’t have signed on without her agreeing to that,” he says.
The Brown plan has been implemented in a different way in Cropp’s conciliatory environment. When Cropp canvassers head out, the candidate isn’t usually in tow. Plans to walk the streets every night were never seriously considered, quickly scaled back, and replaced with more civilized meet-and-greets in private homes.
“We canvas practically every weekend, both Saturday and Sunday,” says Cropp campaign spokesperson Ron Eckstein, who adds that the schedule is scaled back at times because of rain or extreme heat.
Fenty, meanwhile, has pounded the pavement nearly every single night for months. “Linda did not knock on as many doors as Adrian Fenty,” admits Cropp campaign manager Phyllis Jones, who adds that in the spring, the council was still conducting business while Fenty was out campaigning: “She did the job she was paid to do.” Cropp “put in many hours directly reaching out to the voters,” says Jones. “Linda Cropp does not believe she should neglect a job to campaign for another one.”
Kwame Brown offers up a dose of reality about the front-porch portion of the campaign. “Let’s be clear—Linda’s an older lady,” he says. “There is no way she can knock on every door in the city, especially when she is doing the work of the council.” Brown is a co-chair of the Cropp campaign.
Somewhere along the line, Marshall Brown’s hopes for an energetic campaign were pushed aside. But Brown says he’s OK with Cropp’s Teva mileage. “We’ve done the Metros, been waving on street corners, and knocked on enough doors—all of that,” he says. “But everybody involved with a particular part of any campaign wants more time from the candidate.”
Fenty’s emergence on the D.C. political scene—and the test run for his mayoral jaunts around town—came in 2000, at the expense of longtime incumbent and business-elite darling Charlene Drew Jarvis. At least she can claim to have been blindsided by the now-familiar Fenty script of knocking on every door, planting yard signs, and working 24/7.
Jarvis offered the losing strategy for everyone to see: Count on money from your downtown business pals and lean on the support of the District’s aging political establishment to carry the day. She was wrong, ending her political career as a delusional dancing fool in the showroom of Georgia Avenue’s Curtis Chevrolet on primary election night 2000.
When Kwame Brown decided to run against incumbent Harold Brazil in 2003, he sought counsel from political consultant Tom Lindenfeld. Lindenfeld was frank with the neophyte politico: The way to knock off Brazil would be a long, grueling, on-the-ground campaign that expands the Fenty 2000 model to every corner of the city. “I told Kwame, you get 20,000 yard signs out, you win,” says Lindenfeld.
Brown was up for the challenge. He was young and eager with little to offer voters beyond a fresh face, lots of hustle, and the ability to listen. He trounced Brazil, who campaigned on a “keep the good times rolling” theme. The support of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, tons of business cash, and the backing of the city’s political establishment did nothing for Brazil.
These days, Lindenfeld is Fenty’s most trusted political strategist. He’s helped chart a familiar shoe-leather strategy for his candidate.
The Cropp playbook is blind to history. Despite its early ambitions of going door-to-door, it embraces the losing strategies employed by Jarvis and Brazil, with a strong dose of vanilla rhetoric thrown in for good measure.
Many old-line political bigwigs have flocked to Cropp, including fundraising maven Max Berry and former city administrator Elijah B. Rogers. Three of her council colleagues and former councilmembers are in the Cropp camp. Her campaign manager, Phyllis Jones, resigned as the council secretary to join the fight. She’s piled up a bevy of endorsements and raised a huge campaign war chest from the usual pro-business suspects, including the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and megadeveloper Herb Miller.
The result is a campaign overflowing with hangers-on who believe that a long legislative record and establishment support can produce a citywide win. Her closest advisers, therefore, are a lot like Cropp herself—prisoners of the Wilson building and its vernacular for defining political success. It’s no wonder that this team is coming at voters with a message that spawns more Fenty devotees each day.
During a recent Cropp campaign stop at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill, Paul Gardullo, an undecided voter watching his 6-year-old daughter on the playground, volunteered to hear the candidate’s pitch.
Cropp’s sales job rambled on without a pause for nearly three minutes. Among the language employed to win his vote: a pledge to “strengthen the State Education Office,” develop “a comprehensive policy on education,” and “bring the same type of solutions to the education system as I have as chairman of the council.” Cropp wrapped things up by pointing out, “I’ve been part of the leadership of the city for the last 26 years.”
Gardullo offered a polite “thank you” to the candidate as she moved on for another monologue in front of a different parent. “I’m not convinced,” he said after the encounter, adding that he didn’t know much about Cropp’s activities as chair. The first he’d really seen of Cropp during the campaign was in what he called “negative campaign ads on television.”
At a much-hyped one-on-one debate televised on NewsChannel 8 on Aug. 28, Cropp’s wonkish streak was laid bare under the stage lights. When host Bruce DePuyt asked Cropp an open-ended crime question, she deployed her trademark bureaucratic spiel. “I think there’s a two-pronged approach that we have to take. One is a long term–short term. The other is prevention and enforcement.” All over the region, voters’ eyes were straying to the screen crawl. By the time Cropp got to her plans to use D.C. reserve police officers more effectively and create better coordination with the 54 federal protective services agencies, she couldn’t be heard over the squeak of District refrigerator hinges.
The standard Cropp speech is loaded with references only a true devotee of D.C. cable Channel 13 could appreciate. During a canvassing jaunt last week, Cropp stopped Michigan Park resident Deborah Harper on the sidewalk to explain why being mayor requires more than just knocking on doors.
Harper is the perfect Cropp target: She has a Fenty sign in her yard but admits she hasn’t really decided who to vote for. So Cropp hit her with the best any government junky could offer: “I led 10 straight balanced budgets, met with Wall Street to improve our bond rating. We are now at an A+ rating as opposed to junk-bond status when I first came into office.”
Harper doesn’t know much about how bond ratings work. She’s more concerned about the murders in her neighborhood. “I guess it all means something,” she says.
Cropp shrugs off the suggestion that voters might get bogged down in the details. “You have to let them know how the legislation impacts them,” she says. As for her fondness for reciting legislative accomplishments in person as well as in her literature, Cropp goes into spin mode. “I have a very long record with a lot of stuff in it.”
Maybe Cropp is out of practice. It’s been a long time since she was forced to gauge the electorate. She lost a close 1988 race for the Ward 4 council seat against Jarvis and finished third in an ill-fated quest for the council chairmanship in 1994.
But mostly, the Cropp political résumé lists a series of nonevents. She won an at-large seat handily in 1990, then took 70 percent against token opposition in 1994. Her ascension to the council chairmanship in a 1997 special election after the death of Dave Clarke was a breeze—she won 89 percent—and topped 90 percent of the vote in 1998 and 2002 democratic primary contests.
When asked whether her worry-free electoral life over the past decade has hurt her on this year’s campaign trial, Cropp said her slow start didn’t have anything to do with rust. “I think it was the length of the campaign more than anything else,” Cropp says. “And the fact that I had serious responsibilities.”
It’s no surprise that Cropp has chalked up a record campaign war chest. Business loves her. There is no shortage of lawyers and developers ready to host her meet-and-greet/fundraising parties. With all that cash, the candidate was expected to launch an unprecedented ad blitz that would certainly reach more homes than Fenty and his faithful ever could.
Yet all the money in the world won’t buy what campaign geeks call “earned media.” Judging from a sampling of recent Washington Post campaign stories, Fenty is routing Cropp in the race for “earned media.” To wit:
•The Post’s Aug. 31 Style section feature depicting Fenty as superman, tying his triathlon training regime to his door-to-door campaign. Money offering from Post reporter: “He is not trying to create the image of a young, energetic candidate; he is a young, energetic candidate.”
•The Post’s July 16 front-page comparison of Fenty’s and Cropp’s campaign donors boosted his man-of-the-people appeal and painted Cropp as a slave to downtown business interests. Money offering from Post reporter: “By almost every measure, Fenty seems the populist outsider.”
•An Aug. 4 piece by business columnist Steven Pearlstein debunks criticism of Fenty’s inexperience. The column’s headline? “Fenty May Well Be a Born Manager.”
•Ditto for devoted Cropp basher Marc Fisher. On Aug. 24, his column head couldn’t have been worse for the plodding Cropp camp: “Fenty Emerges as an Action Hero.”
•When Cropp unleashed radio ads highlighting Fenty’s failures as a lawyer, the Aug. 18 Post headline made Cropp seem vicious: “Cropp Attacks Fenty in New Radio Ads.”
Why the early endorsement from the news side of the Post?
Any explanation must begin with Cropp’s careerist embrace of the Royal D.C. Council. For years, the council chairman has surrounded herself with the accouterments of a Wilson Building sovereign, including an arms-length relationship with the press. Before staking out her claim to the executive suite, Cropp was famously unresponsive to reporters’ inquiries.
Here’s how the drill would go: Reporter begins work on a piece about the council or some piece of legislation. Realizing that the story wouldn’t be complete without comment from Cropp, reporter calls her office in search of comment. Call gets routed to Cropp spokesperson. Spokesperson asks what the subject is, deadline, and so on. In the end, reporter may get a moment on the phone with Cropp—or may not. If Cropp does deign to respond, the interview yields perhaps one line of marginally interesting material.
Most of Cropp’s best work has gone on behind closed doors. For years, she insisted on the utter secrecy of her pre-legislative-session breakfast meetings. No reporters. The council, she would always say, was discussing only “administrative” issues and thus didn’t need to open the proceedings to the press. She could never explain why, if they were just administrative issues, she needed to close the sessions. She finally caved after WTOP radio threatened a lawsuit.
This summer, Cropp ended one of the breakfast sessions when she saw that a Washington Times reporter was taping the action.
Contrast that media record with what Fenty offers: First off, a cell phone number. The local reporter who can’t get in touch with Fenty is a very bad reporter. Telling your editor, “Hey, I couldn’t reach Fenty” should be a firing offense.
Fenty’s openness fostered a lot of glowing press even before the mayoral race began. For example, he scored mentions in 974 Post stories from 2001 through early 2005.
Cropp caught on very late in the game. Earlier this summer, reporters around town were complaining that they couldn’t reach Cropp for their stories on the campaign.
In May, Mayor Williams issued a very public endorsement of Cropp. The occasion should have been a crowning moment, a launching pad for a re-energized Cropp effort that had seemed to be stuck in the mud. Yet Williams, never exactly a political master, helped drain all suspense from the event: For months, he had been hinting at his leanings and bashing Fenty.
Standing in front of the refurbished Tivoli Theatre, with construction cranes in booming Columbia Heights as a backdrop, Williams delivered a torturous twist of logic on Cropp’s behalf. He attempted to convince the media hordes that Cropp is the real candidate of change. The mayor explained that he was elected as a true transformer when the District was nearly bankrupt. The way Williams saw it, Cropp is the continuation of his “legacy of change” in the city.
It didn’t fly, and Cropp still struggles to find the right words to describe how she represents anything more than a bland continuation of a regime that has always carried an inspiration deficit. By the time a July Post poll detailed that a strong majority of voters had tired of Williams and that even bigger numbers were looking for a new direction from a District leader, Cropp had acquired firm credentials as a defender of the status quo.
But even Cropp knows that’s a loser’s label. “Of course there is going to be change when I win,” says Cropp. “A change of style, a change of focus,” she says. “The question voters have to ask is: Is it positive change or not?”—James Jones
A campaign flier, translated for your comprehension
Linda Cropp has enjoyed a lengthy, productive career in public service. As such, she can claim plenty of accomplishments. (Or at least she can associate herself with plenty of accomplishments.) But when it comes to selling yourself to voters, many deeds don’t necessarily translate into many votes.
Take this Cropp flier distributed to Ward 6 voters: It’s over 600 words long, features big blocks of text, and uses phrases like “tax increment financing” and “inclusionary zoning policy.”
The Great Communicator, she ain’t.
So we’re going to help Cropp get her message out, by translating this unreadable flier into the stuff of $300-an-hour PR consultants.—Mike DeBonis
Mixed Messages Life under the FentyCroppJohnsBrownOrangeMilligan administration
One of the great pitfalls of American democracy is we elect one politician per race. When we go to the voting booth, we choose just one president, one congressional representative, one councilmember.
The problem is particularly limiting in mayoral races such as the one now flashing across TV screens in the District. A half-dozen energetic, mature candidates each day appear at churches and rec centers to propose innovative solutions to transform D.C. into that “world-class city” that gets dreamed about every election cycle.
Perhaps the reason that we never reach Paris/Tokyo/London status is that we remain understaffed at the mayoral level. Take this year, for example—why can’t we just hire all the contenders? Hell, they all got on the ballot, and they all have policy positions at the ready. Just think what would happen if we skipped right to the implementation phase!
At dawn, residents join the head of the Department of Public Works for coffee and talk about the ever-expanding bulk-trash pickup regime. Officials such as the DPW director sweat for us in the field all day long, not just because they love being so responsive, but also because their former offices at the John A. Wilson Building have been turned into condos for young professionals. Government property is now used to generate revenue (Adrian Fenty).
Around noon, these officials put aside their work—as does every other city employee—for a suggested half-hour of exercise (Marie Johns). Meter maids drop and do 20 on the sidewalk. Spontaneous games of touch football break out across the city. Many employees use the time to de-stress over cigarettes and catch up on unfinished cell-phone conversations.
At 1 p.m., over at the Unified Communications Center, business resumes when the mayors gather for “Sharing Time,” a teleconference among the nation’s most innovative leaders to discuss best practices (Fenty). There’s inevitably some bitching and moaning, as the mayor who conceived of the idea is perennially late, going door-to-door in the neighborhoods on his endless campaign. Mayor Johns is also unavailable, having passed out while personally monitoring the 24-hour Mayor’s Hot Line (Johns).
These meetings break up with the mayors microwaving some Hot Pockets and heading out to attend PTA meetings, ANC meetings, and maybe even your child’s birthday party—except for Artee Milligan Jr., who will spend the rest of his day cleaning garbage from your alley and solving world hunger (Milligan).
The schools are strangely quiet in the afternoon, but it’s understandable when one remembers that teachers now outnumber students. Surplus school property shines with new paint and new life as charter schools, and students frequently chat up single moms who live in unused classrooms (Johns). These young learners are not only above-par in terms of grades, they’re also able to cobble your shoes in five minutes flat, thanks to the school system’s emphasis on vocational training. Principals patrol their hallways with tans and broad smiles that could have come only from a lengthy stay at the Principals’ Academy (Linda Cropp), location undisclosed (though rumor puts it somewhere in Bermuda).
Traffic actually seems to thin around rush hour, despite the District’s population having grown by 100,000 (Fenty). That’s because all the superdense, mixed-use housing developments—like the Town Center in Ward 5—have greatly reduced the need for car travel (Vincent Orange). Despite the Malthusian swell in population, not one single poor family has been pushed out of the District. Props go to advances in inclusionary zoning (Cropp), eviction-prevention programs (Fenty), and the newly formed Wallet Police, who go around checking people’s pocketbooks to ensure the wealthy don’t infiltrate the city (Michael Brown).
In an unfortunate side effect of the growth, however, cops, firefighters, and teachers get bricks thrown at them while walking home from work. After all, the mayors gave them most of the affordable housing (Fenty).
As the sun begins to set, it’s evident that D.C.’s quality of life is closing in on that of a Florida retirement community. Kids play in the streets while grandparents watch approvingly from front porches, sipping iced tea. History’s clock has somehow been turned back to kinder, simpler times (Brown).
Blending into the background are the city’s 4,600 police officers (Orange), whose desks have all been taken away to remind them of their role as beat cops who wear night-vision goggles (Fenty). On a less-positive note, residents now have to worry about breakouts from two jails—the old one in Northeast and the new one downtown (Orange). But they also have two ballparks to provide distraction (Cropp, Brown).
Citizens settle into bed knowing that they’re unjustly cut out of the democratic process (Orange, Milligan, Fenty, Brown, Johns, Cropp). News reports are chock-full of mayors arguing the case for D.C. statehood in front of Congress. At midnight, the “Millennium-like Clock” on Pennsylvania Avenue chimes and presents an updated tally of all the new tax dollars D.C. residents pay without representation (Johns).
But no one will lose sleep over new taxes. Because there won’t be any (Fenty).—John Metcalfe
Playing the Fields
In his two victories, At-Large Coucilmember Phil Mendelson has faced a splintered set of challengers. Can he go one-on-one?
On a recent Saturday afternoon, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson is making some campaign stops in his dark-blue 1998 Mercury Mystique (odometer: 98,228 miles). As he shuffles between block parties and the like, he has three tapes to choose from—an Annie Lennox, an early Bruce Springsteen, and a 911 recording that’s already queued up.
Mendelson fires up the 911 tape.
Through the crackle, there’s a burst of noise and a woman trying to give an address. Within seconds, you hear terrifying screams. It’s the sound of an anguished crowd stampeding the phone. Finally, the woman sputters out an attempt at an address and names a nearby grocery.
The chaos on the recording is the by-product of street-level mayhem: A child had been hit by a car. The 911 call sent the ambulance to the wrong address. Eventually, the dispatcher figured out the right location. The boy survived his injuries, but the two-term councilmember wanted to listen to the tape to see if the 911 dispatcher had erred. (She had, by getting both the street address wrong and the location of the grocery store wrong.)
Mendelson is the D.C. Council’s resident expert on 911 recordings. He’s chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee, after all, and such calls fall under his jurisdiction. He made headlines in 2003 when he investigated a 911 screwup involving a deadly fire in Dupont Circle.
And he garnered more attention this year for getting caught flat-footed on the bungled response to the fatal assault sustained in early January by Northwest resident David E. Rosenbaum. A June report by the city’s inspector general uncovered a slew of errors by emergency personnel in handling the Rosenbaum call—errors that Mendelson’s critics say he should have highlighted. Mendelson takes partial credit for the probe. “I threatened the mayor’s folks with a hearing if they would not do the investigation,” he says.
Whatever his alibi, one thing is certain: Mendelson didn’t botch the Rosenbaum issue because he was out demagoguing, race-baiting, or back-slapping in preparation for his face-off in this year’s at-large race against attorney A. Scott Bolden. The more likely explanation is that he had his nose buried in too many EMS documents.
Mendelson’s brand of gotcha politics amounts to careful deliberation. It is this type of quiet wonkitude that distinguishes him from a dais packed with outsized personalities; the councilmember sticks out for simply not having one.
Mendelson doesn’t browbeat like David Catania. He doesn’t do fake down-with-the-people like Jack Evans—someone please tell the Ward 2 rep to stop referring to slain activist Chris Crowder as “Brother Chris.” And he doesn’t rock a cardigan like Kwame Brown or molest a camera like Marion Barry or Jim Graham. “He’s the guy that looks for the comma and the period and the question mark in the sentence,” explains political operative Marshall Brown. “But he doesn’t really care about the sentence.”
Even his supporters acknowledge Mendelson’s nebbish factor. “I think he looks like the skinny kid that you can beat up on,” says political gadfly Howard Croft.
Mendelson will tell you that this very trait—his attention to the minutiae of government—accounts for his electoral success. He thinks about issues, takes a position, and sticks to it. He doesn’t sell out to corporate interests, either, as reflected in his endorsements by labor and environmental groups.
Even so, hard work and a traditional liberal record alone can’t account for Mendelson’s nearly eight years on the council. That principled stand on Klingle Road, that history of support for tenants and low-wage workers, that earnest demeanor when meeting voters—they just don’t add up to a stranglehold on such a coveted elective office.
The factor missing in this equation is luck. A careful investigation of the Mendo’s political timeline reveals that the stars align for this pol as readily as the tires on his aging Merc.
The Washington City Paper’s accounting of a charmed politician:
•Spring 1998: Nine candidates join Mendelson in the Democratic primary for an at-large council seat. Splintered field helps the longtime Ward 3 activist.
•Summer 1998: At-large opponent Bill Rice insists on riding his bike to campaign events. “I hated that bike,” admits Rice campaign worker Marshall Brown. “But that was Bill. Bill rode his bike.” The two-wheeled prop designates Rice as the whitest man in the contest, conferring unexpected racial cred upon Mendo.
•Sept. 15, 1998: Mendelson wins the primary with 17 percent of the vote. Rice gets 14 percent.
•June 30, 2000: The Washington Post runs a piece on Mendelson’s sidewalk office hours—another boost for the mustachioed councilmember’s street image.
•2001: Chattering class nominates D.C. political phenom Donna Brazile as challenger to Mendo. Brazile shuns Kalorama meet-and-greets in favor of national politics, assisting Sen. Mary Landrieu with her race in Louisiana. “I thought the at-large race was wide open,” Brazile recalls thinking before heading down to her home state.
•March 6, 2002: Marion Barry, winner of four mayoral elections, sets his sights on Mendo’s seat, calling the incumbent’s leadership “woefully lacking.” Fifteen days after his announcement, Hizzoner is busted by Park Police at Buzzard Point with trace amounts of marijuana and cocaine in his car.
•Summer 2002: Mendelson faces another perfectly splintered field in his re-election campaign. The four black candidates include school-board member Dwight Singleton, who had this to say about his record: “I feel that under my leadership, our schools have not diminished, not one bit.”
•Late August 2002: Campaign manager for at-large challenger Beverly Wilbourn quits. “The campaign really didn’t have the money,” former campaign manager Cheryl Benton explains. Vaunted Wilbourn campaign ends with a whimper.
•Sept. 10, 2002: Mendelson wins the Democratic primary on his way to a second term as at-large councilmember.
•Sept. 14, 2004: Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous loses his seat to Vincent Gray. The Chavous exit allows Mendo to appropriate his campaign-trail mantra: “I’m not the downtown candidate. I’m the around-town candidate.”
•May 2005: Activist David Bowers tears his ACL in a pickup hoops game, sidelining him from his planned at-large run. The injury ends a string of good fortune for Mendo, leaving him in a tough one-on-one contest with colorful pro-business candidate A. Scott Bolden.—Jason Cherkis
A Hill Staffer’s Guide to the Election
How to choose your local candidate without leaving the Rayburn Building
The District is a unique confluence of two worlds. Designed for the sole purpose of governing the nation, it somehow became a city with its own identity, citizens, and, eventually, homegrown politics. The people it was built for, though, generally invest little interest in the city surrounding them, unless it’s to experiment with some policy idea an intern at the Cato Institute came up with. But the folks who move here to run the country are just as much a part of the city as anyone else. They live here, eat here, get shot here, raise families here, and do all the other things District residents do—except vote. The city needs these luminaries—with all their political knowledge and experience—to take an active role in the local scene. With that in mind, we provide here a guide to our politics, federal style.
Similarities: Cropp and Dole both led their legislative chambers with a monotonous aplomb that lulled lawmakers into obedience. Neither has hatched an original idea over a combined 50-plus years of public service. They both refer to themselves in the third person and both seem to have launched their biggest campaigns on the flimsiest of reasoning: I guess it’s my turn, right?
Killer difference: Mobility—Dole is light on his feet.
Similarities: This one might look like a layup. Young, energetic, ambitious African-American attorneys, Fenty and Booker are both media darlings, eager to bring bright new ideas to the urban landscape. During a recent fundraising trip to the District, says Fenty spokesperson Alec Evans, Booker was mistaken for Fenty and thanked for his hard work on behalf of District residents.
Killer difference: Brains—Booker was a Rhodes scholar.
Similarities: Both represent deeply rich, liberal districts. Pelosi’s caustic style makes her a polarizing leader. Patterson’s caustic style makes her a polarizing leader.
Killer difference: Botox—Pelosi is 116 years old but looks like she could be Patterson’s daughter.
Similarities: Both are well-spoken, business-friendly Democrats with ambition to spare. Gray has the nerve to launch a bid to lead a council he’s been on for barely more than a year. Ford has the cojones to think he can become the first African-American senator elected from the South since reconstruction.
Killer difference: Looks—Ford is hot.
Similarities: They love to hear themselves speak. Biden has been mocked for using his entire allotted time to “question” Supreme Court nominees without once offering up a question. Graham is known for his nine-hour hearings.
Killer difference: Slavery—an attack against Graham portrayed him as a slave master in cartoons posted throughout the city. That might be a compliment to Biden, who recently noted with pride that Delaware was a slave state.
Similarities: Both are unavoidable. The Larouchies lurk the subway like Rees stalks cyberspace, searching for blog comment threads he can use either to pump up his campaign or attack other candidates. “I can be progressive but obnoxious in the process,” says Rees.
Killer difference: Flesh—Larouche’s cult followers are all live human beings. Rees’ followers are mostly concocted in cyberspace by Rees himself.
Similarities: Both are enemies of the left; both refuse to quit. Zapata launched her council bid after getting bounced from District government amid charges she was too business-friendly. Lieberman is carrying on despite losing his primary, counting on overwhelming Republican support.
Killer Difference: Authenticity—Zapata has redeeming qualities.
Similarities: Byrd famously carries around a tattered copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. No one on the council cares more about parliamentary procedure than Mendelson.
Killer Difference: Résumé—Mendelson has never been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Similarities: Both strong enviros from down South who have grown and shaved beards. Wells has vowed to try to live car-free as a councilmember.
Killer difference: Democracy—in the District, we have direct elections.—Ryan Grim
If You Can’t Say Something Nice…
Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has been slamming Linda Cropp for years. What’s the best he can say about the candidate?
“Linda Cropp is a bona fide resident of the District of Columbia. And, depending on the hour of the day, the weather outside, and what she’s had for lunch, she takes a strongly principled position in favor/against baseball, the education of children, and tax relief for all citizens. Does that work?”
Developer Douglas Jemal was grilled in hearings by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, then indicted on bribery charges. What’s the best he can say about the candidate?
“I have nothing against Jim Graham, and I endorse him. I think he’s a good man. That’s probably not what you thought I’d say. I’m gifted not to bear any animosity. That’s what makes me special, as far as I’m concerned. I hold no grudge.”
Activist John Capozzi has spent years fighting pro-biz candidates like A. Scott Bolden. What’s the best he can say about the candidate?
“Bolden could bring the K Street image to the council. It’s important to have people that look the part.”
Tortured lifetime mayoral aspirant Jack Evans can’t stand upstarts like Adrian Fenty who beat him to higher office. What’s the best he can say about the candidate?
“If I ever need help with [my] kids to fix their Game Boys, I would know who to call. Adrian always is playing with his BlackBerry. It reminds me of my kids playing with their Game Boys.”
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Worried you won’t be able to buy a home in the neighborhood?
I’ve supported tax breaks and city assistance to help Ward 6 residents own their own homes. And I haven’t forgotten about renters, either. Every time big business wanted to scrap rent control, I voted to keep rents affordable.
I’ve made sure that the rising real-estate market doesn’t force out longtime homeowners. I’ve worked hard on the council to keep property taxes under control.
Everyone knows I fought for a price cap on the baseball stadium.
But that’s not the only development that will bring jobs and retail dollars to Ward 6. I supported thousands of new jobs at the Navy Yard, a new Department of Transportation headquarters, and a rebuilt South Capitol Street Bridge.
That means in a few years, Near Southeast will be a real neighborhood again.
It’ll be a place that will be walkable, will have easy access to Metro, and will have parks, shops, and sit-down restaurants galore. And it won’t just be for yuppies—I led the council in requiring that developers set aside units for folks with moderate incomes, such as teachers and police officers.
And, thanks to my leadership, the same thing is coming to other parts of the ward.
With me as chairman, the council has passed development plans for H Street NE, the Anacostia and Southwest waterfronts, and the D.C. General campus.
Gimmickry and blind faith keep Vincent Orange juiced about his mayoral prospects.
On July 21, mayoral candidate Vincent Orange’s supporters received some distressing news. Among 1,350 D.C. adults polled over the telephone by the Washington Post, a mere 6 percent had cast their theoretical ballots for Orange. And when pollsters tried to determine just how strongly that sliver felt about the candidate, they came up with an asterisk in lieu of hard numbers. Poll readers who bothered to search for the symbol’s meaning found that it indicated this: “Base too small to analyze.”
Orange’s die-hard supporters should be glad to learn that the candidate doesn’t place much faith in telephone polls. After all, six weeks after those numbers dropped he’s still rising at 6 a.m. so that he can hand out sacks of oranges to residents as he asks for their votes. On a Thursday morning just 12 days before the primary, he arrives at the Waterfront metro stop in Southwest Washington not long after dawn. He’s wearing a light-blue shirt, navy pants, and his trademark orange-striped tie. Carrying an orange tote bag filled with orange bracelets for the kids—“Tell your parents about me,” he urges them—the candidate grabs a bag of oranges and plants himself near the station entrance.
Between handshakes with bleary-eyed commuters, Orange is asked how he has the energy to stump aggressively when local media have deemed this a two-candidate race between Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp.
“Once you get into the competitive mode and you’ve got a good message, you just keep moving,” he explains, holding up the fruit. “You just eat some oranges in the morning and get some vitamin C.”
Then Orange grows more serious. “I don’t think the polls are accurate,” he goes on. “In Ward 5”—which Orange represents as councilmember—“I won a straw poll. Everyone says Fenty is so far ahead, but he hasn’t won a straw poll. He won the telephone poll, but a telephone poll is passive. Voters don’t have to actually get out there and vote.”
He looks to D.C. politics of yesteryear to bolster that claim. “D.C. voters will change on you in a minute,” he says. “No front-runner has ever won an open seat. Look at when [Mayor Anthony] Williams won his first time. Everyone thought it was gonna be [former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin] Chavous. And look at Barry’s first time. He was up against Sterling Tucker and Arrington Dixon. And what happened? Barry came right up the middle.”
But Orange’s electoral analogies don’t exactly hold up against reality. According to an August 1998 Post poll, Williams was leading Chavous by 19 percentage points—hardly making Chavous the front-runner. And when Barry faced Tucker in the 1978 mayoral primary, Dixon was actually making a run at the council chair.
Still, Orange thinks “it’s anybody’s race.” And apparently so do his volunteers, who will hand out roughly 15 large boxes of oranges this morning before they pack up shop. Among them are Sidney Davis, a D.C. bus driver who was recently fired not long after a Post report revealed that he was stumping for Orange as he drove his route, and Keith Covington, who later today will be shouting “Vitamin C for D.C.!” through a bullhorn. The Orange team relies heavily on the color/fruit gimmick; this morning, anyone wearing an orange shirt stands a good chance of being approached by the candidate himself and urged to “join the team—that’s my color!”
Orange barnstorms with the same enthusiasm he launched his campaign with in December 2004, when he treated guests at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to a 10-minute video on his life; Orange, the narrator intoned, was “a man on a mission.” In that spirit, last month he took out a $67,000 loan to finance the final days of his campaign, according to finance reports. His oldest son, Vincent Jr., who’s been rising early with his father and joining him on the hustings, says Orange Sr. never privately discusses the possibility of defeat. “That’s not a consideration at this point,” says Orange Jr.
Later in the afternoon, Orange visits the WRC-TV studios near Tenleytown for a taping of Viewpoint, hosted by Joe Krebs. The episode is meant to be a roundtable of mayoral hopefuls. A cheery station employee greets Orange in the lobby. “Still running the race, huh?” she asks, with a hint of admiration.
Back in the green room, Orange sits with his campaign strategist, Kobi Little, and his treasurer and volunteer coordinator, Ayawna Chase, as they quietly watch Ellen DeGeneres dance on a nearby television. It’s become clear that there won’t be much of a roundtable. Fenty, apparently with more pressing campaign concerns, declined the invitation; so did Cropp. Then Marie Johns took a pass. Michael Brown, a fellow single-digit candidate and the lone competitor who’s agreed to join Orange, shows up at the last minute.
Orange and Brown take their seats across from Krebs in the studio, and the cameras start rolling. For his first question, Krebs basically asks the two men if they’re still viable candidates. Orange plays up the Ward 5 straw poll and faults the media for the perception of a narrowed field. He’s given out about 30,000 oranges, he says, “and the media hasn’t talked about that.”
During a break, Brown asks Krebs about the anemic turnout for the forum. “So, Joe, everybody declined?” he asks, before correcting the slip. “I mean, the other three declined?” Krebs explains that it was a domino effect.
Orange leaves the taping upbeat, and his team heads to their white Cadillac SUV, which is plastered with Orange-for-Mayor signs. In a few hours, Orange will go head-to-head with the candidates who just blew him off at Channel 4. Tonight’s forum will be held at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia, and Orange’s camp sees it as an opportunity for him to bring a few voters to their feet. His gift for sermonizing and opposition to gay marriage make him a popular man in the pews.
In fact, Orange mentions a note he received a few days prior from a deeply religious D.C. voter. In the e-mail, the woman tells Orange that she hosted a party for the recent televised debate broadcast from George Washington University. “[D]on’t give up, because the race wasn’t given to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who can endure unto the end!” the e-mail reads. The crowd at her house, the woman explains, was bowled over by Orange’s performance. “[God] would take the foolish to confound the wise, and vice versa…[S]o many have thought that you were so foolish because they felt you were at the bottom of the polls, they did not take the time to truly investigate who you really were…ALWAYS be reminded of the story of David and the giant.”
Orange says he was moved by the e-mail. “You read that kind of stuff, and it’s inspiring,” he says. He flashes a smile.
“And it’s nice to know she had 50 people at that party,” he adds.—Dave Jamieson
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.