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It’s been a long time since a D.C. mayoral candidate ran on the happy-days-are-here-again theme. While the city still suffers a host of ills—a troubled school system, a huge disparity in incomes, a lack of affordable housing—the city’s economic rejuvenation and fiscal recovery are undeniable. Plenty of residents have done well over the last few years, and the District is no longer the punch line for poor municipal management.
That makes for a pretty clear message for the establishment mayoral candidate, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp: If you want to keep the good times rolling, elect me.
But it’s not all happy talk in the Cropp camp. Like any solid fighter, Cropp is throwing a good one-two combination these days. After being endorsed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams last week, and during her spring campaign kickoff last Saturday, Cropp played up the fear factor.
“This election is about a fundamental choice,” Cropp told a crowd of about 300 supporters gathered at the African-American Civil War Memorial on May 20. “Do you want to build on the progress we’ve made, or do you want to put it all at risk?”
The “fundamental choice” is, of course, between Cropp—the solid, experienced hand who has played a central role in the city’s recovery—and relatively short-résuméd 35-year-old Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. In recent weeks, the normally amiable Cropp has sharpened her claws by suggesting that by electing her chief opponent, voters could put the city back on the track to being the basket case it was a decade ago.
Of course, Cropp insists Fenty is not specifically the person who will “put it all at risk.”
“It’s too early for that,” she says. “I’m talking about all of the hard work it took to get to where we are. People do feel good about the District now. They feel better that things have improved, and it really wasn’t easy.”
Cropp takes her fondness for metaphor to new heights when it comes to explaining the District’s tenuous state. She repeated to LL an analogy she’s trotted out at previous campaign events. The city’s renaissance, she says, “is like freshly poured concrete. It really looks good. But if somebody gets in there and they don’t know what they are doing and steps in it before it is cured, it’s going to leave holes.”
The chairman may not want to attach names to her warning, but Cropp’s campaign spokesperson, Ron Eckstein, can tick off the Fenty risk inventory. “Take his ‘No new taxes’ pledge. Linda’s not saying she’s going to raise taxes. But she’s not going to make campaign promises that will tie her hands later,” says Eckstein. “Governing is a very complicated thing.”
Eckstein also points out that Fenty unequivocally supports same-sex marriage, even though many in the gay community fear pushing for marriage now will anger Congress. “Linda doesn’t want to put anything at risk and wouldn’t do anything to risk the gains that we’ve made [on equal treatment for gay partners],” says Eckstein.
Williams has his own case of the Fenty heebie-jeebies. His early endorsement is an attempt to bring his undecided pals—and their cash—into the Cropp camp now, when they can make a difference. He says the city’s progress “is still in a fragile state” and that Cropp is uniquely qualified to keep the city’s fortunes on an upward trajectory.
Fenty won’t take the bait. He’s been the picture of political discipline, to the point of sounding programmed. The common front-runner habit of repeating pre-packaged sound bites is his latest MO. When asked about Cropp’s characterization of the “fundamental choice,” Fenty slips into dodgy candidate-speak: “I’m just focused on my own campaign.”
Why not sit back? One of Fenty’s fellow mayoral contenders, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, has taken to hammering Cropp on a regular basis. Orange rants about Cropp taking credit for the recent success of the city but brushing off blame for the condition of the schools. She served as president of the D.C. Board of Education in the late ’80s.
And recent history suggests Cropp may be the one taking a risk.
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During the 2004 election, D.C. voters roundly rejected three incumbents who all ran under the don’t-rock-the-boat banner. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil got spanked. He paused in his efforts to take credit for D.C.’s recovery only to attack the eventual winner, Kwame Brown, for alleged ties to the old Marion S. Barry Jr. crowd. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous was crushed by Vincent Gray, who promised a more hands-on approach to governing. In Ward 8, Sandy Allen was trounced by Barry despite eight years in office and the backing of the city’s political establishment.
Sure, all of the losers had baggage Cropp isn’t toting. Voters had tired of Brazil’s hammy act. Chavous was despised by many of his own constituents. Allen faced the impossible task of beating a legend. Residents had little to lose by throwing out the old guard.
This time around, Cropp will make sure voters understand the danger of voting an unproven candidate into office. ”It’s not just hype,” says Cropp about her stewardship promises. “That is the difference between me and the other candidates.”
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Organizers of Cropp’s May 20 campaign rally had done a fine job of preparing for a lively event at the African-American Civil War Memorial. Red-and-white balloons were everywhere. The smell of cotton candy and a well-tended grill wafted around the plaza. The weather was perfect, the music was pumping, and the “Cropp for Mayor” painter’s caps were plentiful.
As a crowd gathered, organizers faced only one big problem: a huge blue-and-white portable Marie Johns–for–mayor billboard parked just across the street, in front of the Vermont Avenue NW D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services headquarters. The sign featured a huge portrait of Johns, her name in big letters, and her campaign slogan, “different. real. better!”
When LL walked over to inquire about the sign, Cropp volunteer Jim Short had already sprung into action. He was telling Lloyd Woods, owner of Woods Mobile Billboards, to move the sign because it was in an emergency no-parking zone. Woods loudly resisted, saying he was being paid to park the billboard precisely in that spot. If the police showed up, he’d move his mobile campaign ad. “But that would be a big problem,” Woods noted, considering “every car on this road is parked illegally right now.”
The Cropp team had no intention of losing the sign war. Within minutes of Woods’ declaration of his right to park, a big moving truck parked in front of the gigantic Johns portrait, completely blocking the sign. Driver John Kirkeby of Hargrove III Events was getting ready to unload some sound equipment for the rally when the folks paying him ordered a change in mission.
But Short wasn’t finished. He told Woods that a fire truck needed to park in the spot, not bothering to mention it was an antique vehicle maintained by the D.C. Firefighters Association with a big “Linda Cropp for Mayor” banner on the side.
Woods finally relented but accused the Cropp team of “denying an individual entrepreneur the opportunity to employ himself and feed his family.” He called the moving-truck maneuver “censorship” and a ploy that compromised his efforts to fill an order from a paying customer.
As he drove away, Woods made it clear the battle was not over. “You want to play? Let’s play,” he yelled as he entered the sign truck’s cab and ordered his driver to head up Vermont Avenue.
When the Cropp crowd started to assemble, Woods’ driver did a U-turn and drove the sign slowly back down Vermont Avenue blaring music from the speakers. He turned around and came back and repeated the stunt several times. When he caught LL’s eye during one drive-by, he screamed from the cab, “Just making a living, man! Making a living!”
Johns’ campaign staffers say the mobile sign was on its regular Saturday route but was put to good use at the rally. “Cropp’s support is like a marshmallow. It is very soft,” says Johns spokesperson Liz Rose, who admittedly bases her findings on “anecdotal” analysis. “We believe that everyone at the Cropp rally could vote for Marie Johns, except maybe for [Cropp’s] family.”
•If chutzpah is rewarded in politics, Ward 3 council candidate Bill Rice should find himself behind the council dais in no time. The superintendent’s school-consolidation plan spares Ward 3, but Rice isn’t celebrating the good fortune of the people of the ward; he’s taking credit for the decision in a May 15 press release titled “Rice Position Vindicated, No Ward 3 Schools to Close.”
“I am pleased that my stand to keep all our Ward 3 public schools open has paid off,” Rice stated in the release. Rice’s “stand” is a mystery to the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials who developed the consolidation plan. DCPS Chief Business Operations Officer Thomas Brady, who played a key role in the closings plan, says candidates had no role in the “right-sizing” process. “Shame on me, but I don’t even know who the heck Bill Rice is.”
Rice doesn’t flinch when asked how he could attempt to take credit for something he had no connection to. “We have good schools in Ward 3, and they are worth fighting for,” says Rice. “I’m happy I said it.”—James Jones
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