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During the run-up to the 2002 election, Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans made a generous gesture to his political neighbor, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson: He threw a fundraiser for her at his Georgetown home.
Evans’ offer to shake his well-tended money tree was magnanimous even for a group as chummy as D.C. Council incumbents. The event was no big surprise; Evans and Patterson have always been close allies. They’ve each served on committees that the other has chaired and have usually been on the same page.
And besides, there was little chance the two Northwest D.C. pals would ever be rivals. Evans has never hid his ambition to occupy the mayor’s suite, and Patterson has made it clear she would pursue the council-chair post if Linda Cropp were to leave the job.
Earlier this year, the setup seemed perfect. Mayor Anthony A. Williams seemed destined to fill out his term waiting in airport-security lines, and Cropp was making plans to run for mayor.
Evans followed his script, saying he would be a candidate for mayor, pointedly stating that he had no interest in running for chair. And Patterson began huddling with supporters to plan a citywide race.
But this summer, after looking at some polls and listening to advisers, Evans delivered some bad news to his friend. According to Evans, he began considering a run for chair at the urging of longtime supporters.
For an old friend, Evans picked an interesting way of letting Patterson know he would be running for the office she had long coveted: She found out on television. WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood reported Evans’ plans July 22. Patterson seemed unfazed, but her supporters were livid. “Keep in mind the context here,” Patterson says. “Most of the people have known about my interest for a long time.” Evans certainly was not in the dark.
His change, of course, makes political sense. Evans’ backers only needed to convince him of the obvious: The business-friendly council budget hawk is no match for Cropp, who has won five citywide elections and would likely cut into Evans’ voter base.
Evans is a smart, capable, energetic pol. As chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, he has played dealmaker for huge developments such as the Washington Convention Center, the MCI Center, and the new ballpark. He put limits on property taxes and helped keep the District’s budget in order. The rap on his chances of being elected mayor never comes down to qualifications.
But race still matters in D.C., and Evans knows that being white has always been his main obstacle to becoming mayor. The council chair’s seat, the argument goes, is a different matter. D.C. voters from across the city elected the late David A. Clarke chair three times during the ’80s and ’90s. Clarke, who was white, didn’t fare so well when he ran for mayor in 1990. He lost to Sharon Pratt Dixon, an African-American. But voters elected Clarke chair again three years later.
Clarke was not a typical politician. His popularity was fueled by a history in the civil-rights movement and his claims to fight for the little guy against monied interests. Clarke was known for bombastic, liberal rhetoric and was often seen riding a bicycle with his tie flapping in the breeze. Any comparisons to current, more conventional D.C. pols might be a stretch.
And the Clarke calculation gets stickier if several white candidates decide to run for chair. A single, well-funded, credible African-American candidate would be tough to beat. Evans and Patterson may be friends, but they would be mutual poison in a citywide race.
That might explain Evans’ back-channel efforts to convince his pal Patterson not to run. Council sources say Evans has been making the case that a Patterson victory is a long shot and that she would squander an easy re-election to her Ward 3 post.
The argument that Patterson can’t win the chair’s race goes like this: She may be a hero to soccer moms in her ward and good-government types across the city, but she has little presence outside of upper Northwest. According to political observers and pollsters, Patterson doesn’t put up big numbers in surveys. She’s never mounted a citywide campaign like Evans and has shown little interest in press-the-flesh campaigning. At a Sept. 24 birthday party for Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell at the east-of-the-river institution Georgina’s, formerly known as Players Lounge, revelers observed that Patterson sat at a table chatting with friends, while Evans never sat down, working the room at a fever pitch.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson recalls where he first encountered the arguments about the futility of a Patterson bid. “I’ve heard it from Jack,” he says. Mendelson doesn’t see anything mean-spirited about Evans’ assessment. “It is a way of cajoling your colleagues into supporting you. It is along the lines of ‘I think I’ve got the best chance, and why don’t you join us now?’” he says.
Evans isn’t the only one who would rather see Patterson run for re-election to her Ward 3 seat. Retiring Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose says she can’t understand why Patterson would give up a safe seat to run for a post she is unlikely to win. Ambrose, who considers Patterson one of her most able colleagues, hopes Patterson is basing her decision on polling.
With almost a year to go before Election Day, Evans also knows he and Patterson could have some more Northwest D.C. company. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham—who is also white—is considering running for chair as well.
When asked why she would run for chair when conventional wisdom suggest she has little chance of winning, Patterson slips into campaign-speak: “Because the city needs leadership right now,” she says. She also touts her legislative record. Patterson’s oversight of Metropolitan Police Department tactics during demonstrations prompted a re-examination of the department’s crowd-control procedures. She sharply criticized the department’s handling of the 2002 demonstrations that forced D.C. to pay big bucks to protesters who sued the city. She’s led the effort to reroute rail cars with dangerous cargo away from the city and performed admirably in her oversight role.
Patterson says the assertion that she has no citywide presence is overstated by her political opponents. “Because of my four years as [Committee on the] Judiciary chair, I have been all over the city,” she says. “I’m not a stranger in many neighborhoods.”
As for Evans, Patterson sticks to personal rather than political. “Jack is a friend and always will be,” she says.
African-American leaders have been doing some of their own caucusing about the race for council chair. They’ve watched twice as multiple black candidates have split up the vote and helped Mendelson cruise to victory in the race for his at-large seat.
And the prospect of more African-American challengers seems almost guaranteed. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray is mulling over a bid—even though he’s been on the council for only about 18 months. At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, another freshman, could be convinced. Even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. has revived the biennial ritual of saying he’s contemplating a citywide run—though his poor health and recent trouble over not filing federal tax returns for seven years make his run hard to fathom.
Gray doesn’t hide the fact that the current makeup of the field has him thinking about a run. “Just on the basis of geography, it’s an issue that is on the minds of many people,” Gray says. “I think what is needed, frankly, is a leader for all the people.” He has impressed council watchers with his intellect, thoughtful manner, and work ethos. Gray also has the experience of running a large nonprofit and was director of the D.C. Department of Human Services under Dixon.
The ambitions of Evans and Patterson, and the possible entry of Graham, might have the old friends back together on Election Night, crying in their beer. Patterson may be a long shot, but Evans’ last run for mayor ended with his winning only 10 percent of the vote. At least Evans, who is not up for re-election in his ward, would keep his seat. A loss would knock Patterson out of office.
But she hasn’t flinched, despite all the chatter about her lack of citywide appeal. “In 1994, when I first decided to run [against incumbent Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson], my name recognition was at 2 percent,” she says. Patterson plans to file her candidacy papers in the coming weeks and hold a campaign event before the end of the month.
Evans has nothing to say publicly about Patterson’s chances or how her candidacy might affect his prospects of being chairman. He says the election is too far off to make any kind of judgments about the field. And his view of Patterson hasn’t changed. “Kathy’s great,” he says. “I think the world of Kathy.”
•Williams regularly uses his weekly press conference to promote health fairs, citizen summits, ribbon-cuttings, and the like. On Oct. 5, the mayor’s bully pulpit became an actual pulpit when Williams introduced evangelist Luis Palau. The preacher stepped to the podium to promote the DC Festival With Luis Palau, an event that will bring a mix of popular Christian music and extreme sports to the National Mall on Oct. 8 and 9. The preacher didn’t mince words about the purpose of his event: “It is openly calling on people to follow the principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The city didn’t spend any money to support the festival, just offered some time in the mayor’s pressroom for a free plug. Williams dismissed LL’s church-state query by comparing the festival to any number of family-friendly events on the mall. And besides, Palau is expected to draw a huge crowd: “Not to be crass about it,” the mayor said, “but the folks who are coming here are going to be shopping and staying at our hotels.”
•One of the unwritten rules of D.C. politics is for elected officials to invite the host ward councilmember when they hold neighborhood events. Williams technically followed that script for his Sept. 30 “retirement” announcement in Ward 7. Host councilmember Gray says he was informed by e-mail only two hours before the Hillcrest Recreation Center extravaganza. Not only was Williams in Gray’s ward, “Man, it was in my neighborhood,” says Gray. “Of course I would have wanted to be there.” He called the slight “emblematic of what happens at times,” with the Williams administration. Other councilmembers also report last-minute e-mail invites.
Only Patterson and Graham attended the announcement.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.