On Sept. 7, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp will declare that she is a candidate for mayor. Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty will hold a Sept. 10 campaign kickoff for the same office at the African-American Civil War Memorial, even though he has already announced he’s running and has held 16 fundraisers. A host of other carefully choreographed campaign launches will follow. Look for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson to stage loud and flashy events to formally proclaim they will run for Cropp’s seat. And Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham might beat them to the punch.
All of the candidates will try to orchestrate that elusive great first impression, but it’s just as likely that they will further a grand tradition of D.C. politics—stumbling out of the starting gate. A campaign kickoff requires coordinating a good many variables—snacks, volunteers, speeches, public-address systems, often unruly supporters, and a campaignmobile.
A survey of campaign launches down through the ages shows that no one can quite figure it all out. But we can learn from history. Herewith, a political insider’s cheat sheet for kickoff success.
Fill the room, even if you have to find a very small one.
Ward 6 councilmember wannabe Keith Perry drew about 35 supporters to his July 27 announcement at Eastern Market’s huge Market 5 Gallery. Not a dreadful turnout. But it sure seemed that way, given the venue. His 30-plus-minute speech was overwhelmed by the Market 5 building, which is as big as most grade-school cafeterias, with a cathedral-like ceiling to boot. Perhaps Perry should have considered a Yum’s outlet, where those 35 folks would have been elbowing each other for wings and soda. In Market 5, Perry’s few applause lines were followed by the sound of his fading voice being swallowed up by the rafters. To top the evening off, two interlopers—mayoral hopeful Michael Brown and at-large D.C. Council candidate A. Scott Bolden—crashed the Perry party and generated as much buzz as the man of the hour. Footnote: Don’t invite showboats to your kickoff event.
Keep ticket-writers out of the tent.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams wasn’t facing a lot of opposition in his 2002 re-election campaign, and his campaign acted accordingly. The sloppiness began in front of the mayor’s New York Avenue NW campaign headquarters when Williams announced he would seek a second term. Event organizers drove huge metal stakes into the street to support a tent deployed to cover the candidate during the big event. They were concerned that the large cement blocks designed to keep the wind from turning the tent into a giant kite would not do the job. But pounding holes into New York Avenue is ill-advised—even if the purpose is to protect a sitting mayor from humiliation. The campaign was fined $2,500 and reportedly paid an additional $1,200 for road repairs. It seemed like a big deal at the time—until the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics fined the mayor’s campaign a then-record $277,700 for forging signatures on Williams’ nominating petitions.
Avoid creating traffic problems.
On June 1, Fenty issued a declaration that the exploratory phase of his campaign was over and that he would be a candidate for mayor. He chose a quaint setting for the gathering—the steps of his boyhood home in Mount Pleasant. The whole Fenty clan was on hand. The press and a crowd of about 80 spilled out into Kenyon Street NW, and a D.C. police cruiser blocked each end of the road. When one motorist figured out whose event had caused the road-closing, she screamed, “That fool!”
Don’t get preachy—even if you are a minister.
Ordained minister and at-large D.C. Council candidate David Bowers punctuated his June 22 announcement speech with religious references, including the always-to-be-avoided statement that he had “been called” to public service. Another minister at the event proclaimed that “this David” had been “chosen” to lead. No real need to wait for the voters’ verdict when the ultimate anointer has already weighed in.
Don’t invite Harold Brazil.
Then–Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen surrounded herself with council colleagues for her 2000 re-election kickoff rally. Among the supportive compatriots was Brazil, who’s possibly the worst extemporaneous speaker in the history of local politics. After Allen’s campaign chair, Joyce Scott, introduced him, Brazil grabbed the microphone and launched into the kind of endorsement speech that had organizers rushing to turn off the PA system. “I kind of wish I wasn’t a married man, ’cause I’d grab Joyce and get on outta here,” Brazil told the suddenly quiet crowd. “Man, is she looking good!” Silence was followed by nervous laughter.
If your announcement is a press conference, wait for the press to arrive.
For most candidates, coverage in the Washington Post is a key part of any kickoff. Former Verizon executive Marie Johns shunned the big crowd announcement when she declared her candidacy for mayor in July. Instead, Johns invited reporters to chronicle the time-honored tradition of signing candidacy papers at the Office of Campaign Finance. The press was also informed that she would take questions at 11 a.m. in the Frank D. Reeves Center lobby and explain why she was moved to run. But the official campaign sign-in went more quickly than expected, and Johns began talking to the press at 10:45. By the time Post reporter Lori Montgomery arrived at 11, one of Johns’ overzealous volunteers was ending the press conference and dragging the candidate toward the door.
Mayoral hopeful Michael Brown held his first big exploratory fundraiser on his 40th birthday. The $22,000 extravaganza at downtown nightclub Ortanique included lots of drinks, food, and glamour. Brown ordered T-shirts for the event, too, but when his staff pulled them out of the box, they noticed a big boo-boo: The shirts were apparently printed for a different candidate, named Micheal Brown. Luckily, Brown caught the error before the shirts circulated and became a treasured collectors’ item for D.C. political geeks.
Make the big announcement for the office you actually plan to run for.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans twice declared that he would be a candidate for mayor earlier this year. The first announcement came at a gathering of political types at a Guapo’s restaurant back in March. Evans repeated his plans with more fanfare at an April 29 meet-and-greet party in Shaw. Now Evans says he isn’t running for mayor but has his eye on becoming D.C. Council chair. With two dry runs under his belt, expect Evans to nail his next big announcement.
Don’t be too energetic if you claim you can’t walk.
The 1984 campaign kickoff for Norman Neverson’s at-large D.C. Council bid was pretty standard fare. He gave a speech from the steps of what was then called the District Building. Afterward, he worked a crowd of about 50 supporters, eagerly shaking hands and kissing some of his backers. The next day, the Post revealed that a few weeks before the event, Neverson had testified in a workers’-compensation case that he was disabled and destitute. According to the Post report on his disability claim, Neverson alleged that he was permanently disabled by a painful “hammer toe and claw toe” condition that essentially prevented him from walking. Neverson had hoped that the disability hearing would be overlooked. It wasn’t. He dropped out the day after he announced, earning himself the distinction of pulling out of the race before most people knew he was in.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Josh Neufeld.