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The Rev. Willie F. Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church had every reason to feel like a political bigwig when he took to the stage at Kelly Miller Middle School on July 7.
After all, he sat before a crowd of about 200 residents alongside the city’s top leadership, which was assembled at the Ward 7 school for a briefing on a new hospital proposed for a site near the old D.C. General facility. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, City Administrator Robert Bobb, and At-Large Councilmember David Catania flanked the fiery minister.
Wilson was a logical choice for the event, given that his 2002 mayoral campaign ran on popular fury over the closure of D.C. General. Williams praised Wilson for simply showing up to bless the gathering.
As they assembled for the PR offensive, none of the city’s elected elite knew that Wilson had delivered a strident anti-gay sermon the previous Sunday—a harangue that would have had everyone onstage standing as far from the minister as possible.
In the recorded July 3 sermon, Wilson warned that “lesbianism” is about “to take over our community.” He argued that one reason women become lesbians is because “a lot of the sisters [are] making more money than brothers.” His attitudes about the gay life and his graphic descriptions of gay sex—first reported in the Washington Blade—left little to the imagination:
“I ain’t homophobic, because everybody in here got something wrong with him. Whoever you point at, you can point at your own self. You got something wrong with your life. But when you get down to this thing, women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain’t real. That thing ain’t got no feeling in it. It ain’t natural.
“Any time somebody got to slap some grease on your behind, and stick something in you, it’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that. You got blood vessels and membranes in your behind. And if you put something unnatural in there, it breaks them all up. No wonder your behind is bleeding. It’s destroying us. Can’t make no connection with a screw and another screw. The Bible says, ‘God made them male and female.’ The Hebrew word ‘neged,’ which means complementary nature—there is something unique to man and unique to woman, and it takes those two things to complement each other. You can’t make a connection with two screws. It takes a screw and a nut!”
Ever since word of Wilson’s words spread around the District, civic leaders have called on him to apologize, to retract his clueless ramblings. But Wilson doesn’t have time for apologies. He’s busy in his role as national executive director of the Millions More Movement, a group planning an October march in D.C. to mark the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.
Because of Wilson’s refusal to apologize or explain his remarks, gay groups are planning a counterdemonstration at Freedom Plaza the day of the march. Wilson’s assistant told LL that the preacher is not responding to press calls these days.
And if Wilson’s graphic attack on gays has pushed him to the fringe of D.C.’s political game, keep in mind that he didn’t have far to travel. For years, the preacher has filled the ears of his followers with incendiary and sometimes hate-filled rhetoric. Each time, it seems, the city’s political establishment has found a way to forgive him.
Over the past 30 years, Wilson built a small Ward 8 church into an 8,000-member congregation, according to the Union Temple Web site. The church supports programs to feed the hungry and support the homeless. Over the past 20 years, the church has renovated and managed apartments for low-income residents in the city’s most challenged ward—with mixed results. Wilson has long been a hero to those who feel government has failed to serve them.
He’s also been a broker for vote-hungry candidates in election years. A Wilson endorsement from the pulpit confers the sort of street cred that yard signs and 10-point public-safety plans can’t provide.
It’s hard to say whether Wilson has gained his standing because of or in spite of his forays into offensive racial politics.
Wilson led the 1986 boycott of an Asian-owned takeout near his church after he said one of his members had been “disrespected” by a store owner. The woman claimed she was chased out of the place by a Chinese-American proprietor wielding a revolver.
When asked by the press whether his demands that an African-American be allowed to run the business inflamed racial tensions, he replied that if Anacostia residents had been less forgiving of the store owner, “we would have cut his head off and rolled it down the street.”
Even then-Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. kept his distance from Wilson after that comment.
But not for long.
Barry needed Wilson when he was released from prison in 1991 after his 1990 conviction for cocaine possession.
Wilson emerged as Barry’s minister of forgiveness. He ran the Barry redemption tour and played a key role as Barry won the Ward 8 council seat in 1992. He was at Barry’s side when he was elected mayor for a fourth time in 1994. By the time Barry was back in the executive suite, Wilson was a fixture on the D.C. political scene.
To the victorious Barryites, Wilson’s head-rolling comment was ancient history, but the preacher gave many public indications of his unconventional political thought.
•At the interdenominational prayer breakfast following Barry’s 1995 mayoral inauguration, Wilson railed against “feeble, fake, phony ecumenical gatherings.” He told the assembled religious representatives that many of them “have become psychological, spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual masturbators.”
•When Barry declared war on the congressionally imposed financial control board, Wilson was on the front line. At one public event in 1996, he called control board Chair Andrew Brimmer “that foolish negro.”
•The same year, at an anti-control-board rally, he referred to then– House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee Chair James Walsh, and former Government Reform D.C. subcommittee head Rep. Tom Davis as “the Ku, the Klux, and the Klan.’’
Those race-baiting comments seemed out of place by the end of the Barry era. And Wilson seemed destined for the political scrap heap.
But another mayoral candidate needed Wilson’s help in 1998: Williams.
The minister’s backing boosted the novice politician and former city CFO, who was labeled by opponents as too nerdy and stiff to win the hearts of lifelong D.C. residents.
Wilson was rewarded with an appointment to the University of the District of Columbia Board of Trustees. At his confirmation hearing, only At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz—who grilled Wilson about the rolling-head comment—and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson voted against him. He served one term and was not reappointed by the mayor.
Even after Wilson turned on his former political patron Williams and ran for mayor in 2002, he continued to be courted by politicians in search of help. Wilson backed incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen in 2004, when she was swept out of office by a Barry landslide.
If Williams decides to run for a third term in 2006, however, don’t expect him to be part of the annual parade to Union Temple services.
In a statement, Williams said of the recent Wilson episode, “I condemn in the strongest terms any anti-gay or anti-lesbian remarks….It’s unfortunate that we are even discussing stereotypes that prevent us from moving forward together.”
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who is eyeing a run for D.C. Council chair, calls on Wilson to apologize. “Willie Wilson is wrong,” says the councilmember. “I think there is no place in society for comments like the ones he made.”
Mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty—who could potentially benefit from staying on good terms with Wilson—has this to say about the minister’s comments: “They are misogynistic, they are homophobic, and anyone who says them is not in conformity with the way I think about these things.”
So the big shots have made their statements. They’re on record as condemning homophobia in a town where gay voters and donors can help to propel a political campaign. But no one is calling for Wilson’s head on a platter—or rolling down the street.
Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray says many who know Wilson for his good works still give him the benefit of the doubt about his anti-gay remarks. “I would like to believe that they were not intended to be homophobic,” Gray says. “There are a number of people who will continue to seek his counsel.”
“I think Rev. Wilson is still very strong,” says Arrington Dixon, the national committeeman for the D.C. Democratic Committee. “He still has political viability.”
Even Evans says the minister’s stature in the community will insulate him from any permanent political damage.
“He’s a very prominent person, and he will continue to be.”
CHAIRMAN FOR THE BOARD
Evans told LL earlier this year that it would make absolutely no sense for him to run for chair of the council. He’s got plenty of power running Ward 2 and sitting atop the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which essentially controls the city’s purse strings.
Another drawback to running for chair: Evans would have to give up his side job at the Patton Boggs law firm. According to his May 13 outside-income disclosure statement, Patton Boggs paid him $170,000 last year to supplement his $92,520 per year council salary. Unlike ward reps, the council chair—who makes $139,200—is barred from outside employment.
In recent weeks, however, Evans has grown “intrigued” by the idea of running for chair. He claims many of his supporters have been pushing him to go for the council’s top spot should its current occupant, Linda Cropp, choose to run for mayor.
By supporters, Evans means the business community. Greater Washington Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce types have long been uneasy about the rising political fortunes of mayoral hopeful Fenty. His old-fashioned populist appeal and his council record of supporting consumer-friendly legislation have business groups shuddering at the idea of a Fenty administration. They are also starting to realize that he just might win.
With Evans at the helm of the council, the business community would have a power center no matter who held the keys to the executive suite.
“Jack would make a great chair,” says Jerry Moore, co-chair of the Board of Trade’s D.C. Affairs Committee. He says Fenty’s youth and lack of experience worry many of his committee members. “I think that the nervousness in the business community surrounds his not having run anything,” Moore says.
Evans says he won’t begin a campaign for chair until Cropp makes a formal announcement to run for mayor. That may happen soon. Ever since former Verizon executive Marie Johns got into the mayor’s race, Cropp has been telling reporters about “very positive feedback” from supporters and sounding more and more like a mayoral candidate.
Fenty says the notion that the business community as a whole fears his candidacy are off base.
“I have a number of people who are members of the Chamber of Commerce, and I’m sure I have a number of people who are members of the Board of Trade who support me,” he says.
•D.C. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss found out last week that there are limits to vocal advocacy. He was arrested July 22 in Georgetown on disorderly conduct charges after “intervening” on behalf of a friend who was being arrested. Police reportedly arrested Strauss when he was with a group of people who were unruly. “I was just trying to be helpful,” Strauss says. “I was asking basic questions like ‘Where are you taking him?’” Apparently that was too much for the cops. Strauss is free on a personal-recognizance bond. He plans to get a lawyer to fight the charges.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.