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How do you beat a six-year incumbent running for re-election to the D.C. Board of Education?
•You seek early endorsements from respected voices on education in the District.
•You get big-business honchos to contribute.
•You run an energetic, knock-on-as-many-doors-as-possible campaign.
•You take a cue from Howard Beale in Network: You say that you’re a D.C. public-schools parent and that the schools are failing, the buildings are crumbling, and “[You’re] mad as hell and [you’re] not going to take this anymore!”
All four of these strategies have been deployed to beat District 2 Board of Education Representative Dwight E. Singleton on Nov. 2.
By four different opponents.
Here’s the feared result: Each candidate will appeal to a certain segment of the electorate and will split the vote in Wards 3 and 4—which means that Singleton will be back smirking at and bickering with Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz for another term.
Singleton’s quite aware of this conventional wisdom. The awareness manifests itself in bizarre cockiness on the campaign trail.
On Monday night, for example, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club held a forum for school-board candidates, who have been starving for attention on a ballot featuring President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Singleton arrived about an hour after the meeting commenced. When he rose to speak, he personally handed to each Stein Club member literature touting his candidacy.
He also offered one to Ward 3 parent/activist Hugh Allen. “It’s the same one I beat you with last time,” said Singleton, making sure the entire crowd overheard the cutting remark. In 2000, in the infancy of the hybrid appointed/elected board structure, Singleton beat Allen with 16,458 votes—31 percent of ballots cast in the race—even though Allen received the endorsement of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and the Washington Post editorial page. Allen ended up with 14,094 votes, or 27 percent of ballots cast in the six-way race.
LL believes Singleton has recycled the old cards for a reason: He has nothing to tout after four more years of service to the school board.
Of course, Singleton doesn’t sell his re-election with quite those words. First, he says that the 65,000-student system, which spends approximately $1 billion a year to produce a mean combined SAT score of 800 and 90 percent of fourth-graders scoring below proficient in reading, shouldn’t be criticized. Next, he argues that as a board member he has little authority to help search for a principal for Shepherd Elementary School, which went without one for more than a year, or to address the roofing problems at Barnard Elementary, or to deal with any of the other acute problems at schools in his district. Then he complains that the board does too much already: “One thing the board needs [is] to cut back. There’s too many meetings,” said Singleton at a forum at the Sumner School on Oct. 14.
What else does Singleton have to do? The incumbent has no employment outside of the $15,000 part-time position.
He has the most lackadaisical attendance record of his elected board colleagues—and it’s worse than some of the appointed members’, too. By his own admission, he has missed eight of the last 35 scheduled board meetings. And he promotes his political ambition as an asset. He ran in 2002 for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council and received 19 percent of the vote. “I’m very much a part of the political fiber of this city,” he said.
He tries to be, at least. “Mr. Singleton is more interested in running for city council—which he did in 2002,” Allen told a crowd of parents and other interested parties at the Sumner School.
On Monday night, Singleton closed his remarks by claiming that Allen supported the mayoral takeover of the school system. Allen firmly denies the charge. “Like President Bush says about Mr. Kerry: He waffles on the issues,” Singleton told the organization of gay Democrats. It was a puzzling zinger: Stein Club members generally oppose everything Bush stands for.
Singleton has been known around town for these strange Dwightisms. When he ran for council two years ago, he bragged to a Ward 3 audience: “I think the Ward 3 schools have not diminished one bit under my leadership.”
After delivering his spiel at Stein, the incumbent then sauntered back to his seat as Allen was called up to speak. “Hard act to follow,” announced Singleton to no one in particular.
Some of the powers that be in Upper Northwest hoped for a strictly Singleton vs. Allen rematch or, better yet, no Singleton at all on the 2004 ballot. Back in August, both Patterson and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who lives in Ward 3, came out strongly for Allen. Patterson even chipped in with a $300 campaign contribution, the legal limit.
“I encouraged him to seek election because I think he will add a very important element now missing from the board: parent advocacy,” explains Patterson via e-mail. All of Allen’s children attended the city’s public schools, and even though they have graduated, Allen remains active as legislative chair for the D.C. Congress of PTAs.
Mendelson’s a little more forthright: “The lesson of the school-governance fight is we can sit around and complain that there aren’t good members on the board or we can do something about it,” he says.
The early-endorsement strategy hardly worked, however: Five other challengers ended up throwing their hats in the ring.
Singleton may be cocky, but the coinciding presidential contest greatly affects the dynamics of the school-board race. On Nov. 2, there will be high voter turnout as neighbors in Tenleytown, Shepherd Park, Palisades, Crestwood, and elsewhere in the two wards march to the polls to deliver D.C.’s three crucial Electoral College votes to Kerry. And many of these voters will arrive at the polls with no idea which school-board candidate to vote for. So well-funded and organized school-board campaigns that can touch voters at every polling place and put a piece of literature in their hands might be able to beat the Singleton slice-and-dice strategy.
After all, according to the Oct. 10 campaign finance filings, Singleton has raised only $3,500. And $3,000 of that comes from the incumbent himself.
In addition to Allen, two other candidates have the chance to make a splash on Nov. 2: Victor Reinoso and Laura McGiffert Slover.
Reinoso’s contributors read like the Post Business section: Federal City Council Chair Terry Golden gave $300, as well as Washington Wizards owner and Federal City Council member Abe Pollin, J.E. Robert Cos. Chair and CEO and Federal City Council member Joseph E. Robert Jr., and local restaurateur and Federal City Council member Paul Cohn.
Southeastern University President and Federal City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis contributed $100.
Was Jarvis saving up her pennies to buy drinks at the annual Southeastern University gala last week?
The list of Masters of the Universe supporting Reinoso goes on and on, yielding a total of $20,185 in campaign funds as of Oct. 10. So why does this modest Ward 4 parent have so many Federal City Council people backing him? Easy. He works for the Federal City Council, as its director of education initiatives.
For all you new LL readers, the Federal City Council is a cabal of heavy hitters that meets in secret to promote all manner of mega-development projects for the city’s downtown core. Its behind-the-scenes machinations prompt comparisons to the Trilateral Commission.
In addressing concerns about his Federal City Council ties, Reinoso invokes the standard disclaimer line of the corporate worker: “The opinions that I express are not necessarily those of my employer.” Several of his Federal City Council contributors, for instance, support federally funded school vouchers and a mayoral takeover of the school system. Reinoso says he’s against both.
“The Federal City Council took a neutral position,” explains Reinoso, who has volunteered for more than a decade in D.C. schools and has a MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s an assumption that because individual members supported vouchers and a mayoral takeover, that the organization was supportive of those issues.”
So what do Pollin, Robert, et al. want in return for their contribution? “They want me to be a decent board member,” says Reinoso. “They want me to provide oversight; they want me to hold people accountable.”
And name the next elementary school after current Federal City Council President, former U.S. Senator, and Law & Order District Attorney Fred Thompson?
Slover doesn’t have to bat away questions about the ethics of her day job—she currently works for a nonprofit that advises states and school districts on education policy. The native Washingtonian—Sidwell Friends to Harvard to a master’s in education policy at Georgetown—has worked in the trenches as a public-high-school teacher and has tutored in D.C. public schools.
She reminds LL of current Wards 1 and 2 board rep Julie Mikuta, who decided not to run again, expressing her frustration with the board and the sluggish pace of change.
Slover says she respects Mikuta’s work but believes she’s a different type of candidate. “Julie and Victor and that whole group of people are very committed to providing alternatives,” says Slover. “I’m worried about strengthening the public-school system…. Roughly 90 percent of District kids are in it.”
Slover and her husband, Bill Slover, have spent the fall knocking on doors all over Wards 3 and 4. She hopes that her education policy credentials, combined with feisty talk and a shoe-leather approach to campaigning, will be an attractive alternative to the incumbent. She earned the endorsement of the Northwest Current last week.
Two other candidates, Mai Abdul Rahman and Tom Dawson, merit little attention from District 2 voters.
The race’s requisite no-bullshit candidate is Glover Park resident David A. Jordan. Jordan has absolutely no chance of winning: He has vowed to spend only $500 on the race and has no visible campaign organization. “My dear mom gave me 100 bucks, and that’s it,” Jordan told the Sumner School audience.
Yet he has valuable things to offer: He promotes his facilities-management experience as an employee of the Public Buildings Service, a property-management arm of the federal government. “Most schools in Wards 4 and 3 haven’t seen a new paint job in 12 years,” observed Jordan. “The Corps of Engineers builds bridges and digs dams; they don’t manage schools.”
The Stoddert Elementary parent had some compelling insights into the system, as well. Here’s how he answers why he jumped into the race. Jordan explains his first interaction with D.C. Public Schools: taking his daughter to kindergarten at Stoddert. “Her first day of school we show up with all that anticipation and there was no teacher,” Jordan told the crowd. “The first day of school: No teacher!”
MAYORAL RACE POTPOURRI
•Is Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty planning on handing out a free gift to every Ward 4 voter on Election Day?
As of Oct. 10, the council incumbent had raised $328,963 for his challenger-deprived campaign.
And that’s apparently not enough. As of press time, Fenty was planning to hold another fundraiser, at Ward 4 resident Judith Terra’s house. The host committee included 112 names of Fenty fanatics who live all over the city, including D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission Chair Mark Tuohey, lifetime D.C. activist Marie Drissel, and baseball-stadium opponent John Capozzi.
“People who don’t live in Ward 4 can still be supportive,” says Fenty.
The fundraiser once again raises eyebrows that Fenty’s got more in his sights than Georgia Avenue.
“You have to focus on the election that you’re in,” he responds. “You owe that to the voters.”
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