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As chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous understands how books influence people. This spring, Capital Books Inc. published the first-time author’s 182-page tome, Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education, in which Chavous portrays himself as an innovative education reformer.
Now this summer, the prolific pol has self-published a 59-page work titled Serving the People: A Progress Report on the State of Ward 7, which highlights the councilmember’s legislative triumphs over more than a decade in public office.
Coming this fall, perhaps: Serving Our Seniors: Ice-Cream Socials and the Impact of Banana Splits on D.C. Elections?
Danielle Steel, watch out!
The second Chavous installment arrives hot off the photocopier as the incumbent finds himself in a competitive primary race for the Ward 7 council seat. “I’m very proud of my record,” announced Chavous at a candidates’ forum last Saturday afternoon sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Ward 7 Democrats. “It’s noteworthy that people really don’t challenge my record.”
If Serving the People offers facts about Chavous’ record—his responsiveness to constituent issues, his dedication to his job, his public-policy accomplishments—LL knows a few folks who might classify it as a work of fiction:
•Vincent C. Gray, Mary D. Jackson, James Johnson, Donna E. Daniels, and Almetia Hairston-Hamilton, all Democratic candidates for the Ward 7 council seat, four of whom were seated alongside Chavous last Saturday. “He does not respond to correspondence,” said Johnson, echoing similar critiques from challengers about Chavous’ inattention to constituent services.
•Charles E. Cotten, who served as Chavous’ campaign treasurer in 1996 and held a meet-and-greet last Friday night to encourage his Benning Heights neighbors to vote for Gray. “Kevin’s not really supportive of his ward,” Cotten told LL. “We need a full-time councilmember.”
•The individual who put a colorful, handmade “Chavous Must Go/Chavous Must Go/ Save Ward 7” sign in his Randle Circle SE front yard.
No matter how you break it down, the anti-Chavous factions in Ward 7 are putting together the most significant challenge to the incumbent since he first emerged on the Ward 7 scene, in the early ’90s. Back then, Chavous was an energetic attorney who worked pro bono on behalf of River Terrace neighbors who battled PEPCO to block a power-plant expansion. They won, and, in 1992, the young lawyer defeated incumbent H.R. Crawford to represent the east-of-the-river ward on the council.
Since then, Chavous hasn’t faced too much competition for the seat despite a common rap against him: He’s never around—at community meetings, at council hearings, even in his own council office. Critics charge that the Ward 7 councilmember spends a lot of his time practicing law and promoting his book—time that could be spent conquering tough ward and city issues.
Chavous says that he’s easily found, at “all-night” council hearings and community meetings. “Part of the reason folks don’t see me is they’re not where I am,” Chavous explained to WAMU’s James Jones and Jonetta Rose Barras when the Ward 7 candidates debated last week on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.
When LL walked around Benning Terrace last Friday, a Ward 7 neighborhood that has made headlines for its rash of juvenile car thefts, residents said they were tired of engaging in a game of hide-and-seek with the councilmember. “He ain’t never did anything for nobody,” G Street SE resident Phillip Marshall made sure to tell LL. “The only time you see him is when something bad happens.”
Many of Marshall’s neighbors volunteered similar thoughts.
In the previous two elections, Chavous faced community activists such as Jackson, who have a lot to say but little name recognition beyond their own neighborhoods. Still, in the 2000 election, Chavous received only 53 percent of the Ward 7 vote.
This year, others fed up enough with Chavous to have collected 250 valid signatures on nominating petitions include Daniels, Johnson, and Hairston-Hamilton, who put on her campaign signs that “Enough Is Enough.” The candidate entered the race after her son, Terry Hairston, a former Ward 7 school-board representative who ran against Chavous in 1996 and planned on another run this year, was murdered in May.
None of those folks scare Chavous the way Gray does, however. “There’s nothing illegal about being a part-time councilmember,” says Gray, who currently serves as executive director of Covenant House Washington, a branch of the international organization that mentors troubled youth. “But Ward 7’s problems are not part-time anymore.”
While his opponents pillory his record, Chavous retaliates mainly against Gray, demanding exactly what the challenger has ever done for the ward. “I just didn’t pop up for the election,” Chavous shot back at Gray at a recent Ward 7 campaign forum sponsored by D.C. Action for Children. “My résumé shows that I was visible before an election—as opposed to some people who’ve been living here 20 years.”
Chavous cites his 2001 lawsuit against the control board to stop the closing of D.C. General Hospital as well as his advocacy of more retail development, recreation centers, and affordable housing for his ward. Even Gray acknowledges the incumbent’s fervor on D.C. General and economic development.
But Gray cracks that Chavous’ work on behalf of his constituents comes in four-year cycles. “It’s amazing what we can get done in an election year,” responded Gray at one point in the forum. “I’m convinced we should have an election every year.”
Gray has been plotting this electoral showdown for about 18 months, ever since he put together a slate of candidates to take over the leadership of the ward’s Democratic organization. Despite Chavous’ contention, Gray’s no stranger to D.C. politics: He served in the administration of former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly as director of the Department of Human Services (DHS), and before that he worked as head of the D.C. Association of Retarded Citizens.
In fact, Gray likes to point out that a bill recently co-introduced by Chavous—the Turning Points Program Establishment Act of 2004, which advocates services for at-risk youth—was actually a program originally introduced by Gray at the DHS.
Yet the Ward 7 campaign won’t turn on distinctions over who piloted this or that program for troubled teenagers. Instead, it will likely serve as a referendum on Chavous’ performance as Education Committee chair.
Chavous has decided to portray himself as an education martyr. “I took over the Education Committee six-and-a-half years ago, when no one else on the council wanted it, because they viewed education as a political black hole,” Chavous told the Ward 7 Dems assembled at Saturday’s forum.
Huh. LL recalls reading a slightly different version of D.C. Council history in Serving Our Children: Chavous wrote that he vigorously fought in 1997 for the chair of the important committee after consulting with former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. “Encouraged by my friend’s words, I decided to lobby for the committee chairmanship, as did another junior councilmember, Kathy Patterson,” wrote Chavous on Page 2. “Despite all the advice to the contrary, I fought for the committee chairmanship and won.”
Patterson confirms the latter version of Chavous’ education ascendancy. “I campaigned for the Education Committee chairmanship, but was up against seniority, which Kevin had,” Patterson tells LL.
Chavous brags that funding for D.C. public schools and charter schools has increased by more than 40 percent over the past five years. In Serving the People, the author outlined his case for schools activism under the heading “Kevin P. Chavous Fights for Better Public Schools By….” The section cites a list of bills that the councilmember introduced to improve education:
•The District of Columbia Public Schools Performance and Accountability Act of 2003, Bill 15-519
•The Teachers Tax Credit Amendment Act of 2003, Bill 15-520
•The District Public and Public Charter School Facilities Management Officer Establishment Act of 2004, Bill 15-727.
These bills have at least one thing in common: They haven’t gotten out of committee. A fourth bill, the Metropolitan Police Department School Safety and Security Act of 2004, Bill 15-725, passed in a limited version as emergency legislation.
Gray says that instead of promoting public education, Chavous has been busy working against it. “The [George W.] Bush administration has made $75 million in vouchers available, and there’s only one jurisdiction that’s accepted it,” says Gray, referring to Chavous’ linking arms with President Bush and congressional Republicans on the issue of private-school vouchers. “Mr. Chavous has undermined our self-determination.”
On the voucher issue, Chavous has undermined his own self-determination as well. In a 2002 Washington Post article, Chavous declared that he was against the idea. “I do not support imposing a voucher system on the District,” wrote Chavous. “We are accomplishing the same goals that vouchers would accomplish through the charter school movement. Should the District decide to pursue vouchers, it should only do so if that is the people’s choice.”
Yet in 2003, Chavous changed his mind, throwing his weight behind the program.
LL didn’t find any mention of Chavous’ role in securing school vouchers for the District of Columbia in Serving the People.
There’s a reason for the omission: According to polls, a majority of Ward 7 voters do not support vouchers.
•Two years ago, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. summed up the stump speech of his Democratic challenger, Harry Thomas Jr., with these words: “a bunch of crap.” On primary day, Orange soundly beat Thomas, the son of Orange’s legendary council predecessor, by more than 2,500 votes.
At an Aug. 23 Ward 5 Dems meeting, however, Orange had nothing but praise for Thomas. In fact, he expressed enthusiastic support for a Thomas candidacy—for the at-large council seat now occupied by Republican Carol Schwartz.
Orange’s electoral hostility to his colleague is highly unusual in a legislative body that prizes collegiality. This spring, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp characterized Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s possible challenge to At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil as unnecessarily “divisive.” Graham ultimately decided not to run.
Orange doesn’t seem too concerned about alienating a colleague or two. When LL asked the Ward 5 Councilmember why he supported a Thomas candidacy, he gave a laundry list of reasons why Schwartz no longer charmed him. No.1 on the list? The chair of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment’s inattention to his ward’s trash-transfer stations. “As you know, I ran in 1998 on a campaign of closing down Waste Transfer Stations in Ward 5,” wrote Orange in an e-mail addressed to his council colleagues. “I introduced a Bill in 2000 and again in 2001 which would close all Waste Transfer Stations except Fort Totten (Ward 5) and Benning Road (Ward 7). These were to be state of the art enclosed deodorized waste transfer stations. Councilmember Schwartz has yet to hold a hearing on the 2000 or 2001 Bills.”
There’s another waste issue dividing Orange and Schwartz. This year, the city changed trash-hauling contractors. Orange made a stink about the change, but Schwartz didn’t. Ever since the switch, Orange says, something else stinks: the streets of Ward 5. “People are complaining there are big rats running up and down Hawaii Avenue,” says Orange, who forwarded an e-mail from a constituent complaining that the “odor is so fowl that it takes our breath away.”
“Why would I support an individual who isn’t supporting me?” asks Orange. “I would say Ward 5 is extremely upset with Carol Schwartz.”
Schwartz has some questions about the matter as well. “I don’t know what is going on with you right now, or who or what has gotten to you,” she responded to Orange via e-mail. “You know as well as anyone how hard I have worked on quality of life issues that are important to the residents of Ward 5, and I believe that they—if not you—choose to recognize that.”
Schwartz doesn’t have to worry too much: Thomas failed to hand in the 3,000 valid signatures necessary to qualify for a spot on the November ballot. —Elissa Silverman
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