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Tuesday night’s community meeting at Ballou Senior High offered a much different state of the District than had been originally envisioned for the evening. Mayor Anthony A. Williams postponed his formal address until later in the week so he and other D.C. officials could fully participate in the forum at Ballou, where a 17-year-old student was gunned down outside the school’s cafeteria Monday morning.
Still, much of the focus was on the mayor. There were two to choose from: There was Mayor Williams, who sat stiffly behind a table facing concerned students and parents, and former four-term Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., hugging everyone in sight.
Angry parents and students lined up on both sides of the mayor’s table in the school’s gym to ask how such a tragic incident happened inside a D.C. public school. The remarks often got heated, and moderator William Lockridge, school-board rep for Wards 7 and 8, often had trouble controlling the chaos.
The rowdy atmosphere fed off pointed questions that audience members posed to the mayor: “What should the voting public do about throwing you out of office?” asked one enraged citizen, while the Williams cabinet looked on. The mayor stood up and declared that he couldn’t “wave a magic wand” to end violence in D.C.
As Williams sustained attack after attack, Barry sat a few chairs away, often smiling. His reactions were easy to gauge, because he was sitting front and center, as if this were 1979. Flanking Barry were Ballou Principal Art Bridges and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
At one point, the crowd broke out in a chant: “Barry! Barry! Barry!” The former mayor waved, clearly willing to exploit a school shooting for a fit of public adulation.
Barry later said he had come to the meeting out of concern for his community. “I live in Ward 8,” Barry told LL and other members of the adoring media. “I’m concerned about young people. I love young people.”
When Barry threatened to run for D.C. Council four years ago against At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, he pulled out of the race days before the filing deadline, saying that he planned to work on an anti-violence initiative. Apparently, that’s still in its formative stages. “I got some ideas of what can be done,” Barry told LL Tuesday night.
Perhaps Barry will lift the veil on his brainstorming toward the end of his next speculative run for public office. In both election cycles since he left the mayor’s office in 1999, Barry has geared up for council campaigns, only to bail out months before the primary. This year’s elections will likely reprise the Barry-comeback scuttlebutt, to judge from his relish in glad-handing citizens in Ballou’s hallways. When asked, Barry didn’t rule out a run for Ward 8, but said he has not set up an exploratory committee just yet.
The former mayor recently was laid up at Howard University Hospital, but he says he’s now feeling fine. “I know everything about my body I need to know,” said Barry, mentioning that he has found out he is anemic. “I’m up on the ceiling now in terms of my energy.”
THINK FOR YOURSELF
Deep down, a few local voting-rights champions had a fear about D.C.’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary: The early contest might be a victory for presidential hopeful Al Sharpton. And, simply put, a Sharpton win would only be a loss for the disenfranchised District and our struggle for respect and full voting representation in Congress.
The thinking went something like this: Marginal candidate Sharpton—with his ties to such controversial figures as Tawana Brawley and Michael Jackson—would only remind outsiders of the city’s fondness for its former mayor for life, Barry. A vote for the Rev. Al would reinforce the perception of our city as irresponsible, ignorant, and out of touch with the rest of the country.
But on Jan. 13, District voters delivered former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean a winning 43 percent of the vote. Sharpton received 34 percent.
And that made the city look irresponsible, ignorant, and out of touch with the rest of the country. D.C.’s vote for Dean marginalized us just as much in the end.
And God bless us for it. Because while all those talking heads in Punditville, all those flinty New Hampshire voters, all those cube-inhabiting pollsters were chanting about Dean’s “unelectability,” D.C. went straight ahead and voted its conscience. Never has LL been so proud of the out-of-the-box thinking of D.C.’s political class.
Actually, it didn’t happen quite like that.
D.C.’s Dean thing germinated long before the candidate’s electability became an issue. In the late summer, when local politicos such as the D.C. Council’s Jack Evans and Vincent B. Orange Sr. gave Dean their stamp of approval, he seemed inevitable as the Democratic presidential nominee. He appeared on Page A1 above the fold in the New York Times and the Washington Post almost every day. He was on the cover of both Newsweek and Time. He was featured on K Street.
He had lots of buzz.
The buzz seduced our local leadership. In all, nine of the 11 Democratic D.C. councilmembers endorsed Dean. Plus don’t forget Wards 5 and 6 school-board rep Tommy Wells.
Those endorsements turned out to be almost as poisonous as an affirmative nod from former Vice President Al Gore.
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Right around D.C.’s primary, the national press corps homed in on one topic. It wasn’t Dean’s record on health care in Vermont. Or his international trade philosophy. Or his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Almost all the focus was on this: Is Dean electable?
That’s the key question in the era of the metaprimary, in which voters second-guess the behavior of other voters. On Monday night, for example, LL watched a CNN segment on undecided voters in the Feb. 3 primaries. A few of the voters indicated that they had been intrigued by Dean. They had found his statements bold. They had agreed with his speaking points on Iraq, jobs, and health care.
Then they had asked themselves: Is he electable? Can he beat President George W. Bush?
That’s when they had decided to switch their vote to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. The voters admitted that they didn’t really know too much about Kerry or Edwards. They just believed these men were more “electable” than Dean.
LL has one thing to say to such voters: If all of you had voted for him, then he just might have been electable.
LL has ranted about the concept of electability to the other esteemed local commentators, who have responded with the following pat answer: Democrats fear another Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. What they’re really saying is that Democrats want a candidate almost indistinguishable from Bush but still a Democrat. The logic goes something like this: A certain percentage of voters will reflexively vote either Democrat or Republican. The winning candidate is the one who grabs the crucial portion of those in the middle.
Bush captured the crucial portion of these voters the last time.
Wait. Actually, he didn’t.
But pundits and political consultants and almost everyone else believe that candidates need to make themselves almost like Bush to get elected.
Let’s apply the electability rules to local politics right here in the District. Can you hear CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and political diva Donna Brazile right now on the 2006 mayoral campaign?
Blitzer: Donna, tell us how the candidates are shaping up for the 2006 Democratic mayoral primary.
Brazile: Well, Wolf, it should be a fascinating race. On the one hand, you have incumbent Mayor Tony Williams possibly pushing for a third term, the better to make people forget about the ethical and management lapses of his early years. On the other, you have several well-qualified challengers in Jack Evans, Adrian M. Fenty, and Vincent “High Five” Orange. And you can’t forget about Kevin P. Chavous, the feisty soapbox orator who may have trouble holding on to his council seat in this year’s council elections.
Blitzer: Which candidate do voters consider the most electable once the Democratic candidates finish the primary?
Brazile: Great question, Wolf. The Republicans are gearing up for this mayor’s race—they’ve recruited between 10 and 20 new voters, depending on whose numbers you’re relying on. The buzz around town is that Orange may have the best shot at appealing to those voters. He casts himself as the “man in the middle.” Being from conservative Ward 5, he says he can reach east as well as west.
Blitzer: Orange and others have attacked Fenty as being unelectable. How has this ambitious young candidate responded?
Brazile: Another great question, Wolf. The knock on Fenty is that his populist posturing places him in the far left wing of the D.C. Democratic establishment, so he’s trying to reposition himself, talking about his bona fides on anti-terrorism and his out-of-nowhere vote supporting a 12 percent cap on property-tax increases.
Blitzer: What about political consultant Michael Brown?
Blitzer: Of course, we may be getting ahead of ourselves here. First we have to get through the always harrowing council races, coming up in September of this year.
Brazile: Yeah, those are some sizzling contests, let me tell you. Much of the intrigue here centers on Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. He won re-election to his ward seat in 2002, but he’s ambitious to the core. There’s talk of Graham challenging longtime At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, a guy whom the political class has considered vulnerable for as long as I can remember. Chavous and Ward 8’s Sandy Allen have also made rumblings, but that’s because they’re in trouble in their own wards.
Blitzer: How would Graham, or any other challenger, strategize against Brazil?
Brazile: That’s a tough call, and the parallels to the campaign for the White House are immediate. You’ve got an incumbent who’s goofy, doesn’t know policy, speaks poorly off the cuff, and has tons of money. How do you beat that combo?
Blitzer: In the end, voters have to ask, “Is Jim Graham electable?”
•In the money race for at-large council, Brazil emerges as the victor so far. As of his Jan. 31 campaign-finance report, Brazil had raised $209,000 for his re-election efforts.
At this point, Kwame Brown and Sam Brooks have put their hats in the at-large ring. On Monday, all the candidates submitted their campaign finances. Brown reported having raised nearly $64,000. Brooks had collected around $38,000, an impressive amount for a
Ward 2 incumbent Evans checked in at nearly $263,000.
Ward 4’s Fenty discouraged any challenge with his war chest of nearly $190,000.
And possible third-termer Williams raised $77,000 this reporting period, leaving nearly $42,000 in the bank. The mayor spent $37,000 on legal fees to Holland & Knight and another $16,362 paying developer Douglas Jemal for air conditioning for Williams’ 2002 campaign office. —Elissa Silverman
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