Ever since California voters ejected Gov. Gray Davis from office this past October, recall campaigns have tempted political agitators.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his dump-Davis confederates cited the Golden State’s budget deficit, energy crisis, and other civic catastrophes as reasons not to wait for the next scheduled election before ditching the incumbent governor.
D.C. activists, inspired by the elevation of Conan the Barbarian to chief executive, say that things around here are in a comparable state.
On Tuesday morning, a group calling itself Save Our City announced its intention to give the boot to Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The crisis? “Williams attempts to marginalize elected school board members and elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and otherwise undermine local democracy.”
Ignore the rantings of school-board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz? What a calamity!
An hour or so later on Tuesday morning, Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lenwood Johnson picked up petition forms from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in his effort to recall his councilmember, Jim Graham. Johnson’s crisis? “Graham refused to help Ward One senior citizens who requested his help in securing sand bags in anticipation of Hurricane Isabel,” reads statement No. 5 on the recall petition.
A week earlier, registered voters in Takoma and Lamond-Riggs voted to recall Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Paul E. Montague. The crisis? Montague hadn’t done anything for the community.
The mayor isn’t ready to share Montague’s fate. “I respect their right to bring the recall,” Williams declared at his Jan. 14 press conference. “I go to bed at night believing I’ve done an outstanding job for this city.”
“But with every fiber of my being, I will use every means at my disposal—legal and ethical—to crush the recall,” added the mayor, wagging his finger.
Williams won’t need to view Pumping Iron for tips. On Tuesday morning, in the old D.C. Council chambers at One Judiciary Square, the ragtag smattering of mayoral critics stood before local TV news cameras, a few sporting hard hats labeled “The Uncrushables.”
That was less an optimistic prediction than a statement of fact. By and large, the revolutionaries are the Wile E. Coyote figures of D.C. politics: No matter how many times the anvil of defeat lands on their heads, they keep springing back, able-bodied, to try again. The recall proponents include usual mayoral naysayers:Ward 8 rabble-rouser Cardell Shelton, D.C. Council perennial candidate and Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars, and 2002 Statehood Green Party Shadow Representative candidate Adam Eidinger. Those leaders were joined behind the recall banner by Barbara Lett Simmons, who serves as the local Democratic Party’s National Committeewoman.
Shelton drives a beat-up pickup truck equipped with a loudspeaker, to decry the lack of construction jobs for African-American District residents.
Eidinger has championed many left-oriented causes and wears distinctive Elvis Costello glasses.
Lett Simmons is familiar to the handful of D.C. residents who follow the goings-on of the hapless local Democratic Party. She often squabbles over parliamentary procedure with the party chair. In 2000, Lett Simmons made national headlines when she decided to become a faithless elector to Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore, in an attempt to highlight our lack of voting rights.
Tuesday’s recall rally, with its wayward speeches, had much of the comedy and freak-show feel of California’s effort, minus the celebrities and porn. Besides eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s recall drew Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Carey, and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt into the race, along with more than 100 others.
What kind of star power might offer up its services for D.C.?
Where California voters could back adult-film actress Carey, D.C voters could vote for burlesque star Faith.
Instead of Flynt, D.C. could get Congressional Quarterly publisher Robert W. Merry.
The role of opinionated socialite Arianna Huffington could be played by opinionated socialite Sally Quinn.
And, this being D.C., there’s always the threat of a Marion S. Barry Jr. comeback.
Despite their chants to “Recall Williams” and “Dump the mayor,” D.C.’s potential saviors offered no alternatives. “I’m not supporting any particular person to replace him,” Eidinger told LL.
D.C.’s recall effort works differently from the gubernatorial recall process in California. Last October, voters simultaneously decided on whether to recall Davis and who should replace him. The D.C. effort would split that process into two separate steps. First, if the recall qualified for the ballot, voters would decide in November whether to give Williams the heave-ho.
If approved by voters and certified by the Board of Elections, a special election would be held to elect a new mayor within 114 days. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp would serve as interim mayor.
Just getting the recall on the ballot presents a serious hurdle. To qualify, the recall supporters need signatures from 10 percent of the city’s registered voters—approximately 35,000 signatures, which need to represent 10 percent of voters in at least five of the city’s eight wards.
In Williams’ first term, there were a few attempts to recall him. None got the requisite signatures. LL predicts that this recall effort has as much a chance of happening as school-board rep Julie Mikuta receiving a phone call from Williams.
The Ward 1 effort seems equally ill-fated. Johnson’s No. 2 complaint on the recall petition involves this claim:“On March 5, 2003, Graham gave false testimony to the D.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Board in a misguided effort to close down a legally operating African American business on Georgia Avenue.”
That minority-owned business would be the Penthouse strip joint.
Graham’s response: “Lie #2: Lenwood Johnson supports a strip club on Georgia Avenue. I do not. There is no false testimony.”
When LL asked Johnson who else was involved in the recall campaign, he struggled to name anyone. Finally, he came up with Tony Norman, who has been battling with a Graham staffer over competing Ward 1 Dems organizations. That’s Point No. 7: “In 2002, Graham organized an illegal group who unlawfully used the name ‘Ward One Democrats’….”
As grounds for revolution go, that’s not exactly saying Graham “has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.”
“I don’t feel I have anything to fear,” Graham tells LL. “I don’t want to be distracted by this.”
Lett Simmons and Johnson might want to take note of what happened in Ward 4 last week. On Jan. 13, Takoma and Lamond-Riggs residents did oust Montague from his post.
The recall effort got ugly, with Montague circulating fliers about recall leader Terry Goings, with a photocopy of court records and accusations that Goings is a “Dead Beat Dad.” “That’s not me,” Goings told LL. “I wasn’t born in 1983.” The record refers to Goings’ son.
Montague says he plans to contest the results of the recall election, which was cast into turmoil when ballots arrived at the polls two hours late.
The mayor has had electoral politics on his mind. Lately, he’s been floating his own theory of who should replace Anthony A. Williams in 2006: Anthony A. Williams.
After his re-election in 2002, Williams all but signaled that the third time would not be a charm for him. At one point, the mayor stated that third terms aren’t worth a damn. In a radio appearance, he told listeners that there wouldn’t be an incumbent in the next mayoral election.
But the mayor has good reason to keep himself in the running in 2006. If he remains silent on his electoral possibilities, he becomes a short-termer. Others have already reached that conclusion about the mayor—given that, after five years in office, he has yet to purchase a home in the District. The lame-duck syndrome might have devastating consequences on Williams’ effort to leave a reform legacy in the District. Who wants to help out a guy, say, on schools, when in a few short years someone else can take the credit? Keeping in the running for 2006 keeps Williams in the running with his legislative colleagues on the D.C. Council, especially those who have been named as his possible successors.
So remaining relevant is one reason. Another might be his second-in-command, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb. Bobb has plunged into some of the thorniest areas of D.C government: juvenile justice, health care, community meetings. That leaves Williams free to attend the State of the Union address, meet with foreign dignitaries, and go about his business as first vice president of the National League of Cities.
Now it’s Bobb’s job to stay awake at the Ward 4 Neighborhood Citizen Summit!
The mayor now says he’s interested in a third term and will soon set up an exploratory committee to raise funds. Exploratory committees differ from campaign committees in one very important way: They have no reporting requirements, so individual donors may contribute as much as they want. So some mayoral critics are naturally suspicious of his motives for creating an exploratory committee. These skeptics believe the mayor will create a committee to retire debt from his last campaign, since many of his closest supporters have already contributed to the legal limit.
Williams ended up overspending in 2002 because of fines and other fallout from his petition-forgery fiasco. Despite that embarrassment, Williams beat Republican Carol Schwartz by 26 percentage points and Statehood Green candidate Steve Donkin by 58.
Rather than waiting for his party to get clobbered again in 2006, Eidinger wants to push up the timetable.
“The more credible our threat is, the more we’re going to get out of him,” says Eidinger. “I think an election in 2005 will reset the priorities of the next mayor.”
Save Our City cited the usual laundry list of Williams complaints: closing D.C. General hospital, public-schools dysfunction, department-head scandals, and the mayor’s petition woes.
All those were knowable to D.C. voters in 2002.
Any other complaints? “He’s giving his family $40 million…of contracts to the convention center, and nobody’s talking about it,” Shelton says.
LL has a reason for the silence: The accusation is groundless.
•Back in 1998, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous lost the mayoral race to Williams. For a few years after that, Chavous took every chance he could get to grandstand about how Williams cared only about downtown whereas Chavous cared about the neighborhoods around town.
Recently, however, the former adversaries have become quite chummy. Chavous backed up the mayor on support for school vouchers, a controversial education initiative championed by President George W. Bush.
Now Williams has decided to reward his voucher proponent: Williams will host a fundraiser for Chavous’ re-election effort at Georgia Brown’s at the end of the month. The event is co-chaired by Cropp.
Before he can look down the road to a mayoral run in 2006, Chavous must fend off a challenge from former Department of Human Services chief Vincent Gray and other potential candidates in the Ward 7 race this fall. While Ward 2’s Jack Evans and Ward 4’s Adrian M. Fenty spent last year filling their campaign coffers, Chavous had other things to do. The incumbent councilmember had raised less than $20,000 as of his last campaign filing.
Chavous did not return a call for comment on the fundraiser. —Elissa Silverman
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