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Last week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams experienced yet another re-election-campaign day from hell: There he was, seated before a packed audience at the Chevy Chase Community Center, propping his nodding head with his right hand. As Williams exuded boredom, a tag team of African-American Baptist ministers condemned him for negligence, disrespect, and aloofness.
At least Williams had his pants on this time: In late July, he strolled into a community meeting with the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) in Bermuda shorts. That fashion statement outraged the WIN faithful.
This time, the mayor went with church-appropriate attire: gray suit, pressed shirt, and bow tie.
But his Sunday best did little to save him from Tuesday-night criticism for his failure to show up the morning before at a mayoral forum sponsored by the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference. “You refused to come address us,” the Rev. Maxwell Washington informed Williams as well as the mostly Ward 3 crowd in attendance. (Republican mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz had attended the event, while the mayor chose to spend the day at a municipal conference in Wichita, Kan.)
“What do you have against the clergy of Washington, D.C., that you don’t even show up?” he asked the mayor.
The inference was unmistakable: Pragmatic, bottom-line-worshipping Williams was once again at odds with the earthly concerns of the city’s spiritual community. In March, he displayed his technocratic insensitivity in dealing with the D.C. Marathon, closing streets in front of downtown churches on Palm Sunday. He showed it again this spring and fall in the budget debate, sacrificing social programs for the city’s vulnerable. In July, he exposed his knees to WIN.
Williams had heard the criticism many times this summer. After all, he ended up being challenged in the Democratic primary by one of the city’s most prominent religious leaders: the Rev. Willie F. Wilson.
On Oct. 15, though, religious affairs turned from a nagging liability into the Williams scandal du jour: On the way over to Chevy Chase, Williams and campaign manager Ted Carter fretted about a breaking news story, which accused the mayor’s senior adviser for religious affairs of sexual harassment. A few days earlier, a female assistant to the Rev. Carlton N. Pressley claimed that Pressley had threatened her employment if she ended a monthslong sexual relationship with him.
Pressley denies the allegations. “I categorically deny any involvement or sexual misconduct at all,” he says.
After the forum, Williams answered questions about Pressley from WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, who first aired the story on that evening’s newscast. “I’m deeply troubled by any allegation of sexual harassment,” the mayor confessed. “I’ve also talked to our people to look at two things: one, certainly whether anything criminal was involved, any assault was involved and can be substantiated, but even whether there was an improper relationship, because I think an employee-employer relationship is something that ought to be looked at very, very carefully.”
Williams explained that the Friday before he had referred the matter to the Office of the Inspector General and transferred the female staffer out of Pressley’s office.
“The allegations about sexual harassment have been referred to us,” confirms Gloria Johnson, chief of staff for Inspector General Charles C. Maddox.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s religious-affairs adviser remains in his job and on the city payroll. “There’s been no change in his status,” says Williams spokesperson Tony Bullock.
Back in February, the Williams administration held a holy consecration and installation service for Pressley and the mayor’s new InterFaith Council at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. The religious service, which featured rousing call-and-response-style sermons, a faith circle, and a keynote address from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., seemed somewhat out of character with the generally restrained Williams. Not that the mayor isn’t a man of faith: He attends services at Saint Augustine Catholic Church, gives honor to Jesus Christ, and makes knowledgeable biblical references when speaking in a religious space.
Choosing Pressley to manage his religious outreach, however, does seem consistent with another Williams trait—looking for trouble by selecting out-of-towners when there is qualified homegrown talent. In a city that has almost as many ministers as political consultants, Williams apparently conducted a nationwide search for a religious guru to clue him in on the concerns of the local spiritual community. He settled on Pressley, who did his preaching in North Carolina. Pressley replaced the Rev. Donald Robinson, the First Baptist Church minister who was removed from the position last November.
The mayor’s senior adviser for religious affairs works along with the Office of Community Outreach. Pressley, however, apparently hasn’t mastered the reaching-out part. “I’ve not been impressed,” says Terry Lynch, head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “He’s not tied into this community. He doesn’t know it.”
Pressley tends to get active when his boss is in trouble. The minister rounded up the InterFaith Council in May, just before the mayor gave sensitive testimony before the D.C. Council on fundraising irregularities. About 40 ministers gathered in the Wilson Building to lay hands on the mayor and pray for him. “It raised a concern in my mind, if this is the kind of purposes the council is put to,” says the Rev. Derrick Harkins, of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. “It’s real foggy whether it’s a political arm—or has the appearance of a political arm.”
LL thinks it’s the former.
Pressley also collected signatures for the mayor’s nominating petitions. He ended up as a circulator on 20 sheets. The board later threw out one of Pressley’s sheets, because he was not a registered voter when he witnessed those signatures.
Other Pressley petitions were also scrutinized by the Board of Elections and Ethics. One sheet, Page 131 of 160, featured 17 signatures all in the same hand.
Before testifying at an elections-board hearing on the petitions scandal, Pressley prayed aloud in the witness chair: “Lord, we…invite your presence right now.”
First, Pressley swore he had witnessed all the signatures. In a later hearing, he recanted, saying that he had left some spaces blank and others must have filled them in without his knowledge. In the end, Pressley smiled and explained that he had not understood the circulator’s affidavit.
But Pressley is hardly a political novice: He ran for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1990. After the unsuccessful bid, he became an ordained minister and earned a law degree. He then worked as a political operative for state Sen. Frank W. Ballance. A decade later, Pressley again challenged incumbent Warren “Pete” Oldham in the 67th District. He didn’t overwhelm his opponent. “What were his ideas? He praised the Lord, he said something about a bumblebee and a poem. What did he say?” Oldham commented to the Winston-Salem Journal after a candidate debate.
Pressley lost the election that time, too, though he received 36 percent of the vote. He promised to make a third run for the job. “You can expect it, sure enough,” Pressley told the Journal after the election. “I’m almost positive that I will be running for that seat in 2001.”
Instead, Pressley moved to Washington, to work as a communications director in the Commerce Department. He was appointed by the mayor in February.
Wilson Building sources report that the mayor is every bit as troubled as he claims to be over the Pressley issue. After scandals relating to fundraising and petition-gathering, Williams wants to avoid the reputation of a serial mismanager. Of course, all this worrying takes place in a low-risk context. If voters weren’t turned off by the mayor’s own blunders, they’re not going to punish him for the alleged misconduct of his religious adviser.
* At Monday night’s Capitol Hill mayoral forum, candidates were asked whether the city should open up municipal centers such as the Wilson Building and the Reeves Center as emergency hypothermia shelters. The question touched off some classic campaign-trail dodging.
Mayor Williams spoke about understanding the Wilson Building as the seat of government—i.e., understanding that he doesn’t want to smell people on the way to work.
Schwartz spoke about her commitment to social services.
Statehood Green Party candidate Steve Donkin, meanwhile, answered the question: Yes. Then he added, “When I move into the mayoral mansion, I’ll open that up, too.”
In between wonky references to the “groundwater discharge fee,” the third-party candidate entertained the audience with a refreshing repertoire of off-the-cuff zingers. After Williams referenced Zambia when talking about HIV in the District, Donkin shot back with a quip about the mayor’s comparing D.C. health care to that of Third World countries.
Donkin summed up the city’s political scene like this: “This is a kind of curious election. What’s going to happen is that most of the city’s conservative Republicans will end up voting for the mayor, and most of the liberal Democrats will end up voting for Mrs. Schwartz.”
Donkin’s hypothesis seemed on target last Thursday. In the morning, Democrats and Independents for Schwartz held a press conference at her third-floor campaign office on Georgia Avenue NW. Democrat after Democrat offered a confessional: “I’m here to repent for my sin of four years ago,” repeated several former Williams voters.
Later that evening, Republicans for Williams convened at Ozio, a downtown cigar bar. GOPers such as Lisa Bolden, Pedro Alfonso, and former control-board member Stephen Harlan praised the incumbent Democrat.
* As in 1986, 1994, and 1998, Schwartz has made bureaucratic bloat and government overspending the galvanizing themes of her fourth mayoral bid.
The Republican challenger readied her bat for a home run at the Capitol Hill forum: About halfway through the evening, Schwartz accused the mayor of trying to line the pockets of prominent D.C. developer Doug Jemal. “Doug Jemal would earn $12.5 million for a property he paid a million-and-a-half dollars for,” Schwartz explained to the audience.
The crowd didn’t quite get it. So Schwartz delved into the back story: Earlier that day, she had co-chaired a hearing with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham on the city’s proposed purchase of a property on Addison Road in Prince George’s County. Currently, the city leases the lot for $83,000 a month to use as an impoundment lot for cars, following the closure of the city’s lot at Brentwood. Jemal purchased the property for $1.5 million and switched price tags three years later, to $12.5 million.
A half-hour before the noon hearing, the mayor had pulled the resolution from consideration. But Schwartz insisted on a hearing to get the matter on the record—and earned a campaign talking point.
Schwartz’s swing for the fences ended more like a double: After Schwartz tried to explain the lot situation twice, moderator Sherwood offered his own explanation to the audience.
“Being mayor isn’t like being a film critic,” Williams finally responded. “It means making decisions in the heat of a battle.”CP
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