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Wanna be a candidate for elected office in the District? Repeat after me: “I stand for affordable housing, rent control, an efficient DMV, the reopening of D.C. General, and a strong social safety net.”
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
After three hours of canned speeches and halfhearted agitprop, the Takoma Park Baptist Church’s candidate forum limps toward a welcome conclusion. With the audience drooping, Dwight E. Singleton stands up to take one last whack at the voters’ waning attention.
On this Thursday night in late August, the small auditorium in Northwest has all the trappings of bad community theater—the admission is free, the lighting is harsh, the seats are uncomfortable, and the piano has been pushed off to the side to make room for the candidates.
Singleton has five minutes to deliver his soliloquy, to try and convince the 20 or so members of the audience to vote for him and not the incumbent, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. After introducing himself, Singleton delivers what has become a mainstay of his stump speech—and an apt indication of what counts as an accomplishment in the D.C.
“I feel,” says Singleton, head held high, “that under my leadership, our schools have not diminished, not one bit.”
A gray-haired woman sitting five rows deep in the audience lets loose a low, rumbling chuckle. And who can blame her? How many candidates run on a platform of not making things worse? Mendelson, who is sitting, along with five other candidates, at a table behind Singleton, maintains a straight face. He’s seen Singleton’s act before.
Bragging about the status quo of a school system in which textbooks are a luxury item wouldn’t seem to be smart politics. In fact, it sounds like the pitch of a candidate who’s never before presented his case to voters. But Singleton is no rookie. He has already won two elections in the District.
As improbable as it might seem to those watching his uninspiring performance at the church, Singleton represents the next generation of homegrown political talent in the District. “The Democratic party always encourages the next generation of political leaders to take their position on the stage,” says Norman C. Neverson, chair of the District’s Democratic State Committee. “We, as a city, have to train our citizenry to lead us. [Singleton] was born and raised here. He is part and parcel of what the District of Columbia has trained.”
If that’s the case, the Democratic politicos in D.C. may want to revise the training manual. On the campaign trail this summer, candidates hoping to represent the city’s predominant party in the November elections have created not a buzz but a collective drone. At stop after stop, they dish out stale interpretations of shopworn ideas. Candidates distinguish themselves not with the originality of their platforms but with the unorthodoxy of their asides.
The paucity of challenging dialogue allows and even encourages serious candidates like Singleton to remain content-free. To wit: Singleton recently told a meeting of Ward 5 Democrats: “If education has gone so bad, it’s the voters of Wards 3 and 4 that have duly elected me.”
“It is vital that we return to the days of old, when a council representative was a person who made themselves accessible to the people,” reads a statement on Singleton’s campaign Web site. Trying to cash in on voter nostalgia is a risky strategy in this town. The mere mention of municipal roots is enough to give the average District voter a bad case of the heebie-jeebies—or at least memories of fiscal insolvency and crumbling city services.
At first glance, though, Singleton looks like a vision of our future rather than a specter of our past. Singleton is young, black, native, and well-educated. He grew up in Ward 4, graduated from D.C. public schools, studied at the University of Tennessee, earned a bachelor of science degree from Virginia Union University, and returned to D.C. for an MBA from Southeastern University.
He first marched into elected office in 1998, when he defeated the incumbent Sandra Butler-Truesdale in the general election to become the Ward 4 representative on the D.C. Board of Education. Two years later, the city instituted the hybrid elected-appointed school board system, and Singleton found himself in a fiercely contested race to stay on the board. At the time, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson threw her political weight behind candidate Hugh Allen. Singleton looked overmatched.
But in the end, Singleton’s campaigning skills triumphed.
“I personally am very impressed with Dwight’s activities in this campaign,” says Neverson. “The young man brings a tremendous excitement to the voters, and, as we know, campaigns are all about generating excitement and drawing voters to the polls on important issues.”
Trouble is, important issues have no role in Singleton’s political life. Although he is campaigning on his schools expertise, he has little to show for his four years on the school board. So, when pressed on his credentials, the candidate tends to stress his background.
Management experience? Singleton coaches his young son Dwight Jr.’s Stoddard soccer team.
Leadership skills? As quarterback, Singleton once led the District’s Theodore Roosevelt High School all the way to a city title. And who else running for D.C. Council has taken snaps across the line of scrimmage from Reggie White at the University of Tennessee? Not Mendelson.
Singleton’s play book for the 2002 campaign charts a hurry-up offense of sorts. The candidate coasts through the election, using long-winded speeches that are packed with emotion and catchwords, but, more often than not, devoid of meaning and logic.
On campaign stops around town, Singleton harps on the importance of education. Education reduces crime. Education promotes economic development. Education does this and that. But say the word enough times and it starts to lose all meaning. “Education” becomes gibberish.
“I believe,” said Singleton at a recent public event, “it’s going to take education to close the social, economical, and racial gaps in
At candidate forums, Singleton often promises to freeze property taxes for all District residents who have lived in their houses for more than 10 years. He never mentions how much revenue such a policy would cost the city. (A back-of-the-envelope calculation by the Washington City Paper using data from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Urban Institute suggests about $85 million annually.) Singleton avoids discussing which programs he would slash to pay for his tax cut.
Singleton also promotes a 10-point business plan, which might as well be a 10-point public-safety plan, or a 10-point housing plan. The importance of using 10-point rhetoric far surpasses the importance of any actual plan.
Mark Plotkin, the host of WTOP’s The Politics Program, believes that Singleton’s policy recommendations are little more than empty promises. “Dwight Singleton is a living, breathing example of rhetoric over substance,” says Plotkin. “It’s hard to put his words together with reasonable thoughts. Words should be connected to actions. You can’t denigrate the political process by saying anything to get elected. Dwight doesn’t connect words with policy. They are words by themselves, and so that’s disturbing. Actually, it’s downright irritating.”
In the absence of paid focus groups, candidate forums provide local office-seekers with an opportunity for immediate feedback on their material. At a recent forum in the Columbia Heights Village apartment building, Singleton tested out a few lines about the shifting demographics of the District.
The event’s MC asked the at-large candidates about how they would help preserve Ward 1’s diversity. “One of the things that I will advocate strongly and passionately is that we provide the same opportunities clear across the city whether you’re black, white, Chinese, or polka-dot,” answered Singleton. That’s right—forget about Ward 1’s large Vietnamese and Central American populations. Reach out to the polka-dot voters.
A few minutes later, Singleton was back in the demographic deep end, struggling not to drown on the subject of the District’s historical population fluctuations. “As a native Washingtonian, I’ve watched this city go through different transformations,” said Singleton. “We have gone from the early ’80s and a population of 800,000 people down to a population of 575 people. Out of those 575, 375 are going to vote. That just goes to show you that our city has decreased in terms of population.”
Yes, by 799,425 people, if you go by Singleton’s count.
Even at low moments like these, however, Singleton’s political skills eclipse those on display by many other candidates throughout the city. Earlier the same night, Shelore Williams told the roomful of voters, “I don’t want to be bought and sold by corporations—I want to be bought and sold by you.” Nobody reached for a wallet.
Whenever candidate Edward Chico Troy was at a loss for words, he fell back on a high-school line: “This is a bunch of crap,” he repeated on several occasions.
Shadow Senator candidate Pete Ross has a different response to tough issues: silence. On question after question at the Takoma forum, Ross avoided answering, hoping that the audience would mistake his paltry knowledge of D.C. politics as an act of civic restraint.
Should there be a statue of Sojourner Truth at the Capitol?
“I’m not going to fake it and pretend that I know this issue,” answered Ross.
Will the District finances be in the red or in the black this year?
“That’s a hard question,” said Ross. “I don’t think I could comment on that.”
What should the District do to improve public safety?
“He’s said everything I would say, so I’m not going to participate,” stated Ross, deferring to another hopeful.
Nevertheless, some candidates would be well-advised to mimic Ross’ silent treatment toward the voters.
Mayoral candidate Douglas E. Moore kicked off a forum by following a favorite campaign cliche with an odd collection of non sequiturs. “If elected, I’ll be the mayor for the entire city,” Moore began, echoing a sentiment that has been expressed, in one form or another, by all of his opponents.
Then he said: “I have a cousin who is married to a German woman.” Perhaps sensing that the audience remained unconvinced, Moore piled on more accomplishments for everyone to ponder. “I have another cousin who married a French woman….I’m an art collector….I speak French.”
With all the linguistic dexterity that has endeared American tourists to generations of Parisians, Moore unleashed a flurry of incomprehensible Gallic. Before anyone could say, “Je ne comprends pas,” however, Moore’s French subsided. Shortly thereafter, he departed, leaving the audience to consider the possible benefits of upgrading our French skills at the executive level.
Most of the candidates, however, avoid transatlantic leaps of thought. They stick to familiar territory, keeping their comments firmly grounded in the truisms of the District’s already overtrampled topics: professing, for instance, the need for better public education.
At one point, pacing back and forth on the linoleum floor of the Takoma auditorium, Singleton worked himself into a frenzy over the subject of D.C.’s public schools. With each fastidiously pronounced sentence, he raised his voice another octave, until he was spitting out each syllable with seething outrage. Singleton glared at the seated incumbents. He slammed his hand on the table in front of them. He lambasted. He accused. “I’m sick and tired of hearing people profess that they have a strategy for education,” yelled Singleton. “But they do not have one.”
From the table behind Singleton, Faith, the 78-year-old trumpet-playing candidate for mayor, interrupted. “I do,” she called out with singsong certitude.
Everybody is running on the same platform; with the exception of the speechless Ross, they are all reading from the same script. The Cliffs Notes to D.C. politics make a quick read. It goes like this: If elected to office, I will support the advisory neighborhood commissioners, be the voice of the people, work for full voting rights for District citizens, turn vacant properties into affordable housing, bring back vocational education, and reopen D.C. General!
In District politics, nobody hires a speech coach. Why bother? Instead, candidates simply borrow the rhetorical device of the office-seeker sitting on their right, who, in turn, has poached a thing or two from the next guy down.
Contrary to popular belief, Beverly Wilbourn is more than just a name and a face on a poster. She’s also a real-life person who raises the money to pay for the posters. And every once in a while, she materializes at a public forum in 3-D.
“When it comes to affordable housing, a lot of folks talk that talk,” said Wilbourn in her opening remarks at the Columbia Heights forum. “But I’ve been walking that walk for a long time.”
Wilbourn, a practicing attorney and former landscape architect with an aptitude for public speaking and an aversion to meet-and-greeting, first beamed down to the District’s political scene in 1998. From out of nowhere, she raised large amounts of money in her run for an at-large council seat as an independent and picked up myriad endorsements along the way. The endorsement of the Washington Post editorial board, always a sucker for a fresh face, didn’t hurt.
Cranky local pundits have yet to admit that Wilbourn exemplifies a unique category of D.C. politicians: the insta-candidate.
The average elementary-school production of Hansel and Gretel requires more time rehearsing and memorizing lines than the average race for public office in the District. Insta-candidates like Wilbourn need only attend a few ANC meetings, hop on the Internet for a few back episodes of The D.C. Politics Hour, and occasionally watch the 11 o’clock news. That’s it. Print up some posters and you’re ready to run.
Wilbourn finished fourth in the 1998 general election. Then—poof—she disappeared. Earlier this year—poof—Wilbourn resurfaced to announce her second try for the D.C. Council. This time, the Post caught on to her dabbling ways and endorsed Mendelson.
Over the summer, Wilbourn raised nearly $100,000 for her campaign. Her finance reports burst with contributions from D.C. law firms and businesses. She has received $1,000 contributions from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce PAC and the D.C. Board of Trade PAC, as well as picking up their respective endorsements.
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to link the business community’s support of Wilbourn with Mendelson’s strong stance on environmental issues and general wariness toward developers. Mendelson’s list of campaign contributions tells another story, one of loyalty to his constituents. He has received donations from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and from a long list of urban planners and librarians.
Rounding out the field in the race for Mendelson’s seat on the council are Mahdi M. Shabazz, a consistent no-show throughout the campaign season, and Al-Malik Farrakhan, a 55-year-old District activist. Farrakhan represents another category of local politicians: the run-for-the-sake-of-running candidate. Contenders of this stripe clutter this year’s elections. They’re the ones at the candidate forums who cut loose and have fun, who don’t bother fundraising, and who toss around the best slogans.
“If you want to be free, vote for me,” hollers Farrakhan in his grizzly voice whenever the opportunity arises. Farrakhan’s campaign literature includes posters of his mug and the words “WANTED: Al-Malik Farrakhan. REWARD: 100,000 votes needed.”
But don’t be fooled. Farrakhan doesn’t need 100,000 votes, because he already has what he wants: your attention. Farrakhan is running for office because it guarantees him an audience. The campaign-trail exposure helps him promote his anti-gang group, “Cease Fire…Don’t Smoke the Brothers.” Along with a crew of supporters, Farrakhan zips from one political event to the next in the “Don’t Smoke the Brothers,” minivan, spreading his anti-violence message and promoting a return to the ideal of brotherly love.
Other candidates of this type use the excuse of running for office for more self-serving goals. Adam Eidinger, for instance, is using his run for the shadow U.S. Representative position to show off his stilt-walking skills and to plaster the city with posters of himself. District voters may never see Eidinger in office, but they’ll never mistake him for a candidate who doesn’t wear hip glasses.
So what prototype best describes Singleton? He’s no insta-candidate; he’s maintained a ubiquitous public presence since first running for the school board. Sure, he loves an audience, but that’s not his primary motivation for running. Earlier this year, Singleton took out a $45,000 loan in his own name to finance his campaign. The man intends to win.
But what does he bring to the table? Singleton says he entered the race because the school system needs an advocate sitting on the council. He wants to be that advocate. If he succeeds, though, Singleton would merely replace the effective education proponent who’s already on the council.
By all accounts, Mendelson is among the council’s most schools-friendly lawmakers. He’s an active member of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. He supports pay raises for teachers. And during his four years in office, he has helped significantly increase the school system’s budget.
For his part, Singleton has used his spot on the school board to reach out to teachers and school administrators throughout the city. “Dwight is probably closer to school administration and school personnel than anyone else on the board,” says Tommy Wells, Singleton’s closest ally on the school board. “I think that’s true throughout the city. I would say that if there was an election for any office in D.C. and only school employees got to vote, Dwight would win hands down.”
Despite Wells’ assertion, earlier this year, the Washington Teacher’s Union, which represents approximately 5,800 schoolteachers in the District, endorsed Mendelson. Not Singleton.
“The endorsement that I got from teachers means a lot to me,” says Mendelson. “It suggests that I have been sensitive to education issues and done my best to try and improve the ability of those who teach.”
Singleton’s decision to enter this year’s race for at-large councilmember surprised some of his close confidants, including Wells. “I knew he was gearing up for a citywide race, but he did surprise me when he pulled petitions for the council,” says Wells. “I actually thought he would run for school-board president.”
Over the past two years, Singleton has butted heads with Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz on countless occasions. On issues ranging from finance to public outreach, Singleton has been Cafritz’s most vocal critic. So why isn’t Singleton challenging Cafritz in this year’s election? The answer is simple: Singleton sees Mendelson as the more vulnerable of the two incumbents.
In the 1998 primary, Mendelson picked up only 14,089 votes in a crowded race between 10 candidates. Four other office-seekers received more than 10,000 votes in the primary. Mendelson sneaked into the general election with a mere 17 percent of the vote.
In March, undoubtedly enticed by the same numbers, former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. announced his intention to re-enter D.C. politics and challenge Mendelson’s re-election bid. Shortly thereafter, Barry had an embarrassing encounter with U.S. Park Police, who reportedly found trace amounts of cocaine on the former mayor. By early April, Barry had dropped out of the race, clearing the way for Singleton to jump in.
Wells speculates that Singleton originally planned to run for school-board president but became demoralized after Federal City Council Chair Terence C. Golden launched an effort to get former Councilmember William Lightfoot to run. “I think he got discouraged, backed off, and switched over to running for council,” says Wells.
“Dwight and I have talked about politics quite a bit,” adds Wells. “He has an interesting theory about D.C. politics. He really believes that in the District voters don’t support the cautious candidate. His philosophy is that voters like people who act unexpectedly.”
John Capozzi, a former shadow congressional representative for the District, sees Singleton’s decision as opportunistic. “I asked him point-blank in 2000 if he was going to fulfill his four-year commitment,” says Capozzi. “He told me, ‘Yes.’ Well, obviously that didn’t turn out to be true. So I’m left scratching my head. It’s not like the school systems are fixed and it’s OK to move on.”
“It’s disappointing,” adds Capozzi. “Dwight has always been really nice to me. He’s a good person. The city needs people like him working on the school board. But I think he’s being opportunistic on the level that he doesn’t have to give anything up to run this time.”
Nevertheless, Singleton is running, and he’s loving every minute of it.
On a Wednesday morning in late August, Singleton bounds up and down Georgia Avenue in Northwest charming the city’s electorate one voter at a time. Dressed in pressed slacks and a purple “Singleton 2002” T-shirt, Singleton works the sidewalks near the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro stop, shaking hands with every commuter and bystander in reach.
“Good morning, sir,” says Singleton, handing some campaign literature to a man smoking a cigarette outside a liquor store.
“How are you doin’?” Singleton greets an old lady stepping off a Metrobus. “Love your hair.”
“Hey, brother,” says Singleton, slapping hands with a teenager.
“Good day,” Singleton says upon approaching a woman wearing sunglasses and a frown. “It is a good day, isn’t it? How about voting for me? I’m just a poor little boy who grew up in the neighborhood.”
This is the side of politics that Singleton loves—shaking hands, slapping backs, kissing cheeks, whispering in voters’ ears. On the campaign trail, Singleton is everything that Mayor Anthony A. Williams is not: Warm. Funny. Likable. He looks you in the eye. He remembers your name. He comes across as a nice, humble guy, eager to serve his city. “I’ve been going across town for months now, campaigning in every ward of the city” says Singleton. “It’s been like a walk in the park.”
All the flesh-pressing seems to have a way of intoxicating Singleton. On a recent Sunday morning, the candidate was cruising through the city, ambushing voters and remarking on the omnipresence of his campaign posters. Victory seemed imminent. “We should get me a float,” mused Singleton. “We could drive around, and I could wave to all the people.”
Parse this Singleton classic, if you will: “I’m sick and tired of elected officials using subservient political interests to propagandize our youth and programs at the expense of a political agenda,” said the candidate at a recent forum.
The statement makes no sense word for word. And yet Singleton’s delivery was so powerful, so brimming with authority and self-righteousness, that no one seemed to notice what little sense he was making.
Somehow, everybody got the message: Singleton abhors the use of kids and education issues for political advancement. But that is exactly what he has done for his entire four-year career in D.C. politics.
“You shouldn’t just say anything to get elected,” says Plotkin. “There’s a maturation process there, which I don’t think Dwight
has thoroughly undergone. To him it’s political theater.”
For his final act of the night at Takoma, Singleton goes back to the metaphorical gap one more time. “We are still a city of have and have-nots,” says Singleton. “We need someone to bridge the economic gap. That will be my mission as a city councilmember at large. I will build the bridge to bring together the factions that currently exist by this current city council—this city council which has conveniently abused its rights and privileges.”
Singleton doesn’t say anything about what constitutes abusing the rights and privileges of public discourse in an election year. And yet without meaning to, he and the rest of this year’s office-seekers manage to say it all. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.