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At LL’s press time, there was no definitive word from the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics on the drama of this political season: whether Mayor Anthony A. Williams would qualify to run for re-election as a Democrat. Board Chair Benjamin F. Wilson, however, declared that the contest over Williams’ disputed nominating petitions would be a squeaker. In the end, said Wilson, the mayor could fall short of the 2,000-signature threshold by as few as 60 signatures.
The scene at the first day of board hearings on Wednesday started out looking like most big events in D.C. politics—a circus, that is. Activists of all stripes flooded the hearing room to witness what some expected to be a surgical look at the Williams campaign’s troubled petition forms. At various times in the proceedings, attendees would just stand up and add their two cents to the debate. After a petition challenger alleged that Williams had perpetrated “the largest case of election fraud” in D.C. history, several audience members yelled, “That’s right!”
The most illuminating testimony of the day, though, came not from the peanut gallery, but from recently resigned senior campaign adviser Charles N. Duncan, who, in recapping the petition fiasco, told the whole story of the Williams administration. “I am…not to blame for the situation,” said Duncan. “If Mayor Williams is nauseated, I can’t tell you what I am.” In a classic District dodge, Duncan argued that he wasn’t given sufficient resources to handle the campaign—even though the campaign collected $1.4 million in contributions.
All that cash certainly didn’t fund a professional petition effort.”We delegated authority of the entire [petition] process to Mr. [Scott] Bishop [Sr.].”
In D.C. political lore, Bishop’s name will fit right alongside the various other Williams aides who have helped tarnish the reputation of a once-proud manager. There’s Robert Newman, the former parks director who embellished his resume and mismanaged his underlings. And there’s Ronnie Few, the fallen fire chief and resume inflator.
But if ever the mayor got an object lesson in the perils of hands-off management, his 2002 campaign, such as it is, fills an entire textbook.
Start with the Re-Elect Williams for Mayor campaign kickoff, which featured hot dogs, the debut of the mayor’s special song, and a large white-and-blue-striped tent staked into New York Avenue NW. The campaign lacked the proper permits to erect a big top in the middle of one of the District’s busiest arteries. And, on top of that, the steel stakes holding the tent in place pounded permanent holes into the asphalt.
The newly created D.C. Department of Transportation fined the Williams campaign $2,500 and made it known that it would bill for street repairs, as well.
Two weeks later, Republican pols reviewing Williams nominating petitions detected similar handwriting on sheet after sheet. Collecting signatures for a popular incumbent mayor didn’t seem as if it would be too difficult—but District pols commented that they hadn’t seen the Williams campaign circulating petitions or handing out literature or postering city streets.
The Williams campaign team had handed over the petition operation to Bishop, a veteran campaign worker known as the king of campaign signs. Williams loyalists had a lot of faith in Bishop: On May 10, Duncan and campaign co-chair Gwendolyn Hemphill promised that 10,000 District Democrats—five times the required number—would sign on the line to put Williams back on the ballot. On July 3, the deadline for turning in petitions, Hemphill and Bishop hauled the second batch of petitions—making the total 512 pages—down to the Board of Elections.
Many now appear to be fraudulent. Last Friday, the Williams campaign conceded that 214 petitions were invalid.
In the wake of such a concession, you might expect the campaign to strike a conciliatory chord. Instead, the Williams operation went into attack mode. Williams lawyers argued to dismiss two petition challenges submitted to the board: one by Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff of D.C. Watch and Republicans Shaun Snyder and Mark Sibley, and another by D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars.
They also slammed the process itself. On Friday, Williams legal counsel Vincent Mark J. Policy questioned whether D.C.’s election rules about petitioning are constitutional. Policy cited a 1999 case before the Supreme Court that held that circulators of petitions for ballot initiatives do not need to be registered voters. At the hearing on Wednesday, Policy again invoked the case in an attempt to rescue as many petition signatures as possible. The board vowed to seek an opinion on the matter from D.C. Superior Court.
That’s a wimpy move. D.C. law states that petition circulators must be registered D.C. voters. Several Williams circulators were not.
Policy warned against throwing out signatures because of the “sins of the circulator.” “To disenfranchise thousands of District
voters on that premise makes no sense,” Policy argued.
* Even with the petition flap, Mayor Williams seemed to have the Ward 2 Dems endorsement locked up. Besides marginal opposition from Faith, Osie Thorpe, and the Rev. Douglas E. Moore, there was no one on the ballot to challenge him. No one, though, seemed to have a lot of support among Ward 2 activists Sunday afternoon: Williams earned second place in the mayoral race, with 27 out of 72 votes cast in initial balloting; the front-runner remained three shy of the 40 votes, or 55 percent, needed for the party cell’s endorsement.
Before the second balloting commenced, the top-two vote-getters were allowed two additional minutes to woo the crowd. Williams, who lives in Ward 2, failed to show up for his neighbors. LL then wondered, Would anyone rise to speak on behalf of his rival, named No Endorsement?
In the end, no speechifying was necessary: No Endorsement cleared the 55 percent endorsement hurdle on the second try, receiving 20 votes out of the 32 cast. As Ward 2 Dems Chair Budd Lane later explained to LL, even No Endorsement needs the 55 percent nod, as outlined in the group’s bylaws. Some No Endorsement supporters embellished their ballots with comments including “That bastard,” “Fire him,” and “Never again.”
Williams got 12 votes, or 38 percent.
Mere mortal challengers to Williams
shouldn’t read too much into the results: Ward organizations exert little influence over the electorate and are hardly representative of the community at large. That said, there was no mistaking that Ward 2’s enthusiastic support for No Endorsement amounted to giving the mayor, their fellow Foggy Bottom Democrat, the middle finger.
Even Williams loyalists admitted that the mayor’s unexcused absence from the meeting, in the midst of the petition brouhaha, hardly helped placate the Ward 2 faithful—many of whom supported Williams in 1998 to the chagrin of then-mayoral challenger Jack Evans, who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council. “We had expected [Williams] to come….I think it all had to do with the petitions. I think he didn’t want to be embarrassed by coming,” commented Lane, a Williams supporter. “I believe it would have made a difference—but I don’t know if it would have made a 55 percent difference.”
* The last time at-large D.C. Council candidate Dwight E. Singleton tried getting the endorsement of a ward cell, he got embarrassed. Arriving late to Ward 3’s St. Columba’s Church, Singleton—who represents Wards 3 and 4 on the D.C. Board of Education—failed even to get nominated for the at-large ballot.
On Sunday, pro-Singleton forces were more visible.
Periodically throughout the afternoon’s Ward 2 endorsement meeting, a blue Peoples Congregation Church van pulled up to St. Thomas Church. Passengers began their trip at the corner of 7th and O Streets NW, where a tall, heavyset, bearded man asked passers-by between roughly 2:30 and 4:30 p.m, “Are you a registered Democrat? Do you want to make $20?” according to several witnesses. Those who answered yes to both questions were then asked to hop aboard, travel 11 blocks to St. Thomas, and vote for Singleton. Voting took place between 3 and 5 p.m.
A resident of the 1500 block of 7th Street NW, who spoke to LL, reported that she turned down the $20 offer but that her brother gladly made the trip. She said that the same gentleman who herded money-seekers onto the van pulled a wad of $20 bills out of his pocket and passed one out to each passenger at the conclusion of the round trip.
The $20 offer expired near 5 o’clock, she said. In initial balloting, Singleton received 29 votes. Al-Malik Farrakhan got 1, Beverly Wilbourn got 15, and incumbent Phil Mendelson got 49—three less than the 52 votes needed for the Ward 2 Dems endorsement. John Ralls, a volunteer at the registrar’s desk, reports that a fellow registrar overheard a man saying “When do I get paid?” after submitting his ballot.
Singleton’s support seemed to dry up at the end of the afternoon. In the runoff, which occurred after 5, Mendelson received 29 votes. Singleton mustered just 6.
Singleton denied allegations that he encouraged voting for dollars. “This campaign does not pay for or finance votes,” responds Singleton spokesperson Andre M. Johnson. “Absolutely not.”
The Ward 2 Dems that afternoon also endorsed Eleanor Holmes Norton for D.C. congressional delegate, Ray Browne for U.S. shadow representative, Paul Strauss for U.S. shadow senator, and Linda Cropp for D.C. Council chair.
“Some of them seemed very single-minded,” quipped Mendelson, who witnessed one group of voters exiting the Peoples Congregational Church van in front of St. Thomas that afternoon.
* Early July 14, on WBIG-FM’s Metro Talk Sunday-morning news program, Mendelson announced that he had received the endorsement of Mayor Williams.
Neither Mendelson’s at-large-council-seat challengers nor LL recalled Williams making such a public pronouncement. Williams spokesperson Tony Bullock says that the mayor has “not officially” endorsed Mendelson.
“My opponents were quite distressed when I made that statement,” says Mendelson. “I stand by what I said.”
In upcoming weeks, Mendelson might want to keep that endorsement on the Q.T., as well.
* On July 15, when the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting to cut $905,000 out of its 2002 budget at the mayor’s office request, trustee Philip Pannell suggested that the cash-strapped system shut down branches in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Instead, trustees approved a plan to reduce evening and weekend hours at branches across the city.
Pannell has clearly spent some time in the library stacks marked 303.61, which hold books on civil disobedience: On Monday night, Panell told LL that he planned to chain himself to a branch library’s front door on Friday in an attempt to keep it open during the weekend.
On Tuesday, the mayor’s office restored $400,000 to the library budget; Pannell now has other Friday plans. CP
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