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On July 6, rumors began circulating about thousands of bogus signatures on nominating petitions to put Mayor Anthony A. Williams on the Democratic primary ballot. In the days since, many people represented on the petitions have confirmed that they did not in fact affix their signatures in support of the mayor.
Others are too absurd even to track down. Sketchy signatures scribbled on Williams petitions, for example, include U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Martha Stewart. (LL can only guess that the domestic tyrant might support Williams’ Clean City initiative.) The mayor’s petitions also feature more provincial celebs, such as former D.C. Department of Employment Services Director Alexis Roberson (signed “Robertson”) and D.C. Shadow Senator contender Pete Ross (signed “Petter”).
The sloppy petitions have become the Starr Report of the local politics scene: Everyone wants a look at the scandal sheet to see if his name has been forged on it. Local pols have been kibitzing: Are you on it?
So LL was initially disappointed when we didn’t spot an imitation of our own John Hancock among the estimated 10,000 signatures submitted to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics by the Williams campaign two weeks ago. But our cursory review of the 512 petition sheets unearthed an LL mystery roommate: a Williams petitioner named Eboni Harris, whose address on Page 342 of 350 matches LL’s own house, on the 1600 block of Hobart Street NW in Mount Pleasant. LL checked with our housemates, who have no recollection of sharing a bathroom, taking phone messages, or otherwise performing domicile duties with the elusive Harris.
After scrutinizing the petition circulated on June 27 by Crystal Bishop, LL’s housemates decided that if the Board of Elections and Ethics somehow determines the signature to be valid, Harris—whoever and wherever he or she is—needs to pony up some rent.
The board has until July 30 to determine whether Williams has the required 2,000 valid signatures to deserve a spot on the Sept. 10 ballot. Only a few weeks ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that an incumbent mayor with a strong overall approval rating, who has scared off big-name challengers with $1.4 million in his campaign coffers, would now be fighting to see his name alongside mayoral wannabes such as bugle-blowing Faith, Ward 8 Democrat Arthur H. Jackson Jr., and the Rev. Douglas E. Moore.
LL also foolishly thought that money channeled to a nonprofit named For the Kids to finance a Christmas party for District youth would produce an actual event with youngsters in attendance.
Even with the inspector general’s scolding 514-page fundraising report in his library, a few other assorted campaign-finance violations, and lines at the D.C. vehicle-inspection station creeping toward the Potomac, Williams was said to have re-election locked up. That conventional wisdom—repeated in newspapers and on local airwaves—apparently convinced Williams and his re-election strategists that they had very little to do between now and November. At some point, Williams operatives became so complacent that they forgot to take care of the basics: such as making sure the mayor got on the ballot legally.
It’s a Williams-administration arrogance that District residents have experienced before. The campaign hired veteran campaign worker Scott Bishop Sr. to spearhead the mayor’s petition effort, not looking over Bishop’s shoulder to make sure he dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s. “As a senior campaign adviser, I would have to take responsibility for [Bishop],” says Charles N. Duncan, who backs away from the title of re-election campaign manager. Bishop’s son, Scott Bishop Jr., and daughter-in-law, Crystal Bishop, also helped quite a lot with the signatures.
On Wednesday, Williams announced that he had accepted Duncan’s resignation from the campaign. Scott Bishop Sr. and other paid campaign workers who circulated petitions have been placed on leave. “There was insufficient supervision by me,” remarked Williams.
So now comes the petition challenge. In lieu of an opponent, Williams right now is running against himself.
On Sunday, D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra “SS” Seegars, along with Ward 8 activist Absalom Jordan and hacker John May Sr., became the first to try “to knock Williams off the ballot.” The mayor has little to fear from the commissioner he appointed three years ago to implement his own reform agenda: After striding through the Board of Election’s doors to rid the District of “crooked people in office,” Seegars and Co. spent the afternoon plastering challenge sheets with one universal charge: “circulator and signer forged, not registered…circulator did not personally witness or circulate.”
It was a one-size-fits-all approach that won’t impress the technicians at the elections board. Seegars, however, accomplished her goal of embarrassing the mayor simply by filing the challenge.
A little less than 24 hours later, media representatives crowded into Room 250 of One Judiciary Square for what was supposed to be the climax of the petition fiasco. The Fourth Estate was awaiting the arrival of D.C. Republican Committee Chair Betsy Werronen. The week before, Werronen and other local GOPers, sounding like a legit opposition organ, had made citywide noises about challenging Williams’ signatures.
Then they chickened out. Instead of filing a thorough petition challenge, Werronen delivered a complaint alleging widespread fraud and corruption in the Williams ballots. “The entire process is sufficiently tainted,” Werronen announced to the media scrum. “We have found thousands of signatures that appear to be forged.” A complaint, however, can’t knock a candidate off the ballot. It will get read by the Board of Elections and referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office if there is significant evidence of lawbreaking.
It fell to a couple of Republican up-and-comers to save the Republican apparatus from shame. Mark Sibley and Shaun M. Snyder submitted line-by-line challenges of the mayor’s petitions, whose creative writing the two were the first to notice on July 6. The pair has ties to Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania: Sibley is Catania’s 2002 campaign treasurer, and Snyder worked as a consultant to Catania until enrolling in Georgetown University’s law school.
The Sibley-Snyder challenge ended up being coupled with one from D.C. Watch, headed by government-watchdog husband-and-wife team Gary Imhoff and Dorothy Brizill. Both groups handed in 512 pages of challenges—one challenge page for every petition page. Brizill, a familiar foe to Williams on campaign-finance and ethics complaints, filed a formal complaint with the board, as well. “The size and scope of violations of law were neither inadvertent nor isolated, but were instead the result of a conspiracy that was organized, systemic, and pervasive,” wrote Brizill in the complaint.
That may be overstating the case a touch: Putting Kofi Annan on a petition is closer to the level of high school prank than Cosa Nostra conspiracy. Either way, Brizill and Imhoff’s challenge does expose vast irregularities in the Williams petitions: D.C. Watch filed a detailed challenge, using the text of the election law in municipal regulations to code each transgression. There was a lot to code. For an example of how badly the campaign erred, consider this: Many of the sheets submitted by the Bishops have the same handwriting or signatures. That handwriting style also shows up on petitions circulated by other Williams aides, including Ann E. Lewis and Franklin Wilds, chair of the Ward 5 Democrats.
At the end of the day, Brizill and Imhoff made a bold assertion: that Williams falls short of the 2,000-signature requirement.
In his weekly press conference on July 10, Williams declared that his campaign had confirmed more than 4,000 valid signatures. On Monday night, Duncan conceded that Williams had 3,000 to 3,500 valid signatures, tops. Two days later, Williams remained insistent: “I am confident that we have more than the required 2,000 valid signatures.”
If Williams fails to get 2,000 signatures past the Board of Elections and Ethics sniff test, then he has three options: corral a campaign to write in his name on the Democratic ballot, change his registration to “independent” and run in the general election, or withdraw his name altogether.
“At first, I was dismissive because some of [the challengers] are vocal enemies of the mayor, but they’re right about something, because I didn’t sign a petition,” says Woodley Park resident Andrew Fortin, whose name appeared on Sheet 103 of 160 circulated by Wilds. Fortin, who voted for the mayor in 1998, says he will most likely not vote for Williams if a viable challenger comes forward.
Luckily for Williams, “viable challenger” has become a euphemism for the tired-refrain-spouting of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. “I’m amazed at how consistent the mayor is to the lack of attention and details,” offers Chavous. “It’s mind-boggling. I just don’t understand it.”
Though Williams has successfully distanced himself from various imbroglios in the past, he can’t distance himself too far from this one: The petition sheet that contains the mayor’s own signature will most likely come under scrutiny. On May 23, Williams signed a petition supporting his candidacy circulated by Crystal Bishop, marked Sheet 134 of 350, which appeared along with the signatures of Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth and Families Carolyn N. Graham, Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington, and Department of Employment Services Director Gregory Irish. Van Ness resident Michelle Butler’s name and signature appear on Line No. 20 of the very same sheet.
“That didn’t happen,” remarked Butler, when LL asked whether she had signed the Williams petition on May 27. LL called Butler after noticing that the signatures in Slots 11 to 17, which should have been dated on or before Butler’s signature, had been dated May 29—two days later.
“If I had signed something within the past two months, I would have remembered that I had done it,” Butler added.
* With less than two months before the primary, at-large-council-seat challenger Beverly Wilbourn decided that she needed a campaign kickoff. So the morning of the July 13 noon event, Wilbourn decided to invite the press, including LL.
Despite the late notice, word of the hasty kickoff had apparently leaked out to opponent Dwight E. Singleton. When LL approached the white tent in the 5000 block of Georgia Avenue NW, Singleton greeted us in athletic shorts and a T-shirt. “Don’t you see the Singleton signs all over the place?” he asked, as he proceeded to walk across the street. Purple-and-white Singleton lawn signs had been strategically placed in yards across the street from Wilbourn’s event.
As Wilbourn talked about her law practice and commitment to education, Singleton sat on the porch of Arkansas Avenue NW resident Edwina Curry, who admitted that Singleton had asked her to put the sign up the day before.
During Wilbourn’s haphazard program, Singleton chatted on his cell phone. Then a neighbor of Curry’s came out and removed the purple sign placed in her yard. Singleton dashed over. After 25 minutes of discussion, the sign went back up. CP
Mayor Williams has whiffed on many of his vaunted campaign promises from 1998—such as raising the ethical standards of the mayoralty and sweeping away mismanagement at D.C. agencies. One promise that the chief executive has kept, however, is to ‘fess up when he messes up.
Screw-Up: Nondisclosure of Andersen and NationsBank contracts
Mea Culpa: “This is a sandwich board that I’ll have to walk around with forever.”
Screw-Up: Proposal to move UDC
Mea Culpa: “I do apologize.”
Screw-Up: Abuse and neglect in group homes for mentally retarded
Mea Culpa: “There’s blame for me, members of my administration, previous administrations, current and previous council members and
those charged with protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”
Screw-Up: Fundraising/inspector general report
Mea Culpa: “I’ve led you through a lot of mud.”
Mea Culpa: “I’m nauseated, disgusted, distressed by a lot of what happened here.”
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