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In 1994, Kathy Patterson won her Ward 3 council seat by staging a spirited campaign against crusty incumbent Jim Nathanson. The come-from-nowhere victory shocked the city and offered some hope that the District was producing vibrant young leaders.
Eight years later, Patterson is running for her third term, and her route to re-election appears as placid as Loughboro Road NW on Sunday morning. As of yet, there’s not even an ego-driven ankle-biter out there carping over Patterson’s missteps or insisting that the incumbent has gotten too big for her britches.
Patterson’s staff is itching for a challenger, any challenger. “Give us a call if you hear about anyone,” says Patterson chief of staff Penny Pagano.
Patterson has earned her free ride by doing her job well. As chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee, she consistently grills police and fire officials on their miscues—and she does it without seeking the publicity that many of her colleagues crave. She also does it without any expectations of seeking higher elected office.
And how could she in D.C.’s constipated political system? What happens when a person reaches municipal nirvana, otherwise known as a $90,000-a-year part-time job on the council? There’s only one higher elected city office: mayor. Because D.C. has no voting representation in Congress, incumbents like Patterson have essentially nowhere to go. So Patterson—like many other of her dozen council colleagues—take up precious real estate on the council and prevent challengers from organically emerging.
Instead, D.C. has draft movements, like the one currently under way to convince Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty to challenge incumbent Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Williams, of course, now occupies the chief executive’s office as a result of the same District political phenomenon.
In the past week, D.C.’s political and monied classes have received phone calls to solicit interest in forming an exploratory committee for the first-term councilmember. Fenty possesses not an ounce of mayoral gravitas and still needs to learn how the D.C. government operates. But he has traits that make him a demigod in D.C.—namely, he is young and defeated a formidable incumbent, Charlene Drew Jarvis, in 2000.
“I don’t want to say that I’m shocked by anything,” says Fenty, who attributes the draft campaign to a piece in the July 2001 Washingtonian touting him as mayoral timber.
Then Fenty whips out his own variation on Michael Jordan’s “99.9 percent” refrain: “As of right now, I’m definitely not going to run for mayor,” says Fenty.
Fenty or no Fenty, the mayoral campaign trail this year will likely be littered with the same pronouncements as a Wilson Building press conference: Williams will recite once again the many accomplishments of his first term, primary among them the dissolution of the federally appointed control board and the renewal in the city’s neighborhoods.
But as LL thumbs through our collector’s edition of Williams-administration scorecards, circa 1999, almost all the smiling faces call forth distant Washington Post B1 scandals: Department of Human Services Director Jearline Williams, Department of Public Works Director Vanessa Dale Burns, and Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman, to name only a few casualties of the current administration.
Disappointing leadership from above and the controversial closing of D.C. General Hospital make 1998’s mayoral runner-up, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, a likely suspect on this year’s ballot. But Wilson Building sources say that Cautious Kevin remains ever so. The councilmember recently chatted with former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, chair of the Federal City Council and a Williams supporter, at National Airport’s Legal Sea Foods. Did Dole politely ask Chavous to wait four more years for his turn?
Chavous couldn’t be reached for comment.
How about a challenge from Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager and former chief of staff to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton? That’s about as likely as the reappearance of the butterfly ballot.
The District’s political stagnation is reflected in this year’s council races as well:
Incumbent Phil Mendelson has distinguished himself as the council’s maven of minutiae. He’s spent his first three years on the council as a staunch defender of the city’s historic preservation laws and as a living and breathing Robert’s Rules of Order.
The Panama-hat-wearing Democratic councilmember is likely to face a challenge from a foe of four years ago: Beverly Wilbourn, an attorney who lives in Ward 4. In the 1998 at-large race, Wilbourn snared the endorsement of the Washington Post and came away with 12 percent of the vote, even though she ran as an independent.
This year, she’s decided to join the majority party. “I’m going to run as a Democrat,” says Wilbourn. “I’ve been a Democrat for most of my life.”
Except the part of her life when public office seemed more attainable as an independent. Under the District’s home-rule charter, one of the two at-large seats up for grabs this year is reserved for the nonmajority party. That seat is all but reserved for Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania, whose snarling presence at council sessions and command of municipal operations make him a shoo-in for re-election.
That leaves a classic matchup between Mendelson, a darling of NIMBYites citywide, and Wilbourn, a veritable creation of the business community.
According to one half-smoke-eating regular, Deairich “Dee” Hunter seems to prefer the stools right near the jukebox. “We spend a lot of time at Ben’s Chili Bowl,” confirms the former staffer to Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen.
Later this month, Hunter will hold an exploratory-committee meeting to decide whether to challenge Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. Graham’s aggressive approach to constituent services and willingness to show up even to the opening of an envelope have made him popular in the western parts of his ward, but Hunter believes that the former Whitman-Walker executive director remains vulnerable east of 16th Street NW, where he hopes to challenge Graham on issues such as affordable housing.
Hunter doesn’t need to look too hard to see the impact of Graham’s housing priorities. “If you look at my home—Harrison Square—the city spent $1 million to clean up that land and didn’t even get one unit of affordable housing out of it,” points out Hunter.
OK, so Hunter lives in a rich neighborhood.
Hunter says he’s about 70 percent sure he’ll run right now. But “Jim’s a formidable opponent. He can raise a lot of money,” notes Hunter. “If we can’t raise the army, if we can’t raise the money, we’re not going to fool ourselves.”
Incumbent Vincent Orange has compiled quite a list of accomplishments in his one term in office. The councilmember gave an uplifting inaugural speech, affixes a handsome “5” pin to his lapel, and often shows up for council meetings.
On the more substantive side, he claims credit for bringing big-box stores like the Home Depot to Ward 5—even though the mayor may have helped a bit.
Through it all, Orange has tried to project a more professional image of a councilmember than his glad-handing patronage king predecessor, Harry Thomas Sr. Ward 5ers may get a chance to choose between empty-suited modernity and nostalgia—as Harry Thomas Jr., 41, has been working the hustings of late.
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose sees her opposition every day as she drives around Capitol Hill: the red-and-white signs that proclaim, “Draft KAP.” “I am not responsible for those signs,” says Keith Andrew Perry, a Ward 6 native. “It was a draft effort led by a number of ANC commissioners in the ward.”
Just what every incumbent fears the most: an ANC draft!
Though KAP emphasizes the need for new leadership, he’ll largely challenge Ambrose with a strategy employed by her last opponent: the Rev. George Augustus Stallings. Stallings tried to divide the ward largely by race, claiming that Ambrose ignored those residents who lived east of Capitol Hill.
KAP used a similar strategy when running in 1994 for an at-large school-board seat against then-incumbent Jay Silberman: KAP claimed that Silberman, who is white, was not “representative of this community.”
A HACK FOR HACKERS
When Mayor Williams appointed Sandra “SS” Seegars to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, he hoped that the Ward 8 resident would bring her reform-minded frankness and tenacity to a city agency that served neither drivers nor passengers. After all, Seegars had railed against incompetence in D.C. government and spearheaded a highly publicized, if ultimately unsuccessful, recall campaign against Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.—an effort supported by many of the city’s cabbies.
In her two years of public service, Seegars has yet to make the commission a John F. Kennedy School of Government model of efficiency. And her misplaced investigative prowess has pushed an agency hampered by political infighting and petty squabbles toward greater irrelevancy.
Seegars’ latest allegation: that D.C. Taxicab Commission Chair Lee Williams does not possess a D.C. driver’s license.
“No comment,” responds Williams.
Seegars’ super sleuthing has also uncovered that the commission chair resides in what she calls a “flophouse.”
Williams says he’s a renter at 24 Hamilton St. NE in Brookland, which, according to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, is owned and occupied by U. and R. Bailey Jr. He adds that this is the address where he’s legally registered to vote. But, he admits, his wife and family still live in Scotch Plains, N.J. Before joining Seegars at the D.C. Taxicab Commission in 2000, Williams presided over Newark’s Taxicab Division. “I don’t know if I want to expose my family to what goes on here,” explains Williams. “It’s been nothing but personal ever since I’ve been here.”
So it’s probably no surprise to Williams that Seegars sent no get-well card when the chair caught the flu and canceled last Tuesday’s meeting, in which commissioners were scheduled to vote on whether to install meters in District taxicabs. The mayor and commission chair support meters; Seegars claims that four out of seven commissioners—as well as a majority of the city’s hacks—do not.
Seegars says that Williams was back at work and looking robust in time for the Jan. 8 meeting. “I believe he could have faked an illness so we would not vote on the meter issue,” she says. “To prove he’s sick [to me], he’s got to die.”
Statehooders scored a coup when they circulated a photograph of Today Show anchor Katie Couric holding a “Free D.C.” sign with Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition members Wayne Turner and Karen Szulgit. Like any serious journalist, Couric is forbidden to publicly support political causes.
Had Couric admitted the sham of objectivity and thrown her support behind the controversial effort to make D.C. the 51st state?
LL wasn’t too aghast: After all, Meet the Press moderator and NBC colleague Tim Russert weighed in on the monumental Klingle Road debate last year. Russert, who lives in Woodley Park, advocated to keep the Northwest thoroughfare closed. The mayor later agreed.
NBC muckety-mucks say that Couric’s action did not constitute inappropriate political expression by a mainstream journalist. “Anchors and reporters do not endorse political organizations,” responds Today Show senior publicist Allison Gollust. “Katie and Matt [Lauer] do not endorse any political causes.”
Gollust explains that Couric happily parades herself in front of the camera for almost any attention-seekers congregated outside the morning news show’s set in Rockefeller Center. “When we’re outside the [Today Show] window, we walk and talk to a lot of people,” Gollust adds. “I can see how they can take a snapshot and disingenuously try to make something out of it.”
Turner and Szulgit say that Couric, who grew up in Arlington and worked at one point in her career for WRC-TV Channel 4, seemed knowledgeable about the District’s struggle for representation. “Look at her hands,” points out Szulgit. “She’s holding the sign.”CP
Washington City Paper staffer Elissa Silverman is your new LL.
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