The biggest loser in this year’s local election cycle? That would have to be the Washington Post, which saw the value of its once-weighty editorial endorsements reduced to, well, whatever you could get at the local recycling center for all those campaign posters for the Rev. Robert Childs and Charlene Drew Jarvis.
The Post’s Oct. 21 endorsement of Childs in the race for school board president sent the campaign of rival Peggy Cooper Cafritz into something of a tizzy. The strongly worded Post editorial prompted a round of finger-pointing among Cafritz staffers, who conjectured that the newspaper’s decision was somehow tied to their failure to invite editorial writer Colbert I. King to the campaign’s kickoff eventa notion that King termed “idiotic” and “amateurish.”
Suddenly desperate for allies in the city’s political establishment, Cafritz rushed to embrace Mayor Anthony A. Williams, whom she had kept at arm’s length for two months of campaigning. And she pointedly addressed allegations in the editorial that she was a “one-person band” incapable of uniting a historically fractured school board. As proof of her coalition-building prowess, Cafritz noted at an Oct. 31 press conference, her campaign included “two former boyfriends and one ex-husband.”
In the next electoral cycle, however, perhaps the Post’s nod won’t inspire such soul-searching among hopefuls. That’s because the paper appears to have lost its hold on powerful D.C. voting blocs. In the lead school board race, for starters, the Post inked three pro-Childs tracts, each one overlooking gaping holes in his record as a schools activist. It seemed as if the Post was begging voters to take note of its endorsement; LL half-expected to catch King distributing copies at local campaign events.
Cafritz creamed Childs, the incumbent board president, by a 16-point margin.
At Cafritz’s celebration Tuesday night at D.C.’s Finest, a bar at 9th and U Streets NW, a casual observer might have concluded that Cafritz had been running against the local paper of record, not an underachieving incumbent. “Peggy Cooper Cafritz is kicking the Post’s ass,” yelled Cafritz loyalist Barbara Quick to no one in particular.
Nor did Marilyn Tyler Brown need to be asked about the paper’s endorsement. “The people of the District of Columbia have spoken, and they didn’t take any direction from the Post,” said Brown. “We want the Washington Post to get the message.”
Polling results are taking care of that. In the other marquee race of this season, Post endorsee and 20-year council stalwart Ward 4 Councilmember Jarvis fell in the Sept. 12 primary to upstart Adrian Fenty. The Post dwelt on Jarvis’ experience and stature on the council. Fenty dwelt on her neglect of constituent servicesand eviscerated the incumbent.
If the Fenty victory was a blow to the Post, though, it also embarrassed Williams, who had campaigned alongside Jarvis in a futile attempt to save one of his few council allies. Over the past two months, every pundit in town has seized on the Jarvis loss as evidence of the mayor’s short coattails. Given the performance of mayoral ally Cafritz, some revisionism may now be in order. When asked about his impact on the school board race, Williams told LL, “You all can just comment on it and ruminate on it.”
OK, LL will do just that: Most D.C. voters don’t check with the Post or the mayor before they cast their ballots. They check with their friends and neighbors. If you want to win office, hit the streets.
D.C. does not lack dividing lines. There are natural barriers like Rock Creek and the Anacostia River, which teem with political symbolism as separators of prosperous, mostly white communities from less thriving African-American ones. Then there are all the artificial boundaries, like the seven police districts, the eight wards, the four quadrants, and the roughly 5,000 advisory neighborhood commission districts.
Thanks to Mayor Williams, we have a new grid of jurisdictions for school board seats, which are split into four districts, each one combining two existing political wards. (District 1 combines Wards 1 and 2; District 2, Wards 3 and 4; District 3, Wards 5 and 6; and District 4, Wards 7 and 8.)
Well, the city can draw all the lines it wants, but it will never paint over the racial divides that pop up in every election.
To be sure, some of the election results suggest that ward loyalties overrode racial considerations. In the District 2 race, for example, black incumbent Dwight Singleton, of mostly African-American Ward 4, edged out white candidate Hugh Allen, of predominantly white Ward 3, by 4 points.
In most Ward 3 precincts, Allen drubbed Singleton by margins of up to 45 points. In Ward 4 polling, Singleton returned the favor: In Precinct 46, for example, Singleton collected 66 percent of the vote, to Allen’s 4 percent.
How nice it would be to suppose that voters were simply sticking with their neighbors, rather than making decisions based on skin color.
Convincing refutation of this fantasy, however, comes from the complex District 3 contest, which boasted a racially mixed field of candidates competing in racially distinct wards. A cursory look at precinct tallies might suggest that voters cast their lot with reps from their own wards. For example, Ward 5 school board incumbent Angie King Corley polled strongly throughout her ward, as did Gail Dixon, an at-large school board incumbent who lives in Ward 5. Corley finished in third place and Dixon in fourth, largely because they polled poorly in Ward 6.
But the fates of winner Tommy Wells, who is white, and second-place finisher Benjamin Bonham, who is black, suggest that race was once again at play.
Both candidates are from Ward 6. However, Bonham consistently beat Wells in heavily black Ward 5. Take Precinct 78, a black Ward 5 area that hugs the western bank of the Anacostia: Bonham garnered 22 percent of the vote there; Wells got 3 percent. The one bright spot for Wells in Ward 5 was Precinct 66, where he edged out Bonham by one vote.
Wells won the race by running the table in heavily white areas of Ward 6. In Precinct 89, a largely white Capitol Hill neighborhood, Wells beat Bonham by a margin of 75 percent to 6 percent. In Anacostia’s black Precinct 112, by contrast, Bonham nearly doubled up on Wells, 41 percent to 22 percent.
Williams may hope to change the school board, but he won’t soon change the political forces that elected it.
CRANK IT UP
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose should consider marking the date Aug. 2, 2000, on her D.C. Council calendar. On that day, she walked into a hearing of the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation and listened as embattled (and soon to be former) Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman defended himself against various grass-cutting and résumé-padding scandals.
When it came time for Ambrose to grill Newman, she noted that “people are really reasonable….They don’t expect miracles. They want the grass cut.”
And that’s as tough as it got. For once in her three-year career on the council, Ambrose held her fire. She didn’t tell Newman that if he didn’t show up in Capitol Hill or Barney Circle the next morning, she’d clean his clock. She didn’t even say she was “shocked,” “appalled,” or both at his incompetence.
Self-restraint in the face of an easy target like Newman is a rare trait for Ambrose, a fiery, pro-neighborhood lawmaker who has forged her reputation by shouting down underachievers from the lofty council platform. In many cases, Ambrose’s righteous indignation is, well, right. In her time downtown, for example, she has hammered poorly prepared budgets passed down by Williams and frowned on the efforts of her colleagues to ratify giveaways to local developers.
In recent months, though, Ambrose has pulled the outrage lever a few times too often. While other similarly trip-wired colleaguessee At-Large Councilmember David Cataniahave toned down their rhetoric, Ambrose has renewed her commitment to public condemnation as a tool of municipal statecraft. The victims range from Williams to school board members to just about anyone other than her dearest council allies. And with each predictable outburst, Ambrose risks phasing herself out of the civic dialogue and compromising her ability to build legislative coalitions of the sort she’ll need in passing her controversial liquor-license-reform bill.
The Ambrose tune-out parade has already begun on the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square, where mayoral staffers have grown tired of her unexpected haymakers. They’ve become inured to comments such as those the councilmember made in the Sept. 11 edition of the Washington Post. Speaking on the mayor’s involvement in the campaigns for the reconfigured school board, Ambrose quipped, “I thought that’s what we were looking for: some new, exciting leaders to come forward. Instead, we’re getting reruns. I don’t see much leadership here [by Williams].”
Wait a second. The school board candidates forums this year featured informed debate by serious candidates with very little ad hominem nastiness. Of the 28 candidates on the 2000 school board ballot, many were new faces.
To fault Williams on weak schools leadership, moreover, is a monster cheap shot. The government that Williams inherited vests the mayor with virtually no authority over the schoolsa loophole that his predecessors used to dodge all citizen complaints about the school system. The mere fact that the sitting mayor has tied his fate to school reform is a tribute to his leadershipa trait that Ambrose barely credits. “I would really like to work with the mayor, but I just don’t often know what direction he’s working,” says the councilmember.
And if Ambrose is so offended by the caliber of school board candidates, what’s keeping her from recruiting some “new, exciting” faces? The councilmember, after all, certainly can’t claim credit for recruiting Wells, the candidate she supported in the District 3 race. “One of the first things I did when I decided to run was meet with Ambrose to keep her from endorsing someone else,” says Wells.
Last week, Ambrose chided the current board, which was under fire in the Post for a mini-scandal involving expense receipts for travel to school board conferences and the like. Board members, Ambrose told the newspaper, are “more concerned with…running around to conferences, doling out money, playing the important person, rather than building a school system that will make this a city everybody wants to live in.”
Ambrose thus articulated the “anti-conference” plank in the ideology of D.C. political activists, a school of thought that objects automatically to any out-of-town travel for D.C. government employees, no matter how worthy the purpose. Also, keep in mind that the total amount of unaccounted-for expenses was just $10,000.
“Obviously, when public funds are expended, there should be receipts,” says At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. “But I wouldn’t go ballistic on it.”
Ballistic, though, is the trajectory that Ambrose takes on an inordinate number of issues that reach her desk. As reported in this space (10/27), Ambrose recently wrote a letter to Carlynn Fuller, interim director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), stating that it was “unconscionable” for the DCRA to allow the painting of commercial signs on exterior walls in the city.
Correction: It’s unconscionable to send foster-care children back into abusive homes. It’s unconscionable to screw the poor on health care. But wall signs? Try “unwise,” “imprudent,” or “unacceptable,” in a pinch.
True to her inimitable council style, Ambrose makes no excuses for her hatchet act. “I just call it the way I see it,” she says. “And I think people from all over the city are saying we don’t need more of the same….I really want things to move forward, and I get very impatient when things don’t.”
A little more diplomacy, however, might grease the rails for her liquor bill and other legislative initiatives. Catania, who came onto the council with the same quick tongue as Ambrose, has modulated his rhetoric in recent months as he has prepared legislation on affordable housing, hi-tech promotion, environmental cleanup, and other matters. “I spent three years finding the problems and yelling about them, and at this point, I’m interested in finding the solutions,” says Catania.
Ambrose shares this goal, and she cites the liquor legislation and a bill on nuisance properties as key issues for her constituents. But a change in governing style is not on her agenda. “I’m not looking for a 20-year career here, so I don’t feel like I have to make nice with people,” says Ambrose.
Note: This is the last LL column written by Washington City Paper contributing editor Erik Wemple. Starting next week, veteran City Paper contributor Jonetta Rose Barras will become the new LL. CP