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For decades to come, incumbent councilmembers in the District will look to Tuesday’s Ward 4 Democratic primary contest for guidance on how to hold on to their $90,000 per year part-time jobs. Some may conclude that the key is to provide top-rate constituent services. Others may deduce that voters want candidates who promise to treat the council as full-time employment.
The smart ones, though, will extract a lesson from the Ward 4 race that transcends electoral strategizing: Never treat a sincere, hardworking opponent with contempt.
Five-term incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis could have called upstart challenger Adrian Fenty an “esteemed opponent” or a “worthy office-seeker” or perhaps even a “nice man”honorific labels that you might expect from a 20-year political vet secure in her council outpost. This 20-year political vet, however, chose to address Fenty in other terms. She fairly scowled as she called him “this young man” in radio interviews, TV soundbites, and encounters with voters on the hustings.
At a campaign appearance Monday at the Fort Stevens Recreation Center, for example, Jarvis chanted, “This young man is dangerously misinformed. This young man is dangerously misinformed.” One Jarvis billboard went even further, proclaiming, “This is not the time for a kid and on the job training.”
“It sounded like contempt to me,” said Fenty on Tuesday night. “I think it took away from her relying on strategies.”
No, not quite: Dissing Fenty was her strategy.
A little after 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, Jarvis began to appreciate the backlash among Ward 4 voters against her “strategies.” By the time all the ballots were counted, the 29-year-old Fenty had earned 57 percent of the voteand, in all likelihood, an even more lopsided victory over Statehood Green Party candidate Renee Bowser in the November general election. Ward 4 voters, it would seem, don’t consider “young man” a political liability.
The results prompted Fenty groupies, good-government types from across the District, and other hangers-on to flood the sidewalk at the Fenty campaign office at Georgia Avenue and Geranium Street NW. Some were urging passing motorists to honk their horns. Others chanted, “Four more months.” One reveler held a sign reading, “Ding Dong. The Witch is Dead.”
Fenty himself handled all the chaos just as he would any other day of campaigning, calmly chatting with one well-wisher after another, never rushing through a single conversation. With a relentless grass-roots campaign, Fenty had created the biggest news on an otherwise dull primary night. It’s tempting to call his victory one of the biggest upsets in the 26-year history of home rule.
But it isn’t. Fenty has proved he’s hardworking and earnest about Ward 4. He has also proved a savvy strategist by choosing to challenge a vulnerable incumbent. The same haughty Jarvis attitude that galvanized Fenty and his hard-core supporters echoed time and again at the polls on Election Day, as voters explained how the incumbent’s name recognition was working against her. “It’s time for Charlene to get out,” said Megan Mozon, 32, a document specialist who lives on Decatur Street NW. “She’s been in there too long.” Joan Hoyt, a Shepherd Park resident, complained that she had called the councilmember’s office three months ago about crime and drug problems but had never heard back. “She’s not paying attention,” said Hoyt after casting her vote for Fenty.
And the “upset” designation fits best on candidates who come out of nowhere to oust a sitting pol. Fenty may have been a rookie candidate, but his shoe-leather campaign had made him a household name in the ward by midsummer. On the wall of Fenty’s campaign office is a ward map titled “Streets Adrian has Gone Door to Door in Ward 4 Since May 20th.” Green marker blankets 80 percent of the map.
At precincts across the ward on Tuesday, voters marveled at the candidate’s ubiquity. “I met him three times,” said Hoyt.
There’s a certain mathematical poetry to Hoyt’s claim: Jarvis, perhaps the council’s biggest friend of D.C.’s rich and powerful, raised more funds than Fenty by a margin of roughly 3 to 1 ($200,000 to $64,000). To compensate for Jarvis’ cash advantage, Fenty had to work the streets three times as hard as the incumbent.
And as he plodded from row house to row house, Fenty neutralized the strongest force working against him: Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his firm endorsement of Jarvis. Throughout the summer, Williams appeared alongside Jarvis to save her from her own shortening attention span for ward politics. “Why would we ever get rid of someone who’s shown she could do the job?” asked Williams on Monday at Fort Stevens.
Fenty came up with 7,859 reasons on Election Day.
The mayor’s detractors will seize on the defeat of his second-most-reliable council ally as proof of his short coattails and flagging reputation. And all that chatter will amount to nothing. None of Williams’ predecessorsnot Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and certainly not Sharon Pratt Kellycould simply snap their fingers and crown a councilmember. D.C. politics just aren’t built that way.
Like most Ward 4 voters, the mayor may well not even miss Jarvis come January. He and Fenty, after all, may achieve mind-meld, with all their talk of improving service delivery and whatnot. “We’ll work together great. His platform, after all, is what we’ve been talking about,” says Fenty, who appears to bear no malice toward the man who tried to keep him out of office.
Other implications of the Fenty victory:
•Jarvis will now be able to spend more time at her swanky breakfast meetings at the Mayflower Hotel. Council sessions and other government business have cut short too many Jarvis repasts at the regal Connecticut Avenue hotel. Now she’ll be able to sip that extra cup of coffee.
•The city’s land-use and preservation activists can finally pop the cork on that bottle of champagne they’ve been saving for Jarvis’ departurea vintage that has been in the fridge long enough to oxidize. Thanks to the influence of Jarvis and her ilk, this hard-luck lobby lost the convention-center fight and other zoning disputes. Under the direction of Shaw resident and convention center opponent Beth Solomon, these folks this summer created Leadership 2000, a political action committee that took aim at Jarvis. And won.
•The list of committeeless councilmembers grows. In recent weeks, a faction of motivated councilmembersWard 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, At-Large Councilmember David Catania, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evanshas been chatting up an inchoate plan to restructure the council. Under the current format, each of the council’s 9 specialized committees has a veteran chair, while the three freshmen repsGraham, Mendelson, and Orangehave no committee to run.
An alternative that’s likely to come before the panel next January would break out oversight functions from overburdened committeessay, the D.C. Fire Department from the Judiciary Committee or the Department of Parks and Recreation from the Education Committeeand place them in a new committee under the supervision of an idle councilmember. “We can’t have these guys twiddling their thumbs,” says a councilmember who requested anonymity. With Fenty replacing Economic Development Committee Chair Jarvis, the council lobby that favors an overhaul gains another adherent.
•A word of advice to future Ward 8 council hopefuls: Don’t even bother making the trip to 15th and L Streets NW. Instead of courting the backing of the Washington Post editorial board, you’re better off shaking hands with 15 or 20 folks on the streetwhich is approximately double what the Post endorsement will get you.
Failed Ward 8 council aspirant Sandra Seegars will no doubt put it in blunter terms than LL. On Tuesday morning, the Post credited Seegars for possessing “toughness” and “being nimble enough to keep pace with the exacting challenges of government and the demands of Ward 8.” Of course, the editorial also qualified its support, noting that Seegars tends to throw “the kind of rhetorical bombshells that end up hurting her more than the intended targets.”
Seegars finished 51 percentage points behind incumbent Sandy Allen.
•The resounding 66 percent victory of incumbent Ward 2 Councilmember Evans ushers in a nostalgic lapse for LL. Whatever his legislative talents, Evans this year showed a knack for attracting challengers who gave the campaign trail an entertainment value missing since the likes of Harry Thomas and Hilda Mason hung up their gavels.
At a Sept. 6 Ward 2 candidates forum, for example, would-be councilmember Ray Avrutis lectured voters on the merits of a vegetarian dietand even threw a prop into his presentation. “It takes 15 pounds of soy…to make one pound of” fart!”beef burger.” Avrutis’ rip echoed through the acoustically designed Mount Olivet Lutheran Church sanctum, mixing nicely with talk of gentrification, retail development, and the like.
At the same function, Evans challenger Pete Ross courted the ward’s gay vote by touting his occupation as a furniture entrepreneura line of work, he explained, that brings him into frequent contact with interior designers. “Ninety percent of my work is with interior designers,” says Ross. So there!
And LL must credit Ross with the best tautology of the campaign, for this outburst at a Sept. 8 forum in response to a question about slumlord abuses. “Maybe something can be done to prevent this, which I would call prevention,” Ross said.
•LL regrets to note that there is only one LL available to cover the council races on Election Day. This year, LL elected to shuffle between polling sites in Wards 2, 4, and 8and to ignore altogether the race in Ward 7. Of course, no one expected much of a contest in Ward 7, and indeed incumbent Kevin Chavous finished with a 20-percentage-point bulge over runner-up Robert Hunter.
And even though he wasn’t anywhere near any of the action, LL feels confident passing along the following intelligence on the Chavous victory party:
Chavous no doubt smiled that killer smile, which actually made a few supporters forget yet again that he doesn’t do much work on the council.
Chavous in all likelihood blasted “all those critics and naysayers who don’t understand how integral a part of the community Kevin Chavous is!” (Likely applause)
Chavous ribbed longtime supporters about how his teenage son Kevin is now towering over them. “He’s no kid anymore,” Chavous probably said.
Chavous probably slipped out of the victory party early to catch ESPN’s SportsCenter. “Ahhh, now I can take a few weeks off from the political scene,” Chavous must have said to himself before going to bed. CP
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