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For the past couple of years, the District has fairly hummed with talk of an urban renaissance. Record home sales, new businesses, baby boomers settling in town. Whether or not you like the changes that have come along with D.C.’s boom, there’s no denying that the city is at least a fresh hub of economic and social activity.
Municipal politics have also been touched by the boom. Long derided as an ineffectual batch of rubber-stampers, the D.C. Council in its last two sessions has emerged as a far stronger body than ever before. For the first time in a decade, Election Days in the District began to feature palatable candidates.
Until this year.
When voters hit the polls next Tuesday in the D.C. Council primary races, they’ll behold one of the bleakest ballots in the 26-year history of home rule. This year, incumbent At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil is the only candidate on the Democratic primary ballot, and we’ve been treated to a summerlong monologue on municipal politics by the council’s premier bumbler.
Brazil’s virtually guaranteed third term on the councilthere’s no way he’ll get knocked off in the November general electionproves that in D.C. politics, free riders are still allowed on board. The sitting council has outshone its predecessors in the vigor of its oversight of city agencies, its vetting of mayoral appointees, and its reformist legislation. Although five or six other councilmembers have done nearly all the work, Brazil is cruising to re-election on the body’s improved reputation.
At political rallies in recent months, councilmembers even trotted out a pro-incumbent slogan, “Keep the team together.” The show of solidarity was apparently strong enough to cause an outbreak of restraint among rumored council candidates like Bill Rice, who made an impressive electoral debut in a 1998 at-large race, Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, who led last year’s fight against a new prison in Ward 8, and land-use activist Greg Rhett.
The city’s political lassitude leaves LL with some pretty simple choices in issuing endorsements for this year’s primaries. Here’s how you should vote next Tuesday:
At a meeting with Ward 2 voters in August 1999, Brazil kicked off a citywide “listening tour” in preparation for his 2000 council re-election campaign. “I am listening,” said Brazil at the event, “so that I can try not only to lead, but to follow.”
The councilmember has surpassed all expectations in that area.
Brazil learned pretty quickly after his disastrous 4 percent showing in the 1998 mayoral Democratic primary that his survival hinged on courting the city’s most popular figure, Mayor Anthony A. Williams. What ensued was an unseemly, seamless display of political sycophancy, with Brazil reflexively backing nearly every last mayoral initiativeeven ones that the mayor himself later renounced.
The pandering paid off this summer, when the mayor declared he’d do “whatever is necessary” to vanquish Brazil’s opponents. The plan included hiring one potential opponentWard 3 activist Riceto a job in the Department of Public Works and otherwise mustering mayoral loyalists at Brazil events, a tack that convinced Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. to keep out as well.
Whatever the background, Brazil will remain as indebted to Williams as ever. With zero political independence, Brazil doesn’t deserve your vote. In addition to council laughingstock and legislative lightweight, Brazil on Tuesday will take on yet a third title: citywide excuse for staying away from the polls.
At this point, the only question remaining is what name to enter in the write-in space.
LL has half a mind to suggest that voters write in Williams himself. Given the across-the-board sameness between the mayor and his council toady, why not just vote for the guy who calls the shots?
Incumbent Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis has heard the same tired line about her tenure on the council so many times, it’s a wonder she’s stayed out of St. Elizabeths. As chanted ad nauseam by challenger Adrian Fenty, the argument goes like this: Jarvis has chaired the Committee on Economic Development for 20 years but can’t revitalize Georgia Avenue, the central commercial strip in her ward. Even Jarvis’ colleagues have picked up on the irony. “She’s been so successful in bringing development to downtown, I can’t imagine why she hasn’t been able to bring it to her neighborhoods,” Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose told LL last year.
That’s powerful campaign-trail stuff, but it’s also bogus reasoning. Take your pick of run-down D.C. commercial strips: Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia, H Street NE, Georgia Avenue NW, New York Avenue NE. Replenishing these areas with the latest chain stores, trendy cafes, and hardware stores is beyond the pay grade of your average councilmembereven one who heads the world-conquering Economic Development Committee. National tragedieslike the 1968 riotsnational epidemicslike crackand national trendslike the emptying of cities in recent decadesexplain why councilmembers like Jarvis and Ambrose can’t just gin up a spiffy little initiative (call it, say, the Dupont Circle Replication Act of 2000) to reverse the effects of these cataclysms on community D.C.
Disposing of the Georgia Avenue canard leaves the real issues that disqualify Jarvis for a sixth term in the council pulpit: Her full-time job as president of Southeastern University and her diminishing appetite for ward politics. As LL explained last year, Jarvis has used her Economic Development Committee perch to shake down local business types for contributions to Southeastern’s endowment. That maneuver, it must be said, violates no campaign-finance rules or ethics laws; it does, however, betray a higher authority: the public trust.
As she commutes between Southeastern and the council chambers, Jarvis has made fewer and fewer trips to her own political territory. Complaints about inattention from Jarvis’ office pop up in every corner of the ward, along with hostile quips about how the councilmember shows her face once every four years.
Fenty lacks Jarvis’ political genius, her sophistication in matters of public finance, and her contacts among D.C. movers and shakers. Yet he’s the obvious choice in this election. The 29-year-old District native preaches a return to the day-to-day politics of running a ward, and LL believes he’ll deliver just that. Over the summer, Fenty has mounted a campaign short on flashiness and gimmicks and long on persistent, steady canvassing. If he expends a mere fraction of that energy on constituent affairs as a councilmember, the voters of Ward 4 will be well-served.
Fenty has also shown this summer that he’s neither a whiner nor a wimp, evidence that he’s ready for the comeuppance he’ll get from veteran councilmembers downtown.
At a well-attended candidates forum, Jarvis proclaimed loudly, “I’m not ready” to pass the baton to the next generation. That’s OKshe’ll have four months to prepare.
Vote Fenty, all day long.
Thank God for John Fanning. By jumping in the race against incumbent Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Fanning saved voters from a rerun of the 1996 campaign, in which challenger Jim McLeod tried to ignite a mass movement by speaking of his sailing fetish and reciting the evils of something known as misdemeanor streamlining. (Don’t ask.)
Fanning, a real candidate, has rightly hammered Evans on his coziness with downtown business interests and his backing of the new convention center, a civic monstrosity that will soon blight Shaw just as the existing convention center blights old downtown. “At some point, you become bought off,” says Fanning.
What Fanning and less-worthy fellow challenger Pete Ross won’t say is that Evans has tempered his fealty to business with a solid pro-neighborhood record. The councilmember has assisted Logan Circlites in combating prostitution, Dupont Circlites in extending a liquor-license moratorium, Georgetowners in finding additional parking spots, and Foggy Bottom dwellers with a number of backyard issues. And residents in all those neighborhoods can rely on courteous constituent services from Evans’ office, which is staffed by a competent and motivated group of professionals.
But the best argument for a third Evans term transcends parochial ward politics. Over the past two years, Evans has become the city’s most outspoken voice on the issue that most affects its future viability: finances. As chair of the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, the councilmember has hammered the mayor when he has spotted bogus numbers coming from the 11th-floor suite and has taken it upon himself to kill irresponsible measures that would keep the D.C. financial control board in business. When it first appeared that former Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt was mucking up the city’s balance sheets, Evans led a council uprising against her. And to his credit, he scaled back his proposed tax cuts enough to placate the control board and stabilize the city’s bottom line.
An insular band of rabid Evans-haters in Ward 2 would have you believe that their councilmember is a scoundrel ready to sell out his supporters at the next turn. However, they have trouble finding incriminating stories about a councilmember who does not hide his campaign money behind exploratory committees nor use public office to advance his second career nor dodge blame for his failings. And if those people have a beef with Evans, they can find him at his council office just about every day of the year.
Vote Evans, without equivocation.
The political infirmity ailing Ward 7 oozed from the stage of the Aug. 30 candidates forum at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. There was two-term incumbent Councilmember Kevin Chavous, fielding a standard constituent complaint: “Where have you been?”
“Where I have been, frankly, is doing my job,” retorted Chavous, sounding so offended by the question that you’re tempted to believe him.
Don’t. When Chavous actually turns up in the halls of One Judiciary Square, his colleagues are tempted to exclaim, “Welcome back.”
Problem is, his challengers aren’t much better. Gary Feenster didn’t even show up for the Aug. 30 forum, the only one before the Ward 7 contest; so much for him. Durand Ford is a funny, affable guy whose politics don’t appear to go much deeper than clever quips about the incumbent. “I’m not going to talk about Mr. Chavousthere’s no need to. He hasn’t done anything in eight years,” said Ford in his introductory remarks at the forum.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary Jackson, who is raising five grandchildren in her Ward 7 home, talks wistfully of improving living conditions for children and uniting the ward but hasn’t honed the political skills necessary to do all that. Robert Hunter, minister of the Atonement Episcopal Church, won more votes (44) than the other three challengers in a straw poll at the Aug. 30 forum. (Chavous won with 77.) The candidate’s backers no doubt enjoyed his needling of the incumbent, whom Hunter calls the “Safeway councilmember” for Chavous’ oft-stated contention that he mixes with normal folk at the supermarket and on the street. Gift of gab notwithstanding, Hunter lacks the look and feel of Ward 7’s next councilmembera feature he shares in common with everyone else on the ballot.
Flip a coin. LL’s not taking sides on this one.
Ward 8 suffers from a history of low voter turnout, and the crowd of hopefuls in this year’s council race will do little to reverse the trend. At an Aug. 24 candidates forum at Covenant House, the
candidates responded to piercing questions from Ward 8 youths with fourth-rate campaignese.
On reducing the crime rate, for example, incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen said we need to “start at home by pulling the family together.”
Taxicab commission member Sandra Seegars said, “We need to look out for each other.”
Candidate Winifred Freeman said, “We need a better structure for getting crime solved.”
And former Williams staffer Dion Jordan said, “Everyone needs to accept the challenge to change themselves.”
Allen’s opponents should ditch their weak digressions and pound the incumbent on a veritable grab bag of vulnerabilities, starting with her complicity in the collapse of D.C. General Hospital, her fence-sitting on the Ward 8 prison, and her endorsement of a tax cut that screws over her own constituents. Luckily for Allen, her opponents have failed to define the campaign in those termswhich means they don’t deserve a serious look from Ward 8 voters.
Seegars, for one, disqualified herself from elected office this year when she advocated racial profiling by taxi drivers. Jordan discusses strategies for getting God back into people’s livesa scary proposition for any public-office-holder. And Freeman’s politics are too ill-defined for even a candidates forum, let alone a council debate.
Lined up against that array, Allen takes on the look of a first-rate legislator and community champion.
Vote Allenunfortunately, there’s no alternative.CP
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