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The savviest members of the D.C. Council have learned how to spend minimal time on the job while still grabbing headlines. This particular art form was the centerpiece exhibit at One Judiciary Square last Wednesday, where Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous was holding a hearin«g of his Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation. On an otherwise newsless day, Chavous lectured Department of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman on a summer full of fiascoes that turned baseball fields into hay fields and deepened the cynicism of D.C. residents toward city hall.
“What we want to see are results,” chanted the councilmember.
It didn’t get much tougher than that. The hastily called hearing was notable not for anything that Chavous or Newman said. Rather, the key was who had showed up to watch: three reporters from the Washington Post, one from the Washington Times, four from local television stations, one from local radio station WTOP, and LL. In other words, every last member of the D.C. media who didn’t happen to be spending the week in Philadelphia.
When asked about his midsummer media coup, Chavous smiled broadly. “You’ve got to give me credit for that,” he joked.
Unless the councilmember engineers another event like his rec department hearing, you may not hear from him again until primary day, Sept. 12. That’s because the Ward 7 council race at this point exists only on a sample ballot sitting down at the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics. On the streets of Ward 7, news of the contest, such as it is, hasn’t quite leaked out.
“There’s not much campaigning going on out there,” says candidate Durand A. Ford, a 59-year-old financial management consultant who has lived in Ward 7 for 26 years.
Ford is one of four aspiring politicos who are teaming up to divvy up the anti-Chavous vote—and who so far have done little but bewilder the city’s political cognoscenti. For two years, D.C.-politics-watchers were expecting an anti-Chavous challenge from one of the ward’s veteran activists. Indeed, simply mention Ward 7 politics and most folks think of rabble-rousers like Paul Savage, Greg Rhett, Don and Lucy Murray, and former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford. But now that the campaign is finally here, the people who have actually stuck their necks out to run against Chavous are the ones who haven’t made any waves outside their own neighborhoods.
It’s not too hard to figure out why. Ford, for instance, concedes that he “hasn’t raised any money” for his campaign against the two-term incumbent. “We’re just getting into the position to do a fundraiser,” he says of a campaign with barely a month left to go, adding that he “knows what it takes to run a campaign.” Once elected, Ford plans to bring the entire ward “together and make it one happy family.”
Mary D. Jackson, another 59-year-old Ward 7-ite, shares Ford’s approach to campaign finance. When asked about her fundraising plans, Jackson says she doesn’t have any “at present.” “Just say we’re running a very successful grass-roots campaign,” says Jackson.
OK: Jackson is running a very successful grass-roots campaign. At this rate, she may successfully pass the 3 percent threshold.
The campaign is all about “getting a grip on crime, making the schools accountable to children, and dealing with social issues,” says Jackson, who works in the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms office and is raising five grandchildren in her Marshall Heights home. Although Jackson has few bona fide policy ideas, she’s getting input from some of the city’s most experienced political hands. “Quite a few senators are happy with my decision [to run],” says Jackson.
That’s one boast Chavous can’t plausibly make.
Chavous’ other two opponents are veritable Steve Forbeses by comparison. Robert Hunter, for example, says he’s raised $600 and claims to have met scores of “ABC” voters, short for “Anyone But Chavous.” As minister of the Atonement Episcopal Church, Hunter at least has something no other challenger can conjure: a group of people who’ll sit and listen to him. When he gets going, Hunter smartly hammers the incumbent for supporting the “yes” side in the June 27 school-governance referendum, which cut the number of elected school board members and drew overwhelming opposition from Ward 7 voters. “He has not done a good job overseeing the schools,” says Hunter.
Gary Feenster says all the things his fellow anti-Chavousites say, only with more credibility. He has raised $5,000 and vows to knock on every door in the ward before the primary. He even has a Web site, which had been accessed 334 times as of Monday—almost enough votes to win the race if one of those freakish early-September blizzards hits on Election Day.
And while the candidate addresses crime and economic development as priorities for the council rep, he also exhibits an awareness of where Ward 7 stands in the city’s pecking order. “No one really cares what’s going on in Ward 7,” says Feenster, who includes Chavous himself in his statement. “[Chavous is] the missing councilmember.”
Chavous has heard that attack so many times that he has perfected his counterattack. “You don’t see me, ’cause I’m with the people. I’m out there in the streets,” says the incumbent. For the 10th straight interview with LL, Chavous talked of knocking on doors in his ward and pressing the flesh at the local Safeway. He must do all the shopping for his family.
For reporters hungry to see a real contest in Chavous’ troubled ward, it’s a pity that no one with an established reputation opted to get into the race. Because Chavous, though he remains popular among his constituents, has at least one high-profile chink in his armor.
All those trips to Safeway, for instance, might explain why Chavous has been hard to find at One Judiciary Square in recent months. After he was pilloried for his history of absenteeism during the 1998 mayoral race, Chavous initially tried to make himself a larger presence in the current council session. However, last winter he signed on as a lobbyist for Covad Communications—a job that appears to have sucked up his time via junkets to California and other company business. Chavous’ hectic schedule routinely causes delays and cancellations of Education Committee hearings, and he’s frequently a no-show at meetings of the three other committees on which he serves—Judiciary, Finance and Revenue, and Economic Development.
Whatever his visibility, Chavous says he wants another term for pure enjoyment. “I’ve worked hard and been around for the hard times, and I want to be around for the good times,” he says. And when pressed on his platform, Chavous talks of reforming the public schools and of ongoing talks with “sit-down restaurant chains” to choose a Ward 7 location. “I know a guy who owns a Shoney’s,” he says.
Now there’s a plan.
Whether it’s a Shoney’s, a Stuckey’s, or a Shakey’s, Chavous had better come up with something tangible for his back yard if he still aims to reach his real political goal—namely, to knock off Mayor Anthony A. Williams in the 2002 elections. While his colleagues on the council can’t disavow a mayoral run forcefully enough, Chavous mouths the carefully chosen platitudes of a mayoral hopeful: “Right now, my interest isn’t there,” he says, referring to Williams’ office. “It’s to help the ward and push economic development in the ward. If I do my job effectively, then people would approve.”
NO MORE MR. NICE GUY
There’s one mistake that 29-year-old Ward 4 council challenger Adrian Fenty won’t likely repeat on this summer’s campaign trail: being nice to incumbent Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. In his closing remarks in the August 1 debate sponsored by the Ward 4 Democrats, Fenty went conciliatory. He spoke of the “utmost respect” that he maintains for Jarvis and credited her for “years of service” to the ward.
And instead of battering the five-term veteran on her spotty council record, Fenty took a more agreeable tack: “In every generation, there comes a time when you have to make a transition, when you have to pass the baton of leadership,” said Fenty.
When Jarvis’ turn came, everyone in the audience learned how she had survived more than 20 years in D.C. politics. Spurning the sympathetic mood established by her challenger, Jarvis started swinging, declaring that she was “not prepared to pass the baton”—at least not to Fenty, whom she chided for not taking “the obligations of citizenship seriously.” That was a reference to Fenty’s failure to vote in six of the 10 elections during which he has been registered in D.C.
And Jarvis also told the challenger that she wasn’t ready to pass him the baton until she was “convinced that you know how to negotiate your way through” a development deal.
That comment, of course, represented Jarvis’ answer to Fenty’s efforts to blame her for the dilapidated state of Georgia Avenue, Ward 4’s main street. During the course of the debate, Fenty suggested that Jarvis does a superb job of negotiating downtown deals but has whiffed on bringing development to the underperforming avenue. “You gotta believe that Georgia Avenue doesn’t always have to look like that,” said the upstart. In response, Jarvis bobbed and weaved, noting that she now has the “partnerships” necessary to finally bring about a commercial makeover.
Policy issues aside, the veteran Jarvis taught her opponent how to rile up a crowd. Whereas she hit her applause lines like an experienced conventioneer, Fenty came off stiff and tentative, spending more time buttoning and unbuttoning his charcoal suit jacket than spouting off on local politics. Meanwhile, Jarvis saw to it that the small crowd of undecided voters at the event wouldn’t forget about Fenty’s shortcomings.
When they pause to consider whether it’s time to tell Jarvis to pass the baton, they’ll surely remember her last, thundering words: “I’m not ready.”
LL will gladly pay for the health insurance coverage of any D.C. resident—and that includes contraceptive costs, too—who can figure out the heartfelt position of Mayor Williams on the latest controversy in city politics. On July 11, the council passed a measure requiring all employers in the District to provide contraceptive coverage in employee insurance packages. In a headline-making gambit, the council declined to approve an amendment pushed by the local Catholic Church to exempt religious institutions from the requirement.
The day after the vote, LL pressed Williams to articulate his position on the council action. “I believe people have a right to contraception,” he told LL during a break in a congressional hearing. Then he addressed the need to “separate your religious convictions from public policy” and acknowledged that he would sign the council measure. “That’s the way I’m thinking now,” he said.
So he’s for it, right? Wrong. Put the emphasis on that last statement: “That’s the way I’m thinking now.” When you’re Mayor Williams, after all, even core social convictions are subject to
One day after he outlined his position to LL, the mayor and his handlers went into hiding on the issue, refusing press requests to opine on contraception. And soon afterward, a rather different official statement issued meekly from the mayor’s press office:
“It is clear that the city must revisit the language in the Health Insurance Coverage for Contraceptives Act of 2000. I will continue to work with our elected leaders to advocate for expanded access to family planning in the District, while addressing concerns expressed by religious institutions on this particular piece of legislation. The city’s leadership can find common ground and pass legislation that meets the health needs of our citizens and is sensitive to religious liberties.”
So he wants compromise, right? Wrong. The middle-ground statement came mainly in response to pledges from legislators like House D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chair Ernest Istook to kill the legislation.
And when those pledges turned into outright threats, the mayor found a novel way to explore common ground: He vowed to leave the bill unsigned—and thus veto it.
By the numbers, that’s one mayor, one issue, and three positions. CP
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