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Last Thursday night, a 47-seat bus pulled up alongside the senior citizens’ building at Greenleaf Gardens on Delaware Avenue SW. A throng of seniors filled the bus and left a gaggle of crestfallen stragglers behind. The bus dropped off its passengers at the Washington Plaza Hotel for a free chicken dinner, complete with complimentary beverages and other freebies. They sat around for a while, noshing and chatting and carrying on. Then they all got up and cast ballots for Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans.
The occasion was the quadrennial endorsement contest of the Ward 2 Democrats organization, an appendage of the city’s Democratic State Committee and a proving ground for hopefuls in this fall’s elections. As the two-term incumbent, Evans wanted to show his opponents—local businessman Pete Ross, activist John Fanning, and perennial candidate Ray Avrutis—just where the ward’s rank-and-file voters stood on his tenure at One Judiciary Square.
The night’s polling tallies spoke much more effectively than Evans did in his two-minute stump speech: Bearing the candidate’s signature red-and-white campaign paraphernalia, 317 of the 452 voters sided with the incumbent. Fanning pulled 85, Ross 49, and Avrutis one. (LL has confirmed that Avrutis voted for himself.)
Even in this somniferous campaign season, the event garnered no headlines and didn’t exactly shake the political earth beyond Logan Circle. Yet it marked a D.C. watershed for the style of politics on display. With tons of money, an efficient organization, and an in-your-face approach to crushing opponents, Evans has built himself a political machine. And this particular machine runs partially on Geritol.
“I love the way he do,” said Carrie Poindexter, a 69-year-old Greenleaf resident and Evans supporter. “We go on boat trips and everything that he sponsors.”
Ward 2 council challengers don’t quite share Poindexter’s enthusiasm for Evans’ politics. In his speech on Thursday night, Avrutis expressed his scorn for the spread that Evans had laid out for his people. “He feeds you people poison. It tastes good, but it is no good for you,” said Avrutis.
Here’s Fanning on the same topic: “It’s apparent that many votes have been bought here tonight,” said the candidate, who repeatedly hammers Evans for promoting the “overdevelopment” of fragile downtown neighborhoods.
Ross advanced the same excuses: “These people came for a meal and some entertainment,” he told LL. “My supporters came here on their own power.”
Yes, all 49 of them.
The collective whine of the anti-Evans forces is a natural reaction from upstarts who’ve been treated to a thorough political ass-kicking. The opposition candidates, though, are also voicing a citywide squeamishness over power politics. The D.C. practice of busing voters and feeding them before escorting them to the voting booths, after all, is inseparable from the legacy of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Evans, in many ways, seems like the last guy who’d lean back on the old D.C.’s senior-feeding tactics. His rise to prominence is often attributed to his appeal to gay men, gentrifying yuppies, and tony Georgetowners—the new majority of Ward 2. But that doesn’t stop him from looking to an almost entirely African-American crew of seniors to cast procedural ballots and attend political meetings his wealthier constituents won’t bother with. As Evans schmoozed with his partisans in the registration line, he looked like the proud wearer of the Barry mantle.
Appearances, however, belie an important distinction. Barry used the public till to guarantee his political survival, but Evans shakes down the extended family of successful businesses in his ward—a lobby that had yielded $204,000 in campaign cash by early June.
The incumbent has spent his money wisely. Campaign staffers organized a phone-banking operation consisting of eight volunteers in each neighborhood; there were two rented buses that—unlike the ones in Barry’s time—didn’t say “D.C. Dept. of Parks and Recreation” on their sides; and, of course, food and drink were available to all. One man took the edge off the long wait in the voting line by tilting back an ice-cold Miller Lite from the Evans reception room. Who do you think got his vote?
But as Michael Huffington, Ross Perot, and Steve Forbes have shown, money will get you only so far. Winners find durable voting blocks. And in Ward 2, that means recruiting seniors. According to 1990 census figures, the ward ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of senior citizen population. But Evans’ turf has the highest concentration of seniors’ apartment complexes, according to E. Veronica Pace, director of the city’s Office on Aging.
Hmmm…large clusters of voters with virtually nothing to do. You can’t say that about any of Ward 2’s more visible constituent groups. No wonder Evans is a regular at the complexes. Each Christmas, the councilmember plays Santa Claus for the seniors at St. Mary’s Court in Foggy Bottom. He’s the lead model each spring in a fashion show promoting affordable housing for seniors. He throws Halloween and birthday bashes at which seniors are the featured guests. And he’s not averse to dipping into his constituent-services fund to brighten up senior lounges everywhere. “He gave us a television,” said Coretha M. Edwards, a 75-year-old resident of Asbury Dwellings in Shaw. Edwards was one of the more than 100 seniors who mustered for Evans at the Ward 2 endorsement contest.
Evans’ loyal base has implications that extend well beyond the confines of a Washington Plaza Hotel meeting room. With his other key constituencies largely satisfied and literally hundreds of seniors queuing up to vote for him, Evans need not opt for the re-election strategy chosen by Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil—namely, selling out to the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. In exchange for their fealty to Williams on the council, Jarvis and Brazil have pried economic development initiatives and campaign assistance, respectively, from the mayor’s office for this fall’s contests.
Williams isn’t about to throw any such goodies to Evans, who has bashed him repeatedly from his pulpit in the council chambers. The upshot is that Evans will continue his independent reviews of the mayor and may have to work extra hard to get the city to spring into action on behalf of his most fervid supporters.
Meanwhile, the incumbent can take an August vacation free of worries about opponents chipping away at his loyal core. Among Evans’ challengers, for instance, only Fanning appears to appreciate the kingmaking sway of Ward 2 seniors. “I’ve put a committee together to reach out to them,” says Fanning.
The question is whether they’ll reach back. LL’s informal Fanning name-recognition survey among seniors last Thursday turned up a lot of clueless responses, like “John who?”; “Come again?”; and “Eh?”
And if Fanning keeps pressing his anti-development platform, he’ll have trouble financing the catered events that have made Evans Ward 2’s honorary senior of the year.
“Jack Evans throws a mean party,” says Greenleaf resident Berneda R. Jefferson.
At some point, Mayor Williams’ political operatives will have to hold a seminar for their putative council supporters titled “Friends in Need: A Primer on the Fundamentals of Political Partnership.”
And in the front row, they’ll assign a seat to Councilmember Jarvis.
Williams is still smarting over Jarvis’ failure to fight for his nomination of Joseph Moravec, a former commercial real estate executive, to serve on the board of the powerful National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC). A successor to the soon-to-be-defunct Redevelopment Land Agency board, the NCRC controls $31 million in federal and D.C. funds earmarked for neighborhood development in the city.
Moravec’s nomination came up for council consideration July 11, the final summer legislative session, and went down in a 12-1 rejection. Jarvis did vote for Moravec but never said a single word in support of him in the council debate. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson took aim at Moravec—the only one of Williams’ four NCRC appointees to get challenged—because he is a Bethesda resident whose out-of-town status, she argued, should disqualify him from serving on such a key panel. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose also spoke against Moravec because he works at George Washington University, a lightning rod for land-use quarrels in Ward 2.
When her turn came to speak on the mayor’s nominee, Jarvis sounded like an administration critic. “I would have preferred that the mayor submitted names of D.C. residents as well,” said the councilmember, who went on to say that the NCRC statute left open the possibility of appointing a non-D.C. type with a “substantial connection” to the city. “Therefore, I did not oppose the mayor’s nominee,” said Jarvis.
Now there’s a fierce advocate in action.
Folks in the mayor’s suite were hoping that $111 million would buy them a more grateful Jarvis. After all, Williams in late June designated that much cash for the revitalization of Georgia Avenue, the political heart of Jarvis Country. When asked about her bona fides as a Williams ally, Jarvis replied, “I indicated my support for the nominee.”
Moravec calls the council’s position on his appointment “amazingly parochial.” “Frankly, it’s telling people like me, who are trying to do good for the District of Columbia…that you’re not welcome,” he says.
Administration sources confide that Williams was likewise peeved at the council—and particularly at Jarvis—for dissing his appointee. One good reason for the angst is that Moravec helped raise more than $20,000 for Williams’ 1998 mayoral campaign, according to sources who participated in the campaign. “I was the only one with a 301 area code on [Williams’] finance committee from earliest days,” says Moravec, who also gave $500 to Jarvis’ 2000 campaign.
Even Ambrose, who’s not as loyal to Williams as is Jarvis, reports having felt the wrath of mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer. “He said to me, ‘I thought you were our friend.’”
* Like any seasoned politician, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz speaks with the authority of someone who has her facts down. And like any seasoned politician, Schwartz sometimes has no idea what she’s talking about.
In the debate over the Moravec nomination, Schwartz noted that the prospect of appointing an out-of-towner to the NCRC is a risky proposition. The reason is that President Bill Clinton holds three nominees over whom the council has no control. “I got a feeling they’re not going to be all District residents that the president of the United States is going to appoint,” said Schwartz.
Later in the council session, Chairman Linda Cropp pointed out that Schwartz’s “feeling” was a bit off: President Clinton, reported Cropp, had already named his three appointees, and they were all District residents.
Like any seasoned politician, Schwartz was quick with a cover-your-ass reply: “Well, that’s this time. Who knows what could happen in the future?”
* Former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot is once again weighing his political future in plain public view. In 1994, Lightfoot announced that he would challenge comeback kid Barry as an independent in the November general election; a couple of days later, he backed out on the premise that his candidacy would be too divisive.
This time, the subject of his ambivalence is the newly re-configured D.C. Board of Education. Lightfoot this spring served as treasurer for Mayor Williams’ referendum campaign to turn the board from an all-elected 11-member panel to a hybrid board with five elected and four appointed seats. One of the elected seats is president, and Lightfoot is the leading contender for the spot. “I’m considering it. I have not announced,” says Lightfoot, a personal-injury specialist and named partner in the law firm Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot.
No announcement will be made, Lightfoot says, before he convenes an education-policy summit with Williams himself. “I want to talk to the mayor and agree on what ought to be done,” says Lightfoot, who served on the council from 1988 to 1996.
LL will venture a prediction on the outcome of the Williams-Lightfoot summit: 100 percent mind meld. Even if the mayor finds himself at odds with the former councilmember, he’ll find a way to agree. After all, Lightfoot would give the mayor an automatic majority on the board, and his standing in D.C. politics would lend instant credibility to Williams’ schools takeover.
Heading the school board would also give Lightfoot another chance to dither on his prospects to succeed Williams as D.C.’s chief executive. “If the schools do improve under my leadership, I would expect that I will run for mayor,” says Lightfoot. CP
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