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On a recent campaign swing through a middle-class section of Ward 4, D.C. Council candidate Adrian Fenty discovered that self-introductions are often unnecessary. As he alighted on the front stoop of Kansas Avenue resident Corine Gartrell, Fenty barely had time to extend his hand before Gartrell declared, “We’re expecting great things from you, young man.” Gartrell noted that she’d already received Fenty’s campaign literature, and she even borrowed a line from the candidate’s platform for the Sept. 12 Democratic primary: “It’s time for a change for Ward 4,” said Gartrell.
The Corine Gartrells of Ward 4 have a lot to say about their current rep, incumbent Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. They say that Jarvis comes around on schedule—once every four years—because her second job, as president of Southeastern University, has removed her from the community. And they have other gripes about the council’s most business-friendly politician, too: Ward 4 resident Ernest Simms, for example, says he wants a councilmember “without too many fingers in her pocket.”
Simms may not have the clout of Jarvis’ A-list of political allies, which is topped by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and features just about everyone with a monied interest in the city. But despite Jarvis’ powerful friends and her long record of accomplishments—winning five terms on the council, helping steer the MCI Center to completion, mastering the D.C. bureaucracy—the veteran is running a frenzied campaign for her own political livelihood.
Although the incumbent has more than $100,000 in funds, she’s up against a walking neutralizer of well-funded campaigns in the 29-year-old Fenty. In recent months, Fenty has gone door to door throughout the ward flanked by supporters equipped with mallets and his campaign’s distinctive green signs. With each outing, it seems, Fenty colonizes another Ward 4 front yard and spreads the buzz among motorists who glimpse the signs in their daily travels. “Oh, you’re the one—you’re everywhere,” said a Ward 4 voter upon meeting the candidate during his July 1 outing.
Jarvis, too, is everywhere, though her moves are less visible to the average Ward 4 voter. As befits a titan of local politics, Jarvis hustles over the phone, orchestrating supporters, dunning community types, and otherwise doing everything possible to obliterate her opponent. Chief among projects in that last category has been splintering what Jarvis terms “the negative vote.”
On June 30, current Ward 4 school board rep Dwight Singleton took out petitions for Jarvis’ seat; he handed in 286 ballot-qualifying signatures by the July 5 deadline. The sudden candidacy of Singleton, Jarvis’ opponent in the 1996 Democratic primary, surprised Ward 4’s political cognoscenti and raised speculation that Jarvis was behind it—a bit of scuttlebutt that the councilmember herself does little to dampen.
“I can’t take credit for Dwight being in the race,” says Jarvis, who acknowledged that Singleton’s presence helps her, “but, yes, I did discuss it with him.”
Well, actually, there’s not too much to take credit for: On July 12, Singleton bailed out of the contest rather than face a challenge against his petition signatures. Fenty supporters would have had to invalidate only 37 of Singleton’s signatures to knock him out of the race. Freed from the constraints of his “campaign,” Singleton can now openly thwart Fenty and seek Jarvis’ blessing for a likely run in 2004.
Such a turn of events will require no great change in rhetoric from Singleton. During his seven-day run as candidate, the toughest thing Singleton had to say about the incumbent was: “As a school board member, I can say that I’ve come to some appreciation of her political style, although I fundamentally disagree with her positions.”
Singleton’s flip-flop notwithstanding, Jarvis is admirably using the resources at her disposal. By popular acclaim, the councilmember is the brightest mind in city politics and knows a serious primary challenge when she sees it: In 1992, after all, Jarvis scratched and clawed her way to a 1-percentage-point, 114-vote margin over former Barry appointee F. Alexis H. Roberson. This time, though, Jarvis has even more incentive to hang on: Since becoming president of Southeastern University in 1996, Jarvis has become addicted to the private school’s big-money endowment donors—folks she has cultivated through her work as chair of the council’s Committee on Economic Development (Loose Lips, “B.A. in Finance,” 10/22/99). Four more years on that gravy train could turn her into one of the country’s most sought-after university rectors.
To win one more term on the council, Jarvis is telling her constituents just what you’d expect from a 20-year veteran: “Experience counts now more than ever,” says the incumbent. “The next few years will be a real window of opportunity for the economic recovery of my ward. My ward needs an experienced elected official with leverage. We now have major partnerships that did not exist before.”
Something else that didn’t exist before is a popular new mayor, Williams, determined to prolong the tenure of one of his most reliable allies. Toward that end, Williams last month convened a strategically timed special community meeting titled “Georgia Avenue on My Mind,” in which he detailed his bold $111 million vision for Ward 4’s main artery—and his support for its council rep.
Jarvis is careful to boast of her alliance with Williams whenever the chance arises. At the July 10 endorsement meeting of the gay and lesbian organization the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, for instance, she thundered, “I am pleased to say that the mayor is committing $111 million to the revitalization of Georgia Avenue, and I am pleased to say that the leverage of my position made that possible.”
Yet as Jarvis infuses her message with tales of governmental experience and coziness with the city’s top gun, she seems a little desperate. A recent “poll” commissioned by the Jarvis campaign, for instance, touts the councilmember’s accomplishments and takes some cheap shots at Fenty, according to Ward 4 resident Louis Wassel, who recently received the polling call.
“They asked specific questions about [Fenty],” says Wassel, who supports the challenger. In particular, says Wassel, the pollster attempted to slight former council staffer Fenty’s work on the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, which is headed by Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. “They alluded to the fact that the schools opened late with Fenty being on the education committee [staff],” says Wassel.
“That is simply false,” says Fenty—who in fact didn’t start work on the committee until several months after those delays. Over the next two months, the recriminations will only intensify, right along with the District’s heat index.
Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange must have missed the fine print on the June 27 school board referendum. Everyone knew that the initiative, which was narrowly approved by D.C. voters, gave Mayor Williams four appointees on the elected board of education and shrank the panel from 11 to nine members in all.
But the referendum also circumscribed the duties and authority of school board members. In the new world, effective next year, members may act on only three fronts: hiring and firing the superintendent, setting standards for hiring school principals, and approving an annual budget for the schools. That’s a pretty big demotion from the status quo, which allows school board members to act on just about any matter remotely related to education in D.C. Critics say that the old board’s open-ended power indulged members’ tendencies to micromanage principals, harass the superintendent, and otherwise fight with one another over, well, everything.
In keeping with an honored District tradition, though, Orange is seeking to reward a diminished job description with higher pay. Under his “Board of Education Compensation Adjustment Amendment Act of 2000,” ordinary board members would get raises from $15,000 to $50,000 annually, and the board president would get bumped to $75,000. In the interest of making members earn their raises, Orange would designate all elected board positions full-time.
That last detail places all the pressure on board members: How are they ever going to fill up a 40-hour work week? Even in the current system, members with no day jobs do an incredible amount of make-work to keep themselves busy.
As always, LL is here to help, advancing his own sample daily schedule for the underwhelmed, full-time school board member:
8:30 a.m.: Arrive at work.
8:35-10 a.m.: Eavesdrop on colleagues’ offices to make sure they’re not using computers for personal reasons; if they are, prepare complaint to Office of Campaign Finance.
10 a.m.-12 noon: Seminar: “Staying Away From Your Desk at the Workplace,” by retired employees of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
12 noon-12:05 p.m.: Hire and fire schools superintendent.
12:05-1:05 p.m.: Lunch break: Gossip with colleagues on ways to embarrass school board in local media.
1:05-1:10 p.m.: Set standards for hiring
1:10-3:30 p.m.: Micromanage everything in sight.
3:30-5 p.m.: Fight, quarrel, nitpick.
5:00-5:05 p.m.: Approve annual budget for schools.
5:05-5:15 p.m.: Lobby D.C. Council for “Board of Education Overtime Pay Amendment Act.”
* Last week, Ward 8 resident Arthur Jackson showed up at the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting with all the platitudes of the novice candidate. Jackson, who is running against incumbent “shadow” Sen. Florence Pendleton, said, “It’s time for a change” and spoke of the importance of “having a choice” in democracy.
As a spokesman for electoral pluralism, though, Jackson has credentials that are a bit suspect: The candidate failed to gather the required 2,000 petition signatures needed to challenge Pendleton, at least officially. “I’m running as a write-in,” explains Jackson, undeterred by this irksome business of getting on the ballot. When asked how he plans to gather donations and put up campaign signs when he can’t even get on the candidate list, Jackson replies, “You can win elections without signs….No one’s going to vote for you because you’ve got signs.”
Instead of pursuing conventional campaign tactics, Jackson speaks of holding “rallies on the corner” and otherwise greeting voters on the hustings. “The worst thing that can happen is to allow elections to go uncontested,” he says.CP
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