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Until the absentee ballots from Tuesday’s squeaker of a school referendum are counted, on July 7, not even LL will know whether the measure will retain the 51 percent majority it garnered at the polls. But several other lessons of the day are as clear as black and white. Foremost among them is that race still creates a treacherous political fault line in D.C.
For two years, optimistic locals have convinced themselves that an activist cadre of legislators and a post-civil-rights mayor whose appeal transcends race means that the District has finally overcome its racially divided politics. But a precinct-by-precinct map of how D.C. voted on Tuesday exposes that sort of thinking for what it is: delusional.
In pushing the referendum, Mayor Anthony A. Williams sought a commodity savored by politicians everywhere: more power. Voters cast their ballots on a plan to shrink the city’s Board of Education from 11 to nine members and reserve four of those seats for mayoral appointees. If the numbers on Tuesday had split along the lines of Williams’ approval rating, the vote would have been a blowout. But D.C. voters split nearly down the middle, with 51 percent voting to support the mayor’s plan and 49 percent backing the current elected panel.
Rather than reflecting voters’ opinions of Williams, the vote reflected their skin color. According to D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) figures, the initiative carried Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6—the wards of the heaviest white turnout. The margin of victory, indeed, seemed to reflect the size of the white-voter population: Heavily white Ward 3 gave the measure a whopping 80 percent support; more ethnically divided Wards 1 and 6, meanwhile, gave it a bare majority. Breakdowns within those wards, however, revealed a similar racial split. Ward 6’s heavily white Capitol Hill Precincts 85 and 88, for instance, supported the measure by better than 2 to 1, while the ward’s largely black Anacostia Precincts 112 and 114 opposed it with equally large ratios.
Meantime, the initiative lost every one of the wards currently represented by an African-American D.C. councilmember. The opposition crossed class lines within black D.C., as well—from heavily poor Ward 8 (73.4 percent against) through more economically mixed Wards 5 and 7 (64.6 percent and 68.8 percent against) to relatively wealthy Ward 4 (62.3 percent against). BOEE numbers suggest that heavily black areas turned out in smaller numbers than heavily white ones.
The city’s ambivalence toward the measure stems from both the symbolism and the merits of the idea itself. Many opponents saw the initiative as part of an agenda—like privatized charter schools and managed competition for city workers—that will exclude black citizens from city affairs. Others, including LL, think that a hybrid school board is a harebrained approach to public policy that is largely untested in other municipalities, which apparently have the good sense and courage to make hard-and-fast choices between entirely elected and appointed boards.
Arguments like those may have swayed a voter here and a voter there on Tuesday. But this referendum was not about policy analysis; it was about how much voters trusted Williams’ assurances that the initiative would preserve democracy. When asked about the initiative at the polls on Tuesday, “yes” voters at Ward 2 and 3 polling places largely glossed over the particulars of the initiative and focused on the guy behind it all. “I’m taking him on face value,” said Cleveland Park resident George Idelson after casting a ballot for the hybrid at John Eaton Elementary School. “I want him to succeed.”
Williams, of course, retains considerable support among African-American voters. He polls well citywide and inevitably draws cheers in black neighborhoods. But blind-faith supporters like Idelson tend to be white. Luckily for the mayor, they also tend to vote heavily. “He’s the one to do the job,” said John Schratwieser, a Ward 2 voter who endorsed the mayor’s plan.
A second lesson of Tuesday’s vote is that Williams remains a potent force. Regardless of where they punched their ballots, voters across the city displayed minimal awareness of the mayor’s numerous political missteps—a dynamic suggesting that Williams’ window for imposing wholesale change on the District remains open. Upon taking office in January 1999, Williams received advice from other mayors that he’d have just one year to enact drastic reforms before his enemies could stop him. Eighteen months into his tenure, though, the mayor still has the floor. Any politician who can squeak this dog past the voters—even by the slimmest of margins—should sit comfortably in his Lincoln Navigator.
The people jeering at the mayor’s SUV, meanwhile, should take to heart a third lesson from the referendum campaign: They’re in trouble. Self-described “grass-roots activists” waged a self-described “guerrilla war” against the referendum, but they’re now reduced to hoping that the yet-to-be-counted absentee and special ballots will turn overwhelmingly in their favor.
Larry Gray, co-director of the “Just Vote No” faction, says his forces faced a “sneak-attack election” and noted that the mayor’s troops were “highly organized.” Phil Blair, another “No” leader, charges, “[Williams] bought it, or it was bought for him.” Blair estimates that the pro-hybrid forces spent $250,000 on the campaign.
The anti-referendum troops congratulated themselves on managing a word-of-mouth campaign that did not rely on corporate backing and committed no ethical lapses—unlike their competitors. “This was not the kind of campaign the citizens of the District of Columbia wanted, and I was hoping for a backlash,” Gray said after the first round of results showed the pro-initiative lobby ahead by eight points.
If that backlash doesn’t turn the tallies against the hybrid board, Blair, Gray, and their allies will have to schedule a strategy session or two. With some variation in the ranks, it was this good-government coalition that futilely protested construction of the convention center at Mount Vernon Square in 1998. Last year, they turned out—again, with little effect—to protest the Williams administration’s handling of a development dispute in Columbia Heights. Now this.
The District’s community activists are starting to resemble the Washington Wizards: They put up a pretty good fight, they scowl at their adversaries, and, when the game’s on the line, they throw up airballs.
It’s no longer good enough to be right: You have to win.
“They need to stretch beyond their own boundaries,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. “You go to their meetings, and you see 10 to 30 folks. It’s always the same people.” Those same folks need to reach some different people—namely, the ones who don’t show up to vote, much less attend community meetings. Though the activists sought to reject the referendum in the name of the poor and the marginalized, they failed to mobilize heavily black parts of town like Ward 8—which had a paltry 6.5 percent turnout, according to BOEE figures. Wealthy, white Ward 3, on the other hand, turned out 15.8 percent of its registered voters. If Ward 8 voters had voted as they did on Tuesday in the same numbers as Ward 3, the referendum would have failed by 385 votes.
Not that referendum opponents didn’t do any work. They plastered the city with posters, brought their message door to door, and spoke forcefully about their issue. Yet they were blindsided by the mayor’s deep-pocketed campaign fueled by out-of-town corporate interests. What did they expect? Hadn’t they sampled his 1998 campaign finance filings and their $1 million in contributions? And what about the generous corporate support for Williams’ Neighborhood Action program?
If it chalks up another loss on the referendum, the District’s activist set runs the risk of marginalization in the halls of One Judiciary Square. Last year, LL interviewed Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson on her proposal to create a fully appointed five-member school board. LL wondered whether Patterson feared reprisals from Statehood Party members and other like-minded folks. She giggled and then said no.
Trespassing on the political comfort zone of Patterson and her colleagues may take quite a bit of doing. Embracing the tactics of big-time politicos—like aggressive fundraising and Election Day busing—would be a good start. “At one point, the activists took advantage of a power vacuum in this city,” says mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer. “That no longer exists. Now we have a reformist government.”
On Tuesday, a bare majority of D.C. voters agreed.
* Among the many impressive entries on the resume of D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham are a J.D. from the University of Michigan, an L.L.M. from Georgetown University Law Center, and a clerkship with legendary Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. With that sort of jurisprudential background, you’d figure that the first-term councilmember could handle the city’s puny campaign-finance code.
Graham grappled with the code’s provisions this spring, when he was required to file his annual financial disclosure statement. Although Graham claims to have received no outside income in calendar year 1999, he did receive a peach of a gift from the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Graham served as director of the renowned AIDS organization for 15 years before defeating incumbent Frank Smith to win the Ward 1 seat on the D.C. Council. At a January 1999 farewell party, Graham’s peers presented him an original signed Robert Mapplethorpe photo that had been hanging in the clinic’s lobby.
Graham insists that the gift arose from his peers’ irrepressible urge to fete him, not from any attempt to “influence” city hall. “Some people think I founded the clinic….People felt a desire to do this,” says the councilmember. Whitman-Walker Board of Directors President Mark Levin confirms the sentiment. “It was a significant gift,” says Levin, “and he deserved it.”
Fine, but the question was whether Graham was obligated to report the gift to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), whose rules require public officials to report gifts exceeding $100 in value from “business entities” that have dealings with the D.C. government. Whitman-Walker is a major city contractor, and it acquired the photo for $6,000 in 1994.
Graham, however, left the gift off his disclosure form—on the grounds that Whitman-Walker doesn’t qualify as a “business entity” under the disclosure rules. “It’s a nonprofit…#.I very specifically sought out guidance on this question,” says the juris doctor. To whom did one of the council’s premier legal minds turn for this guidance? Michael Simpson, OCF’s public relations director. Simpson says he gave Graham advice based on the city’s conflict-of-interest statute, which excludes nonprofits.
Don’t get LL wrong: Simpson is a fantastic public relations executive. But Graham shouldn’t need Warren, John Marshall, or even William Rehnquist to tell him that you don’t get your briefs from flacks.
In a message on LL’s voicemail, OCF Director Cecily Collier-Montgomery acknowledged that Graham had received “erroneous” advice.
The correct interpretation comes courtesy of Kathy S. Williams, OCF’s general counsel: “He should disclose any gift of $100 or more from a business doing business with the District of Columbia, regardless of whether it’s for-profit or nonprofit.” CP
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