Shaw resident John Fanning has a few drawbacks as a challenger to incumbent Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. First of all, Fanning’s first serious D.C. political job was as Ward 2 ombudsman for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. The position associated him with the famous service failures of Hizzoner’s regime. Then, last year, Fanning began politicking for Evans’ seat while in the employ of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. In the process, he earned a scolding for the obvious conflict of interest. The Williams people ultimately dismissed Fanning and two of his colleagues earlier this year for failing to meet the administration’s “standards and goals,” according to a story in the Washington Post.
Those details, however, didn’t sway the 36 locals who showed up last Saturday for Fanning’s campaign kickoff event at the D.C. Jewish Community Center in Dupont Circle. “John, to me, represents the highest character of anybody you can find,” said Beth Solomon, the community activist who led 1998’s failed fight against the new downtown convention center, as she introduced the candidate.
“We need to cultivate young leadership in this city,” Solomon continued. “Change happens when we cultivate young people who put themselves on the line for us.”
Holding up Fanning as a young leader may be something of a stretch. First, there’s the age problem. Under Democratic Party rules, Fanning, 37, is officially old: The national Young Democrats organization excludes all politicos over the age of 35. And before Fanning qualifies as a leader, he’ll have to attract a few more followers and perhaps hire a proofreader: His campaign posters ask voters to turn out for the “Democatic” primary.
But in the District of Columbia in the summer of 2000, Fanning is about as close as it gets to the bright face of a new political generation. By LL’s estimation, in fact, Fanning ranks among the top two young leaders in the city, along with Ward 4 D.C. council candidate Adrian Fenty, who is challenging 20-year council veteran Charlene Drew Jarvis. The pair have earned that distinction simply by showing the gumption to challenge incumbents.
A quick survey of this year’s other D.C. Council races suggests that the city’s Board of Election and Ethics may want to consider merging with the Office on Aging. Other than long shots Fanning and Fenty, this really is your father’s council race:
* Ward 7: Incumbent Kevin Chavous faces no challenger, young, middle-aged, or old. Greg Rhett, the younger community activist who considered challenging him, balked.
* Ward 8: Declared opponents for Councilmember Sandy Allen include Sandra Seegars, 49, who garnered 1 percent of the vote in her 1998 at-large run, and Winifred Freeman. “I’m not new or young,” says Seegars. “And Winifred is definitely older than me.” Definitely younger than either is popular Ward 8 community activist Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. But he’s not running.
* At Large: Incumbent Councilmember Harold Brazil right now faces no declared challenger. But if a challenge arises, it will likely come from someone who’s not exactly a newbie: Barry. Now 64, the ex-mayor represents all that is ancient and outdated in the District: old political style (patronage via municipal contracts and jobs), old cronies (Elijah Rogers, Joe Yeldell, etc.), and old ideas (how about a theme park on the Anacostia?).
In fact, these three incumbents are actually among the group’s more vulnerable pols. Brazil has taken on the mantle of Hilda H.M. Mason as the city’s most out-to-lunch councilmember. Since taking a job as a lobbyist with high-speed Internet access provider Covad Communications, Chavous—who drew flak in the past for his shoddy attendance record—has spent less time than ever at One Judiciary Square. And Allen’s exposed flank includes poor oversight on D.C. General Hospital and a fence-sitting act on the proposed Ward 8 prison.
Yet the incumbents’ grip on office is a lot stronger than the excuses proffered by potential young challengers who opted to stay out of the campaign. In Ward 7, Rhett, 41, has been talked about as a potential challenger to Chavous ever since his 1998 race for an at-large seat. But although he told voters two years ago that D.C. was ready for a change, the city’s apparently not so ready anymore: Rhett opted out of a race against Chavous, whom he had earlier criticized for neglecting his constituents. “It’s not the right time,” says Rhett.
In Ward 8, Kinlow, 38, has mulled a run at Allen’s seat for two years. The scion of a would-be political dynasty—his father, Eugene Kinlow, sits on the control board, and his wife, Tonya Vidal Kinlow, sits on the elected Board of Education—the younger Kinlow rose to prominence by attacking the very prison proposal that Allen vacillated over. Now he’s the one doing the dithering. “For me, it’s best just to sit this election out and continue to do all those things I need to do for my family,” says Kinlow.
And in a clear admission of political naivete, Kinlow mentioned the “wild-card factor” played by the endorsement of Mayor Williams “and his machine.” “It’s difficult enough battling an incumbent, but [an incumbent who has] the tacit support of the mayor—I don’t think anybody can fight against those types of odds,” says Kinlow. Anyone who’s watched as the mayor spent his first 18 months in office letting down his council allies will be able to tell you that Williams’ “machine” these days is about as intimidating as that of, say, Michael Dukakis.
For the definitive word on the political abstinence among D.C.’s youth, LL went to Willie Flowers, who heads the city’s Young Democrats chapter. Flowers says that most politically motivated youngsters in town work on the Hill and get romanced by high-stakes national politics. “It’s hard to get people interested in local stuff,” says Flowers. “There are very few that break through.”
And just what is stopping Flowers, a bright 28-year-old Ward 4 resident who already heads his local advisory neighborhood commission, from throwing his hat in the ring? “A track record is necessary to be successfully electable,” says Flowers, “and while I’ve had various projects that I’m proud of that enhance local community, it hasn’t stabilized me as a candidate both politically and professionally.”
Translation: He’s scared to challenge Jarvis, who has been on the council since 1979.
And therein lies the problem. In any other city, Jarvis would have moved to a statewide or congressional seat two or three terms ago. In colonial D.C., on the other hand, upward mobility for the Ward 4 councilmember and her colleagues is limited to the mayor’s office and congressional delegate’s seat. Two years ago, four councilmembers—Evans, Chavous, Brazil, and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz—acted on their innate appetite for greater power and ran for mayor. They all lost, and they’re all running again for their council seats.
“Those kids outside the Beltway,” says Flowers, referring to Young Democrats across the country, “they’re really motivated, because they have seats to run for.”
* Mayor Williams can now rely on cheers, support, and other sorts of comfort from the Democratic State Committee (DSC), the organ of the city’s Democratic Party. Last Thursday, the newly elected DSC members elected Norm Neverson, a Williams stalwart, as the party’s chair. Renowned for his booming chant of “To-ny, To-ny” at political rallies, Neverson said that local Democrats have “many miles to walk before we can sleep.”
Before setting out on his journey, though, Neverson nominated Pat Elwood, a longtime Democratic activist, as candidate for the party’s vice chair post, which she won easily over challenger Kathryn A. Pearson-West. Elwood’s elevation had DSC gossips buzzing about what had motivated Neverson’s choice.
Theory No. 1: Diversity. Neverson bills himself as a man who “propagates diversity all over the world.” Sounds like an awfully big job. Here in town, however, the issue appeared straightforward. Gripped by fears that the DSC leadership all would be black, Neverson handpicked Elwood, a white woman, for vice chair. “The committee’s leadership must reflect the city’s great diversity,” says Neverson.
Theory No. 2: Rental Agreement. Elwood has a long history in local Democratic politics. Over the years, she has hosted all kinds of fundraisers and political events for up-and-coming Dems. She also sits on the National Capital Planning Commission. Oh, and one other thing: She provides lodging at her Cleveland Park home for First Mother Virginia Williams. “I suppose it’s a way to pay her back,” says a DSC vet.
In a talk with LL, Neverson articulated Theory No. 3: “I selected Pat Elwood because of her great skills.”
* At his campaign kickoff last Saturday, Ward 2 council candidate Fanning seemed compelled to account for all the empty seats arrayed before him. Part of the explanation, hinted the candidate, was the beautiful spring weather. And another deterrent, he suggested, was the spiteful political machine of incumbent Evans.
“I have many friends who unfortunately were scared to be here today,” said Fanning. “Don’t be scared of incumbent tactics. They’re scared, my friends, because the right thing is going to happen in Ward 2.”
Evans denied intimidating Fanning fans and instead accused his opponent of trying to poach his own supporters. Of the 57 people on Fanning’s so-called Issues Committee, Evans claims that 25 percent sit squarely in his camp. And the folks in dispute, says Evans, are flabbergasted that their names turned up on a recent Fanning mailer. “I find it odd that one of every four names on his issues list are people he never spoke to,” says Evans.
“I didn’t know anything about the list, and I’d already thrown my support to Jack Evans,” says Shaw resident Doris Brooks, whom Fanning lists as an Issues Committee member.
* In the District, there’s something about planning festivals and street parties that makes people resent one another. Adams Morgan Day, for starters, has turned into a predictable annual brawl among promoters, merchants, and residents. Now the same thing is happening with the Latino Festival, and the rancor is even drawing in Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose district is 23 percent Hispanic.
Last year, organizers of the annual Latino bash split into two camps following the 1998 death of longtime festival organizer Eduardo Perdomo. On one side of the fray were Perdomo’s successors at Latino Festival Inc., the group he had founded to stage the party each year; on the other was Perdomo’s son, Carlos Perdomo, and a group of allies who wanted full control of the festival. With some mediation from city authorities, the two factions last year managed to collaborate on festival preparations.
This year, though, the rift has opened again, according to an anonymous tipster associated with Latino Festival Inc. According to this source, Graham has sided with the Carlos Perdomo camp and is negotiating on its behalf with the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. Graham denies any collusion with Perdomo.
And LL’s hunch that the tipster was motivated more by traditional D.C. festival-planning rancor than by the truth was only strengthened by this subsequent allegation: that Graham is so close to Carlos Perdomo that he is dating his mother. “Well, at least it’s not his sister or his granddaughter,” jokes Graham. “His mother? That’s rich.” Graham is one of two openly gay members of the council.
* Mayor Williams may not be the most politically adept mayor around, but at least his people appreciate the value of the municipality’s No. 1 status perk: low-number license plates. Last year, fundraiser extraordinaire Kerry Pearson, with an assist from Evans, appealed to the Williams administration to issue him tag No. 12, in honor of his mother’s bearing 12 children. The appeal went nowhere. Pearson’s disqualifying act was most likely raising $900,000 for Evans in his 1998 mayoral campaign against Williams.
The Williams administration, it turns out, was saving the number for someone with true loyalist credentials: Marie Drissel, the city hall watchdog who started the draft-Williams movement, managed the campaign’s finances, and served for a year in the Office of Boards and Commissions. Drissel says she took over the number from the premier loyalist of the ancien regime, Ivanhoe Donaldson. There’s some poetry to that: By scrutinizing Barry’s appointments of loyalists to office, Drissel motivated him to begin calling her “the Rottweiler.” CP
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