Vickey Wilcher spent nearly a decade helping elect Democrats to D.C.’s city government. Then she became a Republican.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
It’s safe to assume that this isn’t a conversation Vickey Wilcher really expected to have.
“Hey!” exclaims Wilcher, cradling the phone on her left shoulder as she slides down deep into her desk chair. An old friend has tracked her down at her new digs in Suite 301 of the Republican National Committee office on Capitol Hill. If there’s any rancor on the other end of the phone, the newly hired leader of D.C.’s Republicans is not letting on. “I’m holding on,” she murmurs playfully. Then she lowers her voice: “Nobody’s killed me yet. And I’m still a Republican.”
In fact, Wilcher’s office is pretty safe from assassins. Its colonial brick exterior and beige interior cubicles are a long way from the treacherous hallways of One Judiciary Square, D.C.’s temporary city hall. And for a lot of her old colleagues, that’s kind of the problem.
To people like them, a Republican command center at 600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE—which doubles as mission control for the D.C. Republican Committee—is enemy territory. Most city Democrats like to envision Republican headquarters as a place abuzz with schemes to usurp home rule, crush civil rights, rob from the poor, and generally make life miserable for Washingtonians.
But today, even though it’s the day of the District’s presidential primary, this building in the heart of Democratic D.C. is as quiet as a Quaker meeting. And instead of celebrating that fact, Wilcher has taken a job trying to inject some more energy into the room. In April, a few weeks shy of her 40th birthday, she became the proud new owner of voter registration card No. 00M933659, which identifies her as a registered Republican. Not incidentally, a position as the city GOP’s acting executive director came with it.
The new voter registration card is the least of the changes to Wilcher’s condition. After a decade of running campaigns for local political heavyweights such as Democratic D.C. Councilmembers Sandy Allen, Sharon Ambrose, and Kevin Chavous, Wilcher now sits at a desk that faces a wall covered with campaign posters for people named Ian Alexander, Roger Moffatt, and Sprague Simonds. All three of these people are Republicans who ran for local office in the last decade. Never heard of them? You’re not alone.
Wilcher’s task—which right now she’s prepared to lay out in only the most general terms—is to change that. She’s got her work cut out for her. In D.C., Democrats currently outnumber registered Republicans 254,676 to 24,214. That’s better than a 10-to-1 advantage. Apart from a few notable success stories—specifically, At-Large D.C. Councilmembers Carol Schwartz and David Catania—Wilcher’s new party might as well be an underground movement in municipal politics.
To bring the GOP into the mainstream, Wilcher has to get new people involved, maybe even groom some of them to become candidates you will hear of. That means creating a ward network that is practically nonexistent for the party in many sectors of the city. The specifics, presumably, will be contained in a “Victory 2000” plan she and members of the D.C. Republican Committee are currently writing. “Basically, it just has to do with outreach,” she says. “It’s about exposing as many people as possible to this party.”
She’ll be using some tools the party recently put in place. They include a new Web site (www.dcgop.com), a new advisory council of $1,000 donors, and a new direct-mail campaign—all boilerplate organizing stuff, but stuff that either wasn’t getting done before, or was getting done without much vigor.
The results, of course, likely won’t see the light of day until well into what Republicans hope will be George W. Bush’s second term—hell, it’s such an uphill fight that it may be well into Jeb Bush’s second term. For the moment, on Primary Day, Wilcher’s fighting a headache and fretting over the voter turnout. On her walk to work today, she passed by two polling places—Watkins Elementary School and Hine Junior High. Politically, it was Desolation Row.
“Both were empty,” she laments. “This is a one-party town, which is not healthy for the citizens or for our overall politics. And this low voter turnout is a death blow. This makes it a lot easier for Congress to ignore us. We’ve got to do better. All of us: Republicans and Democrats.”
By lunchtime, only three would-be Republican voters have called the GOP office looking for directions or other kinds of poll information. But by the end of the day, 2,508 Republicans have schlepped their way to the polls to express their presidential preferences (72 percent for George W. Bush; 24 percent for John McCain) and vote for party officers. Although the total is just a fraction of the 21,021 Democrats who have shown up to vote, it represents 10.4 percent of registered Republicans, slightly better than the 8.3 percent Democratic turnout for the day.
Not exactly a victory, but for a political party struggling to find relevance in the District, any sign of resurgent life is welcome. And that’s why Wilcher is in Suite 301 these days, trying to give an invisible party a presence in a city where it never has been much of a factor in local elections—particularly with black voters, who are, after all, the city’s vast majority.
A spoof poster on lampposts around the city features the face of Rep. Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican, superimposed on a dancing girl in some outer spacescape. The Confederate flag is sewn over his crotch. The headline reads: “The Republican Party Presents a Radical Right Production: BOB BARR-ELLA.”
Similar posters, sponsored by ACT UP/DC, a radical AIDS activist group, offer similarly harsh rebukes of other Republican congressional leaders, including Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Northern Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, chair of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the District of Columbia.
To many District residents, Wilcher’s new party is the party of Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, the party whose national legislators overturn District referendums and strike down city budget line items. The last real Democratic bad guy on D.C. affairs—Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who unsuccessfully tried to force the death-penalty question onto the District ballot after one of his staffers was murdered—switched to the GOP in 1995.
Yet when you watch Wilcher introduce her new Republican self to community contacts she spent years cultivating as a Democrat, you get the sense that, despite the national Republican Party’s toxic image, she may be able to perform a kind of political jujitsu on the streets of D.C. If locals could come to associate the GOP with a hometown figure—particularly a smart, vivacious young black woman like Wilcher—maybe they’ll actually start to take Republicans seriously.
On a weekday morning after Memorial Day, Wilcher sets forth to try out her new identity on the denizens of the H Street NE commercial corridor, where she’s done consulting work for the H Street Community Development Corp. (CDC). First stop: the Men’s Fashion Center, which offers both work and dress clothes, from pink Chuck Taylors to fedoras. The manager, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat named Willie Carswell, staggers back a few steps in exaggerated shock when she tells him about her transformation. He reaches behind the cash register and picks up a hammer. Then he drops it and gives Wilcher a big bear hug: “As long as you stay in the city, Vickey, you’re OK.”
On second thought, Carswell mentions how little H Street has changed since he started working at the store, just before the 1968 riots. Promises by a succession of Democratic mayors to resurrect H Street have yet to be realized. “We’ve been hearing the same old rhetoric for years,” he says. “Same old soup, sometimes with a little salt or pepper, but the same old soup.”
Sharon French, who owns nearby French’s Fine Southern Cuisine, also takes a cynical view of things. She says she’s grown wary of the promises of both Democrats and Republicans. But she’s practical—and diplomatic: “I’m a Democrat,” she says. “But I’m willing to work with anybody who steps up to the plate.”
Down the street, H Street Merchants and Professional Association President Anwar Saleem, who runs a salon called Hair Rage International, promises to let Wilcher address the next meeting of the group. Though he’s the former chair of the Ward 1 Democrats, Saleem is at least willing to mouth some words that echo the standard modern Republican pitch.
“This country was built on small business,” Saleem tells Wilcher. “I’m open to hearing a different point of view.” But it’s not quite clear whether he’s really rethinking his politics or whether, as a member of the city’s dominant party, he’s just being generous. Either way, though, he’s not chasing Wilcher out of his store. Which is a start.
Wilcher, of course, has gotten a lot of help making that start. Schwartz, the GOP’s mayoral candidate in the last two elections, pulled 42 percent of the vote against Marion S. Barry Jr. in 1994. In 1998, she didn’t do nearly so well against Anthony A. Williams, but she credibly positioned herself as the hometown candidate. An easy point against an outsider like Williams, true, but still no mean feat for the standard-bearer of a party best associated with Southern Congressional toughs.
And since he joined the council in 1997, Catania has done even more for the local party’s status. He’s also done a lot to debunk easy slash-and-burn GOP stereotypes. One of the hardest-working—and most voluble—councilmembers, he’s made his reputation as a tax-cutter who pitches his fits not in the name of gutting public service, but in the name of improving it. After sliding into office in a special election, Catania won handily in 1998.
“There are some myths about the Republican Party that need to be dispelled,” Wilcher says. “The myth is that they’re a bunch of mean-spirited, wealthy, white men. And it’s not true, certainly not in Washington. Our councilmembers dispel that. We look past David and Carol, because they’re so far from the stereotype of the mean-spirited, racist white guys, we forget they’re Republicans.”
To Wilcher, becoming a Republican is as much about dispelling the conventional wisdom that black political aspirations are best expressed within the Democratic Party as it is about embracing the party’s bootstrap philosophy of limited government. “We’ve got to involve ourselves in the process, and not just in one party,” she says. “It’s Negotiation 101. If all your eggs are in one basket, what have you got to negotiate with?”
Wilcher moves easily down H Street. She’s friendly to the street urchins who linger about, and she knows all the business owners. She talks the language of young, educated people in the neighborhood who would like to see upscale cafes and boutiques beside the fried-food places that dominate the street. And her politics come mixed with a personal brand of spirituality: “If you’re spiritual,” she says, “then you believe you’re a child of God. As such, you have to celebrate what you are. I have no problem being a black woman. I have no problem with you being a white man. We’re different, and that’s OK.”
Wilcher is like Catania and Schwartz in trading in the well-worn cliche that in municipal government, there’s no Democratic or Republican way to plow snow or pick up trash. “We’re individuals,” says Schwartz. “We don’t march to a certain drumbeat.” Schwartz describes herself as a social liberal—almost a “bleeding heart”—and a fiscal conservative, and notes that she could easily fit into either major party. (During a council term where leading Democrats have pounced on the mayor for excess spending proposals, it’s hard not to believe her. D.C.’s Republicans aren’t the only ones undergoing an identity crisis.)
And Catania and Schwartz don’t necessarily campaign full-tilt boogie in D.C. on their Republican bona fides. “People tell me I’m the only Republican they’ve ever voted for,” Schwartz says. The word “Republican,” in fact, doesn’t even appear on an old Schwartz campaign poster hanging on the wall across from Wilcher’s new desk. The pitch is, simply, “Carol.”
“[The councilmembers] don’t cast themselves as Republicans,” Wilcher notes. “But the truth is, they are.” And—at least as far as her voter ID card is concerned—so is Wilcher. And her job is to raise the GOP flag over the District.
Before she was a political diva, Wilcher aspired to be a conventional diva. An Army brat, she moved to D.C. in 1980 to pursue a career as a songwriter. For a while, she worked training jobs in the sheet-metal, electrical, and carpentry trades so that she’d have time off in the winter to pursue her musical dreams. Her closest brush with fame came working with Bill Beard on the song “Someone Else.” It was recorded by the Deuce and was named one of Billboard’s noteworthy picks in the early ’80s.
“One day,” says Wilcher, “I realized that I was never going to partner with Quincy Jones.” But by that point, there were other, more local bigwigs she wanted to partner with. “It was time to grow up and do something meaningful and still be expressive,” she says. “If you’re not going to be a songwriter, politics is a good way to be expressive.” In 1990, in her first foray into politics, she became a ward coordinator in Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon’s successful campaign for mayor. She started off as a bluejeaned volunteer. Then one day, she recalls, political mentor Virgil Thompson, a Dixon strategist, told her to go home, change into something nice, and follow Dixon to a formal campaign event. “He said, ‘Pay attention to who she talks to and what she says,’” Wilcher recalls. “The rest is history. I knew that night that this is what I wanted to do.”
Four years later, Wilcher left Dixon, by then renamed Kelly, and worked as special assistant on John Ray’s fourth not-so-successful mayoral campaign. It was a mild about-face, given that Ray was running against Kelly for the second time, having lost to her in 1990. 1994, though, turned out to be Barry’s comeback year. Both Kelly and Ray were out.
Political life had whetted Wilcher’s appetite for higher education. So she enrolled at Washington’s Trinity College in 1994. She graduated this spring magna cum laude, with a bachelor’s degree in communications and human relations. In the meantime, she kept working campaigns. And though her candidates varied, they tended to be seen as reformers. In 1996, Wilcher managed Democrat Sandy Allen’s successful Ward 8 D.C. Council campaign against Eydie Whittington, a Barry ally who’d won a previous special election by a single disputed vote.
Allen still regards Wilcher as a friend. “I would love to still have Vickey in the party,” she says. “She’s intelligent, she’s caring, and she has great rapport with people. But she decided that she is closer philosophically to the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. I respect that.”
In 1997, Wilcher managed Sharon Ambrose’s Ward 6 special-election victory. Her work for the former council staffer, who is white, took her across a racial divide that has frequently been significant in her political career. Indeed, going Republican this spring wasn’t the first time she was accused of defecting. The election that installed Ambrose divided largely along racial lines. Ambrose, who came in first in a crowded field with 25 percent of the vote, polled strongly around Capitol Hill. Second-place finisher Archbishop George Stallings Jr., who is black, got 18 percent of the vote, much of it from the predominantly black neighborhoods in the outlying parts of the ward.
Wilcher and other black activists who worked for Ambrose—one of the council’s more conservative Democrats—took considerable flak for it. Typical of the comments, Wilcher says, were “How could you work for that white woman?” and “How could you abandon your people?”
She shrugged off the criticism and took a job as Ambrose’s chief of staff. But only a year later, she signed on as campaign manager for Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ 1998 mayoral run. That move also represented a political split. Ambrose had publicly endorsed Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans for mayor. And Chavous’ strategy was to appeal to the populist electorate long loyal to Barry. Wilcher says that her relationship with Ambrose remained intact nonetheless.
Wilcher’s relationship with Chavous is more ambivalent. Her stint with him lasted only two turbulent months, a time marked by bickering over control. She was ultimately outgunned by the campaign’s old-line political operatives. “It wasn’t a bad experience,” she says. “But we didn’t have the kind of relationship a winning campaign needs. I’m a very hands-on manager. I’m a very emotional manager. I have to participate.”
Wilcher says she feels no rancor toward her former Democratic colleagues. “I don’t have bad blood,” adds Wilcher, emphasizing a lesson she learned from Barry, the granddaddy of political survivors: Political criticism isn’t something you can let get under your skin. “I go where the issues [are] and [where] the people are who I’m interested in,” she says. “Because ultimately, politics is about people.” But the Chavous primary campaign, which floundered as much after she left as it had during her tenure, was the last time she worked for a Democrat.
That fall, still a Democrat, Wilcher started doing consulting work on Catania’s re-election campaign. “David was a smart, thoughtful, caring young man,” she says. “I watched his passion, and I was drawn to that. I liked it.” And once again, she had a lot of explaining to do. It wasn’t just that Catania was a Republican; it was that he seemed hellbent on trimming the fat in D.C. government—which, of course, threatened many old-line Democrats who had previously seen local government as an employment agency. Wilcher says, “I called all my Democrat friends and told them David would serve everyone well on the council, and to try to put party affiliations aside. Most of them did that. Some of them did not.”
Wilcher has remained an engaging personality at One Judiciary Square, and her former Democratic colleagues are loath to say anything unkind about her on the record.
Inevitably, though, there’s been partisan sniping behind the scenes. One Democratic operative describes her as “the ultimate hired gun,” who moves from camp to camp as it serves her
Wilcher says she expects to hear things like that. “This is bigger than a job for me,” she maintains. “This is about my convictions. People can either get angry with me or applaud.” To Wilcher’s pragmatic sensibilities, the core issue in the city is economic progress. On that count, she says, the best ideas—on school choice, taxes, and welfare reform—are Republican.
In some respects, being a black Republican who votes in D.C. is like being a black teenager who drives a Lexus on the New Jersey Turnpike: Explanations are demanded, no matter the time of day. You’re a minority who’s chosen to belong to a minority party not known for its great love of minorities—in a city where even the majority is denied a vote in Congress, thanks largely to your party.
And when they’re not being treated like zoo curiosities, black Republicans are often simply being overlooked. Just ask Deering “Tip” Kendrick, a Shaw resident and Republican National Committee member for the D.C. Young Republicans. A recent issue of Ward 2 Democrat highlighted his election to the boards of trustees of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the D.C. Preservation League: He was an item in the “Democratic Spotlight” column. “I got a good laugh out of that,” Kendrick says.
In lots of ways, of course, black D.C. Republicans sound just like white D.C. Republicans. And that’s sort of the point. They’re less about identity politics than their counterparts in the Democratic Party. Their mantra is the business of self-reliance: Doing for yourself. Not waiting for the government to come in and do it for you. Take Ron Evans, chair of the D.C. Black Republican Council. He’s a local auctioneer and real estate broker. “It all goes back to working with business in the community,” he says. “My first approach is business.”
The idea of free enterprise doesn’t get quite the same ride in the Democratic Party, Evans says, so he’s a Republican. Always has been, going back to his days on Richard Nixon’s inaugural concessions committee. He still praises Nixon for starting the Office of Minority Business Enterprise: “It put millions of dollars out on the street, and there are lots of millionaires out there because of that program.”
Evans’ message, though, hasn’t taken him far in D.C. electoral politics. He’s run twice for the D.C. Council from Ward 5. No luck. He ran once against Walter Fauntroy for D.C. delegate to Congress. No luck there, either. For many of his black friends, the wedge between the Republican Party and the black community is just too great. “People would say, ‘We like you; you’re a nice guy. If you changed parties, we’d vote for you.’ But I won’t change.”
The legacy that Wilcher will now have to live down was bluntly raised last January by black D.C. Democratic activist Donna Brazile, now serving as Al Gore’s campaign manager. “The Republicans bring out [retired Gen.] Colin Powell and [Oklahoma Rep.] J.C. Watts,” she told the press, “because they have no program, no policy….They’d rather take pictures of black children than feed them.”
But Wilcher and other black Republicans bank on convincing people that today’s civil rights fight is less about racism and discrimination than it is about jobs, tax credits, economic development, technology, and education. Wilcher adds that it’s less about poverty programs than about enterprise zones, an idea she says that Clinton and the New Democrats borrowed from the GOP. And, she says, it’s less about pouring money into bloated bureaucracies like D.C. Public Schools than about funding vouchers and charter schools in the inner city.
Kendrick counts himself as an admirer of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, an early champion of the welfare-to-work regimen that swept across America in the ’90s. That’s not the only piece of the current GOP lingo he wants to use on D.C. voters. Tax cuts, he insists, can also mean economic opportunity for small businesses on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. Family values, he adds, can mean increasing economic incentives for families to stay together.
“If you talk about tax policy, fairness, and strengthening families, it could play better over in Wards 7 and 8 than in some of the more politically correct parts of the city,” Kendrick says. “The thing is, I don’t know if there are a lot of people in our party who are up to going into Wards 7 and 8.”
But the D.C. GOP these days is all about going places that Republicans don’t often visit. And if Wilcher’s hope is to make African-Americans a pillar of District Republicanism, gay voters—another group that has rocky relations with the national GOP—have given her a road map. Much of the Republican Party’s fresh blood in D.C. is gay. Catania’s openly gay, and Schwartz has always enjoyed strong gay support.
Certainly, things have changed since 1992, when Harry Singleton, a black D.C. Republican vying for a slot on the party’s national committee, was accused by party leaders of being too liberal and too likely to welcome gay people into the party. A letter that went out to District Republicans asked, “Do you want to be a party that courts the homosexual community? Or do you want to be a Republican Party that pushes for traditional family values?” But Singleton, along with moderate Ann Heuer, also running for the committee, each ended up winning 61 percent of the vote.
The next year, the Capital Area Log Cabin Club, a group of gay Republicans, became an official auxiliary of the local party.
Since then, gays, blacks, and Hispanics have become a growing presence on the D.C. Republican Committee. Catania estimates that about 15 percent of the 80-member group is gay; about 30 percent is black or Hispanic, he adds. This year, the local GOP actually sent out press releases when Lukas Malek and Bob Summersgill formally switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican at a May 8 meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Welcome to the postmodern D.C. GOP.
John Shumake, a black gay Republican (“A friend of mine once told me, ‘Man, you’re a black gay Republican. They’re gonna put you in the Smithsonian when you die.’”) whose father is an Urban League Democrat in Louisville, Ky., finds none of this surprising. Gays in D.C. represent an often affluent population eager to purchase homes in town and lay down roots. And “a lot of African-
Americans are more conservative than people think,” he says. “I’m not talking about Christian-right conservatism, but about a sense of family values, a sense of spirituality, and fiscal conservatism. And this aligns well with the Republicans.”
On a sunny afternoon in May, Wilcher drives up to the Capitol Hill Towers, a subsidized senior residence on G Street NE. She’s preparing for another coming out, of sorts. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun, and she’s wearing a gray pinstripe suit. She’s the picture of the modern female executive. Little of the old showbiz wannabe is showing through, except for the winning smile.
Capitol Hill Towers is familiar territory to Wilcher. She’s been there many times before, with a succession of Democratic candidates, invariably in search of votes. She alights from a borrowed blue Saturn. (Her old Buick convertible is in the shop.) “If anybody goes out to vote,” she says, “these folks go out to vote.”
She’s sensitive to the charge that political candidates visit these quarters only when it’s election time. So today, she’s just here to visit with the little old ladies in the community room, participate in a crime-watch meeting, and reintroduce herself as a Republican.
Of the 12 residents who filter into the well-lit room resplendent with flowers, all but one are black women well over 60. They vote Democrat. They all know “Miss Vickey”—they’ve known her for years and have watched her come up. There are hugs all around, and the meeting opens with a prayer. Then Wilcher starts in with her pitch.
“I’m doing some new stuff I want to tell you about,” Wilcher opens. “I have switched my party from Democrat to Republican.”
From the groans she encounters, you’d think she had just told them that she had cancer. “I knew I would get that reaction,” she continues with a laugh, “but let me tell you, I think I have done the right thing.”
Wilcher tells them that her decision was based on a lot of thought and research. “I studied, and I prayed very long and hard,” she says. The audience is reserved and vaguely sympathetic, if skeptical. When she says, “I promise I will never use my position to try and recruit you,” she’s met with a chorus of “thank you”s.
Wilcher presses on bravely to the nub of her argument: “I believe in the two-party system….Politicians, God love them, get a little lazy at times, a little too comfortable. They know you’re here. They know you’re Democrats. In Washington, it’s sort of given you’re going to vote a certain way, which means you don’t have a lot of leverage. The choice should be yours. Are you with me?”
Somebody says, “Yeah.”
“I’m not going to try and convince you that this is the perfect party,” Wilcher says. “But I was a Democrat for many years, and it wasn’t perfect, either. There are some key people in the Republican Party who are doing some new things on Social Security, Medicaid, health care, and tax reform….” She starts to explain George W. Bush’s proposal to put some Social Security funds in the stock market. Then she pulls back, saying that the controversial plan is unlikely to affect anybody in the room.
She segues from policy to the history of the party with Abraham Lincoln: “The Republican Party was founded on the idea of individual rights, and the people whose rights it was founded on were slaves….Black people didn’t vote Democrat ’til [Franklin D.] Roosevelt.” In case anyone has forgotten, she reminds them that the worst of the Southerners who ruled D.C. from Congress and fought home rule until the 1960s were all Democrats.
One of the elderly ladies, holding onto a metal walker, questions whether blacks could vote much at all before Roosevelt. “You’re doing this research, but you didn’t live through it,” the woman says, referring to the Jim Crow era, before the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
On the way out, Wilcher acknowledges that it’s been a difficult show. “These women are going to help me do my research,” she says.
In 1994, Wilcher was in Richmond working for Virginia Democrat Charles Robb, then in a tough Senate race against Oliver North. She was in the same state as her family home, in Roanoke. At some point in the campaign, word filtered out of the North camp that the Republicans wouldn’t bother campaigning in the state’s African-American communities. The strategy was an eye-opener for Wilcher. “While there were all sorts of negative ramifications to that statement, the statement was true,” she says. “It was honest.” Later, when Wilcher started making friends in D.C.’s Republican Party, they helped her to see the logic behind that calculation. If African-Americans, or D.C. citizens, were all in one party’s bag, they got disregarded on the big stage.
At Catania’s instigation, Wilcher met longtime D.C. Republican grand dame Julie Finley last October over lunch at Union Station. It wasn’t just a social meeting. “She was a centimeter from changing,” Finley recalls. They discussed the state of the local Republican Party and whether Wilcher would be comfortable being a part of it. She thought it over.
Meanwhile, Catania helped close the deal. His special-election victory in 1997, which for the first time gave the GOP two seats on the council, helped create the image of a more inclusive Republican party. And, in no small measure, his success helped shore up GOP electoral confidence. It made all the difference to Wilcher.
Barry’s retirement announcement, in May 1998, helped, too. “People really felt it was futile when Marion was mayor,” Finley says. “There was a feeling that he had a system that was so closed and powerful. The Democrats still have a good organization, but there are fissures.”
This spring, Wilcher became one of those fissures. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the D.C. GOP might be considered the party of disaffected Democrats, a grab bag of political outsiders. Among the more notorious recent defections was that of Louis Richardson, vice chair of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, a lifelong Democrat who went Republican a year ago to protest what he termed continuing Barry-era cronyism.
The fissures, though, sometimes seal back up. Richardson switched back this year, saying, “The Republican Party in this town can’t win; I’ve got to go with the majority.”
And with that, he signaled that even an energized GOP, led by social moderates and cheeky contrarians, is still pretty impotent outside of the offices of Schwartz and Catania.
“We’re still just a pathetic 7 or 8 percent of registered voters, and in many wards it’s even lower,” says Paul Dionne, president of the Capital Area Log Cabin Club. Dionne and other city Republicans readily concede that most of the party’s strength is in Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park. Because of the dynamics of ward politics, where Republican support is diffuse, the party’s best chance comes every two years in the at-large council races, when the winner of the Republican primary need only finish second in the citywide general election to win a seat.
In the ward races, the trick is finding serious political talent that’s willing to go up against the Democratic behemoth. “You’re asking people to leave their businesses, spend money, and get clobbered,” says Finley, who recently stepped down as chair of the D.C. Republican Committee. “It’s suicide.”
When George W. Bush recently told local TV journalist Jim Vance that he opposes home rule, local party leaders rushed to clarify his words. They explained that the candidate simply meant he opposed full statehood for D.C.; he supported giving the District voting rights in the House, they assured.
As far as the mother of all local issues in D.C.—home rule—is concerned, the D.C. Republican spin relies heavily on the party’s core aversion to big government. The GOP, after all, bills itself as the “party of local control.” Less government means less federal government; the pitch might be harnessed to appeal to statehood-hungry D.C. voters. But the interpretation of home rule ascribed to Bush is very much in keeping with the local GOP party line: Voting rights, yea; statehood, nay.
At the same time, one of the local GOP’s favorite refrains is that its two D.C. Council representatives—Schwartz and Catania—give the city an added measure of influence in the Republican-controlled House because of their ability to navigate GOP waters up on the Hill. That theory took a beating last summer when Schwartz and Catania boycotted a fundraiser at Georgia Brown’s restaurant for Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., the conservative Oklahoma Republican who serves as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District. A host of city Democrats were there, including Williams. But Schwartz and Catania sent out a press release denouncing Istook-backed social riders in the D.C. budget.
After six separate votes and two presidential vetoes, Congress finally passed a D.C. budget last November that compromised on the contentious social riders. The budget overturned a D.C. referendum permitting medical access to marijuana but allowed private clinics that receive federal funds to distribute clean needles to drug addicts to help prevent the spread of HIV.
Schwartz and Catania both say that since that episode they’ve made peace with Istook. Not that their uneasy relationship with their more conservative counterparts in Congress really distinguishes them from many city Democrats. Like Bush’s home rule flap, it’s just one indication of how often D.C. Republicans—black, gay, and straight—are seen scrambling to distance themselves from their party’s far-right idealogues.
Although Bush has hemmed and hawed about whether he’d appoint a gay member to his administration, Catania dismisses the notion of a glass ceiling. Still, he makes no bones about the yawning philosophical gap between the D.C. Republican Party and the national GOP. “I’m not trying to create a local party that mimics the national party,” he says. “I’m trying to get the national party to follow us.”
Other city GOP leaders tend to emphasize their convergence on core Republican economic issues. Betsy Werronen, president of the D.C. League of Republican Women and the new D.C. Republican Committee chair, says flatly, “I see no break,” noting that the city’s two Republican elected officials “both support the national ticket.”
Unified or not, nobody’s predicting an imminent Republican takeover of Washington, D.C., least of all Wilcher. It’s a national-election year. So Bush, however far he veers to the political center, will be setting the tone for the party for the foreseeable future.
And with the exception of Schwartz’s re-election campaign, local discussion topics will likely be overshadowed by the national political debate. For Wilcher, scurrying back and forth between her job at Republican headquarters and her own event-planning business, Special ProjX, it’s easy to go home at night feeling ridden hard and put away wet. Outside of a few committed activists, she says, “sometimes you wonder if anybody’s listening.”
Then again, the vision of a third Republican councilmember in D.C. is still at least several election cycles away. The party needs to groom some new neighborhood activists and bring them up through the farm system of the advisory neighborhood commissions and, perhaps, the school board. “There’s no shortcut,” Kendrick says.
All of which points to the need for a savvy guide to the city’s neighborhood political networks. “The reason why Vickey is so important is to grow a local party that addresses the concerns and the issues that are important to the city,” Catania says. “She makes it possible to initiate, in a credible way, a dialogue with important opinion-formers in the District.”
So Wilcher sees herself as the apostle of a Republican brand of opportunity, one that doesn’t work only for wealthy white families in the suburbs. It involves a merging of compassion and common sense to take on social issues that have generally been the province of Democrats.
“Take school choice,” she says. “The rich already have money to go to private schools. What about a single mother—call her Ms. Jones—living in Potomac Gardens with a 12-year-old who’s forced to go to a failing public school with a leaky roof and no books? Maybe a school voucher isn’t going to provide all the money she needs, but it’s a helping hand.”
This being D.C., there’s still a healthy respect for the role of government, even in the GOP. And even if Republican ideas aren’t the cure, she says, they’re a counterweight to the Democrats’ monopoly on black political loyalties. “Until 1994, Congress was controlled by Democrats,” she says. “I don’t know that my life as a black American was improved because of that.”
So when the old guard of the civil rights movement returns to Washington later this year for a rally to “Redeem the Dream,” Wilcher has half a mind to stand out there in a solo vigil, holding up a sign that says, “Demand a Plan.” The fact that the Democrats haven’t given her any plan explains—as well as anything else—the new voter registration card in her wallet.
“We’ve been dreaming long enough,” she says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.