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With eight months remaining before the District’s Democratic primary, Ward 3 resident Bill Rice appears primed for a run at one of the two at-large D.C. Council seats up for grabs in the 2000 elections. Then again, that’s just what he looked like with 24 months to go. After his fourth-place finish in a race for the same spot in 1998, Rice barely folded his campaign tent.
The ubiquitous politico spent most of last year flagging down potential campaign donors on the street and building up the happy hour/campaign front organization known as the “Political Bullpen”—a piece of artifice that won him a 1999 Loosie Award.
Rice even brought on an intern, Andre Henderson, as coordinator of his Reform 2000 Exploratory Committee. Henderson lends the Rice operation a serious tenor, answering the phone at exploratory headquarters with a British accent and occasionally screening calls for the candidate.
Or noncandidate, perhaps. Electoral preparations notwithstanding, Rice still won’t commit to challenging at-large incumbent Harold Brazil in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary. “It’s a tough decision,” says Rice. “My plan is to do a poll in February and decide then.”
Such professions of ambivalence, in fact, are already a citywide phenomenon in D.C. politics in 2000. The council is coming off perhaps its best year since home rule. Long an unvigilant patsy and a rubber stamp for the mayor, the council in 1999 made a convincing case that it deserves equal footing with the city’s chief executive. In addition to staring down Mayor Anthony A. Williams in the disputes over tax cuts and bonuses for city workers, the council repo’ed the beautiful Wilson Building—undoing a previous council’s monumental screw-up of 1995. By the end of 1999, the body’s oversight-minded members had turned their chambers into a veritable witness-intimidation zone for lax D.C. bureaucrats.
If you haven’t gotten that message yet, wait a few months, and you’ll hear it articulated in every imaginable way by the incumbents in the 2000 races: At-Large Councilmembers Brazil and Republican Carol Schwartz, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, and Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen.
Although a few of the incumbents have already exhibited some jitters about their prospects at the polls this year—most notably Brazil, Evans, and Allen—they’re all surveying a quiescent political scene in the District. Here’s at look at each of the races:
* Ward 7
Chavous managed an impressive 35 percent of the vote in his 1998 mayoral try—good enough for second place—but nevertheless retained the scorn of many motivated activists in his back yard. The rap on Chavous was that he had long ignored his constituents in search of a citywide following. Thus far, however, none of the spurned constituents appear ready to knock off the councilmember.
Talk among the political set last year had Covenant House Executive Director Vince Gray gearing up to take on the two-term incumbent. In an interview with LL, Gray declined to comment on Chavous’ record—an obvious no-no for any would-be candidate—and added, “I have no plans at this time to run for the council.”
That leaves community activist and Chavous detractor Greg Rhett leading the charge for the opposition—a dubious task for a guy who pulled all of 8 percent of the Ward 7 vote in his 1998 at-large run. “It’s going to be up to the ward—whether they want a continuation of the same-old, same-old or whether they want something new,” says Rhett. “There are some Ward 7 citizens who are looking into [the matter], and they’ll let me know.”
If those citizens are honest, they’ll tell Rhett the obvious: Chavous is stronger than he’s ever been, thanks mostly to his savvy use of his seat as chair of the council’s education committee. Over the past year, Chavous has commandeered a high-profile issue—leadership and oversight of D.C. public schools—and forced all other comers, including Mayor Williams, to acknowledge his leadership on the issue before spouting their own thoughts. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked,” notes Chavous in a bit of braggadocio that, quite frankly, doesn’t say all that much in light of his first-term attendance record. “I get stopped by supporters quite a bit at the Safeway and strip malls.”
Perhaps that should be the new benchmark for incumbent viability—the Safeway-and-strip-mall compliment count.
By that measure, the weakest of the incumbent crowd has to be Brazil, who tallied just 4 percent of the vote in the 1998 mayoral Democratic primary. The least focused of the council’s committee chairs, Brazil has failed to match his colleagues’ passion for oversight in presiding over the council’s Judiciary Committee. Instead, things like high-profile efforts to speed up imposition of a sex-offender registry—when supportive colleagues simply wanted to get the specifics right—furthered his reputation for poorly vetting major legislation while also testing the patience of his colleagues.
But if Brazil’s critics say there’s a glass ceiling on his legislative acumen, it’s never stopped him from pulling in the kind of money that a bicycle-riding activist like Rice could never grab. And Brazil’s spotty record may also not be a huge liability in a contest against Rice, a die-hard D.C.er with a history long on meeting attendance and short on activist victories.
Brazil and Rice together may well build a void into which a surprise candidate will step—just as Brazil, Evans, and Chavous did before Williams stepped into the 1998 mayoral race. Thus far, most of the speculation has centered on Suspect-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., whose lust for attention last year made him a regular at political events.
If Hizzoner is angling for an at-large berth, though, he hasn’t yet reached the point of romancing the press. “How’d you get my cell phone number?” Barry complained to LL this week before declining to discuss his plans. “I don’t want to comment on any of that.”
The other at-large seat—currently occupied by Schwartz—is reserved for the nonmajority party—which leaves Schwartz in a battle against other Republicans and the Umoja and Statehood/Green parties. Statehood/Green Party stalwart John Gloster says his electoral coalition will likely field candidates in all 2000 races, but declined to identify them at this point. But the party has never managed to groom a successor to lifelong politico Hilda H.M. Mason, and it won’t scare veterans like Schwartz with its mystery slate. Bet on the incumbent.
* Ward 8
Challengers to Allen have a buffet of campaign-trail issues before them. The incumbent, for example, routinely trips up on the dais, displays little understanding of how most of the city government works, signed on to a tax-cut package that offered nothing to her many low-income constituents, and rode the fence during last year’s controversy over building a private prison in her ward. However, she has also blanketed community events in Ward 8, mastered the complex health-care issues that come before her human-services committee, and maintains a supportive cadre of donors among the health-care providers her committee oversees.
Those credentials may keep the field small—a marvel in a ward that produced 21 candidates in a 1995 special election. One of Allen’s key opponents in the prison battle was Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, whose rhetoric in the zoning fight repeatedly impugned the councilmember’s leadership skills. Kinlow appears a logical choice to break out his spiel again in the council election but has played noncommittal because, as a federal employee, he is prohibited from running under the Hatch Act. “I have no comment,” he said when contacted by LL.
Heading the list of underdog challengers is Taxicab Commission member Sandra Seegars, a colorful and resolute activist who shows no indecision about her political plans. “I’m running,” she says. “I’m going to basically talk about myself and the good I can do for Ward 8.” That’s about as bland a line as you’ll hear from Seegars, who made a name for herself in the admirable avocation of hounding Barry and knocking his cronies and kin off the voting rolls. Never one to obey convention, Seegars insists on advertising her initials—”SS”—in her campaign literature. The Nazi imagery may help explain her 1 percent showing in the 1998 at-large race and 432 votes in her home ward.
* Ward 4
Jarvis is a lock to approach her silver anniversary on the council with a win in 2000. Although Jarvis spends large chunks of time at her post as president of Southeastern University, and Ward 4 causes like improving depressed Georgia Avenue have made no more progress in her current term than they did in previous ones, her political machine is as ready as ever to steamroll inadequately funded challengers.
Her most likely Y2K victim is Adrian Fenty, a Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner and president of the 16th Street Neighborhood Civic Association. The 29-year-old currently serves as a clerk to Chavous’ education committee and has earned plaudits for his work there.
Credit Fenty with acquiring the political savoir faire to hide his ambitions. “It is my understanding that a group of Ward 4 residents want to draft me to run for the Ward Four council position,” said Fenty in a prepared statement faxed to LL. That group apparently doesn’t include some of the ward’s more potent muscle-flexers. “One of [Jarvis’] people called me and said they didn’t think it was a good idea [that I run] and that they would make it as hard as possible for me,” recalls Fenty. If nothing else, Jarvis at least supplies the city with a dash of hardball politics.
Oh, yeah, there’s another potential challenger to Jarvis’ seat: Dwight Singleton, the Ward 4 rep on the elected school board. He helped orchestrate last year’s failed coup attempt against school board President Wilma Harvey, then mused at a board meeting about running for a council seat or the mayor’s office. Thanks in part to his efforts, the school board will soon become extinct, freeing him up for other doomed political pursuits.
* Ward 2
The search for a challenger to Evans has played out like a yearlong soap opera whose Nielsen ratings are now on the wane. In the first episode, convention center opponent Beth Solomon considers running and claims to have raised $30,000 for the cause. Then she backs out, citing her personal life and her career in video production. Then mayoral aide John Fanning holds himself out as a candidate and solicits contributions to fund a poll rating alternatives to Evans. The mayor’s people remind Fanning that he’s a paid government employee and is messing with the fortunes of a councilmember the mayor can’t afford to piss off.
Second episode: Solomon and activist Marilyn Groves move up the executive-branch food chain, approaching Abdusalam Omer, Williams’ chief of staff and a Ward 2 resident, about trying electoral politics. In a scene reminiscent of an early encounter between Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, the strategy backfires when Omer clarifies that he serves at the pleasure of the mayor and that the pleasure of the mayor is not to alienate further the chair of the council’s finance and revenue committee. Omer and Williams apologize over and over to Evans for appearing to meddle in his affairs. “They embarrassed themselves and the mayor,” says Evans of the would-be draft committee.
The councilmember’s detractors fault him for not sticking up for neighborhood issues as he prepared for his 1998 mayoral run, a campaign in which he wooed the city’s moneyed interests to broadcast his candidacy beyond his home base. They’re right—Evans temporarily abandoned the politics that made him a popular councilmember to begin with.
But in the 15 months since losing to Williams and Chavous in the Democratic mayoral primary, Evans has been D.C.’s most improved councilmember. He’s led on citywide issues like the tax cut and the move to recapture the Wilson Building, spreading credit around to allies after every victory. And he’s simultaneously returned to his roots, helping Ward 2 neighborhoods fight liquor licenses and battle other nuisances. “He’s gotten better,” says Logan Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner David Stephens.
At this rate, Ward 2ers may have to brace for their second electoral brush in three years with Georgetown activist Westy Byrd. In 1998, Byrd won the ward’s seat on the school board and—along with Singleton et al.—proceeded to sink her political steppingstone with an underpowered, ill-considered attack on board chair Harvey. Perhaps her campaign platform will feature a pledge to oust council Chairman Linda Cropp, who may or may not surf the Web on her office computer. CP
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