Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Folks in the community room of the Washington Highlands Library have spent the last hour voting for the Ward 8 representative to the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The room is a huge, drab square, with rows of metal chairsrejects from some government warehouseholding the center. An equally decrepit set of black-top tables hug the rear and front doors. A steady stream of the usual suspectsactivists, political junkies, hangers-onjoins a sprinkle of ordinary citizens who would never think of taking a pass on their civic responsibility. While some people quickly leave after dropping their pink ballots in a yellow box, others linger, talking about politics and the people who play it.
Around 7 o’clock on this January night, Arthur Jacksonone of two candidates vying to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Newt Smithstands before the crowd, looking uncomfortable and decidedly unpolitical. He says he’s been involved in local affairs for more than 20 years; he was part of the Fighting 54th, which in 1994 helped register large numbers of once-disaffected residents in Ward 8, catapulting Marion Barry back to the office of mayor. But tonight, there is no hint of any fighter in Jackson. He readsin a monotone and without making eye contacta desultory list of his qualifications.
He doesn’t so much finish as just stop talking, and then Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, the other candidate, strolls up to the center of the room. Dressed in the standard corporate uniform, the stocky, light-skinned guy with a mustache and goatee has a look that says nothing special. But a closer inspection suggests that there is silk beneath the plain brown wrapper. He eases without effort from one huddle to another, shaking hands, patting backs, smilingalways smiling.
Once he appears at the front of the room, Kinlow asks everyone to stand and join hands in prayer. The stump speech that settles into the prayer’s quiet aftermath is all local bona fides: Ward 8 native, alumnus of Leckie Elementary, Hart Junior High, Ballou Senior High. And then he takes up the velvet hammer, suggesting that while there is a need for unity if Ward 8 is to pull itself up by its bootstraps, he doesn’t see much of it.
In saying as much, he is stepping on toes all over the room. When he finishes, Mary Parham Wolfe, chair of Ward 8 Democrats Inc., immediately discounts his remarks. She and Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Sandra Allen are pushing for Jackson, in part because they worry about Kinlow’s ultimate objectives. Allen’s seat on the council comes to mind. And she is not about to sit and watch him walk by her.
“I didn’t think [Kinlow] should walk in without any opposition. I don’t think any candidate should,” Allen says weeks later, during an interview at her council office. She is more than happy to get her licks in early on him. He isn’t your run-of-the-mill activist; he is the oldest son of Eugene Kinlow.
Mention the name Kinlow and the next word people turn to is “dynasty.”
“That’s exactly what they are,” says Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars. Ward 8 has incubated a few familial machines: the Yeldells, the Rolarks, and the Lockridges all produced power brokers joined by blood and loyalty. But while these families have made sundry contributions to the city and Ward 8, they have accumulated their share of baggage along the way. Joseph, the most famous of the Yeldells, repeatedly ran into trouble as a District government employee; he has the dubious distinction of having been fired by Mayor Barry. Calvin Rolark Jr., the deceased founder of the United Black Fund and publisher of the Informer, often rubbed people the wrong way. His wife, Wilhelmina Rolark, had a very mixed tenure as the Ward 8 representative on the council. And R. Calvin Lockridge was a controversial, though many say effective, school board member. He ran afoul of the law while serving as executor of an elderly woman’s estate; he served time in prison for theft and tax evasion.
Familial links aren’t the only feature of a dynasty. Breadth, depth of influence, credibility, and a history of community regard cement a family’s reputation and reach. People who study the socioeconomic conditions of Ward 8 say the Kinlows may be the designated kings and queens of an empty fiefdom. But the ward may not continue to be the oft-invoked, oft-ignored stepchild it has always been. Ward 8’s time seems to be arriving, and the Kinlows are showing up right with it. (For the purposes of clarity, Washington City Paper is referring to Eugene Kinlow as “Kinlow Sr.” and Eugene Dewitt Kinlow as “Kinlow Jr.” The Kinlows do not use those appellations.)
The Kinlows already own the night at the Washington Highlands Library: Kinlow Jr.’s wife, D.C. Board of Education member Tonya Vidal Kinlow, arrives with the couple’s two children in tow. She has picked them up on the way from an after-care program in upper Northwest, near Ward 3’s Janney Elementary School, where they are students. She checks in with her husband but leaves briefly to deposit daughter Tiye and son Eugene with their grandmother. When Vidal Kinlow returns, she begins effortlessly schmoozing, moving through the crowd with the same ease as her husband.
Before the evening ends, Kinlow Sr., a tall, sleek, gray-haired man, arrives to cast a ballot on behalf of his son. He hews to the wall on the right side of the room, taking it all in from the periphery; this isn’t his drama. But when people converge on him nonetheless, it’s obvious where the family’s sure touch with a crowd comes from.
Most of the Kinlow kin live elsewhere, but the ones who remain are knit together by a knack for ending up in the middle of things. Their reach is broad and their voice influential, albeit sometimes only in whispers and behind the curtain. Kinlow Sr. is a member of the control board, and the chair of an important community organization that distributes money to other groups. Vidal Kinlow, besides being an at-large member of the elected school board, is one of the few elected members who sit on the control board-created Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees for the city’s public schools. Kinlow Jr. made a name for himself leading the recent fight against the proposed construction of a prison in Ward 8. If his council ambitions are realized, the Kinlows will reach into all aspects of the District government. It’s a prospect that doesn’t have everyone jumping for joy.
“The father is running the control board, Tonya is running the school board, and if Eugene runs for council and wins, what else is left?” Seegars asks sarcastically. “I’m not so sure one family should be so strong.”
It may have darker aspects, but the Kinlows don’t seem hellbent on District domination. They play politics because they are vested in the city and because it’s a game at which they happen to be good. Their narrative offers a glimpse of how a family sculpts the lives of each of its members. It speaks to another side of Ward 8, a community too often viewed through media and sociological lenses that see only pathologies. At a time when District politics are beginning to mean something, a family from across the Anacostia River flexing a little muscle is a sign of life, not mischief.
“There are not a lot of Kinlows left,” says D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “They deserve all kinds of credit.”
Sitting at One Thomas Circle, Kinlow Sr. wears the robes of governance with little fanfare. There is a quiet buzz, hinting that major municipal affairs are being decided. Papers are scattered on the desk, and a flow chart is on the computer screen. Telephonesa regular and a cellularinterrupt his conversation; he speaks in coded, abbreviated language to each caller. Nothing about himneither his age, nor his looks, nor his demeanorsuggests federal retiree; his last position was as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He began his federal career with the Census Bureau in 1960.
Politics, he suggests, became a family disease only by chance. He tells the story this way: A few years ago, a group of his friendsmostly old-timersdecided to meet for dinner at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern in Ward 5. They were getting up in age and wanted to strategize about how to get younger people to assume positions of leadership. With the migration of the black middle class to P.G. County and points beyond, there were few young people waiting to pick up the baton. Kinlow Jr. came to the meeting with his dad. The two often spoke about the dearth of young leadership, about how so many young people had left the city.
In 1979, the year Kinlow Jr. graduated from Ballou, more than 900 walked up to the stage with him. But by the mid-’90s, only a dozen or two remained in the city. “Where is our leadership? Where is our workforce that we need to sustain economic development, to attract certain kinds of business opportunities?” asked Kinlow Sr.
The old-timers figured if they could get those remaining young people involved, there might be hope for the District. The city has never been short on carpetbaggers who wander into town with an ammo case of magic bullets; the men at Colonel Brooks’ were interested in another version of leaderhome-grown, with a more passionate commitment to a place that had always been home. Kinlow Sr. says nothing particularly earth-shattering came of that meeting at the tavern. Except maybe that his son just “picked up the ball and started doing stuff.”
Although he never told his son as much explicitly, the lesson was manifest throughout his life. “We expected them to exploit their skills and talents, to be disciplined, to be serious-minded, not to embarrass themselves or us,” Kinlow Sr. says.
Kinlow Jr.’s rising political fortunes may be the fulfillment of something that began a long time ago with his father. “The ambition of the old man when he came out of Arkansas to Washington, D.C., was to be a politician,” says one long-time Ward 8 resident who has worked alongside Kinlow Sr. on numerous projects over the years.
“The elder Kinlow has always been involved in everything,” echoes Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC) and a civic leader in Ward 8. “He is one of the few folks who, once having achieved elected office, still attended grass-roots community meetings.”
That’s part of the elder Kinlow’s method. You won’t find him driving presidential golf carts or touting himself as the first family’s spiritual adviser. But he is savvy and effective, and, as far back as the ’70s, he consistently has been close to the action.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, during the early battle for home rule, Kinlow Sr. was there. “One of the earliest remembrances I have of my father is of him protesting around Hains Point. He was dressed up like an Indiana Native Americanand he had these boxes that said ‘Tea.’ He was throwing them into the Potomac,” says Kinlow Jr. “I remember as a youngster that my dad was always the first one out of the house in the morning and the last one in the house at night.”
When his eldest daughter enrolled in Hart Junior High, Kinlow Sr. became president of that school board. Later, he became chair of the Anacostia Area School Board, which included representatives for all of the schools east of the river. “It was actually those five years [on that board] that got me into trouble,” he says, smiling.
In 1979, Kinlow Sr. was elected as an at-large member of the D.C. Board of Education, filling the unexpired term of Betty Ann Kane, who had won a seat on the D.C. Council, and proving that he had already begun to expand his base of operations and his reputation beyond Ward 8. He became the first person from his ward ever elected to a citywide post. In 1981, he became school board president. During his tenure, Floretta McKenzie, who is still perceived as the best leader the school system has had since Vincent Reed, was hired as superintendent. Kinlow Sr. is also credited with establishing longer school days and increasing the accountability of principals.
As a school board member back in 1990, Kinlow Sr. was one of the first to signal that former Superintendent Andrew Jenkins wasn’t up for the job. The battle to push him out became intense. During one public meeting, community activists who supported Jenkins slammed down a water pitcher, splashing a couple of board members. Kinlow Sr., who was considered a reasonable man, walked out of the board meeting; Jenkins eventually was fired.
When Kinlow Sr. decided to retire in 1990, after serving three full terms, he was called the “conscience” of the board of education and praised as one of its hardest-working members. The Washington Post’s editorial board said he would be “sorely missed by those with a serious interest in the city’s children.”
We can't make City Paper without you
But while his elected career was ending, his tendency to show up in the middle of things continued to flourish. He was appointed to the Federal Judiciary Nominating Commission. He became a member of the board of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. And when the powerful Federal City Council decided once again it wanted to affect the District’s future with the creation of the D.C. Agenda Project in 1994, Kinlow Sr. was there. When a court-appointed receiver decided to decentralize certain parts of the city’s social-services network, Kinlow Sr. joined the boards of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and the Healthy Families/Thriving Communities Collaborative Council; he helps decide which programs receive grants and which go home with empty pockets. But people who have watched him over the years say he never expected anybody to kiss his ring or his butt.
“He is an experienced leader,” says Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, a social-service organization that offers assistance to at-risk youth and their families. “He has power, but it’s steeped in the right thing: respect.
“I’ve seen him in meetings and in various circles, and the level of respect he engenders from people is remarkable,” adds Gray.
Last year, Kinlow Sr. was tapped to serve on the presidentially appointed financial control boardthe culmination of years of low-to-the-ground community work. Some people say his Arkansas roots turned the president’s head. “One of Kinlow’s relatives is a big bishop in Arkansas, and his church gave a lot of money to [President] Clinton. When Kinlow’s name came up, people at the White House said it was a done deal,” says one government source, who requested anonymity.
Kinlow Sr. acknowledges that he has a cousin who is a bishop of the Church of God in Christ in Arkansas and a Clinton supporter, but he disputes claims that that association had anything to do with his appointment. “This thing here didn’t come through any connection. It just came through providence.”
Delegate Norton backs him up. She claims credit for his selection, noting that his “long experience and knowledge of the city” make him eminently qualified for a board so intimately involved in creating a blueprint for the city’s recovery.
“We needed a member who absolutely knew the neighborhood, its nooks and crannies. He has a reputation for being understanding and being sensitive to the community’s needs,” continues Norton. “And yet he has shown himself fully capable of sitting at the table with the big boys.”
After Kinlow Jr.’s decisive victory in Ward 8he was elected to the Democratic Committee by a margin of 3 to 1there is postgame analysis to be done.
Kinlow Sr. is at home with grandchildren and family, awaiting word. It’s not exactly a big prize his son is fighting for, but his father understands the message a loss sends for a young politician. Vidal Kinlow is the first to arrive at her in-laws’ house on 2nd Street SW. She is there not just to retrieve her children but also to discuss the events of the evening. She describes how her husband brought the people together and mentions that he read a scriptureIsaiah, Verses 16 and 17. The father is taken aback. He thinks those particular verses aren’t appropriate. Never mind; it’s too late now.
Kinlow Jr. isn’t there for this discussion. He has stopped by Players Lounge, where armchair opinions flow as freely as the whiskey. He pulls up in front of his parents’ house after his wife already has gone home to conduct a similar debriefing. He and his father mull over the numbers. Before the election, he mailed more than 200 flyers, pledging that he would be a “worker, not a talker.” He made telephone callsmore than 100 of them: “I called every advisory neighborhood commissioner, everyone on the Democratic State Committee who lived in Ward 8, civic associations, and block associations,” he says. And if that wasn’t enough, he recruited others into this phone campaign, convincing them to call their friends. Some of the names were supplied by his father.
“I looked at people who came out and voted because of his connections,” said one advisory neighborhood commissioner. “When you get old civil rights activists like the Rev. James Coates and Theresa Jones coming out to vote, you know there is a direct connection with the father. We’re all responding because of our past relationship with his father.”
“I may help them get in the door faster, but they have the talent,” Kinlow Sr. retorts when told of the comment.
“He is a mentor,” says Kinlow Jr. of his father. “I don’t go to Dad and ask him to solve a problem. Generally, I’m telling him what I’m planning to do. And he’ll comment; he may say, ‘Well if you do this, people will react this way.’ He might offer his advice; sometimes I take it, and sometimes I don’t.”
The old man says his son doesn’t need his father’s muscle, only his counsel.
“He’s got Tonya there to help. I’m just there as a consultant. It’s funny that in terms of how we see things, she and I tend to see things more alike, and sometimes we kind of gang up on himjust to make sure he gets the message. If she thinks he’s ignoring her, she might bring it up when I’m around,” adds Kinlow Sr.
“Some people say, ‘I bet politics is all you guys talk about.’ But when we’re talking politics, it’s on the surface. We don’t try to overanalyze the events of the day,” says Kinlow Jr.
“Sometimes we can get pretty intense,” adds Vidal Kinlow.
Most times, however, the talk is about perceptions: How do you change them? How do you get people to see you as you are, not as they or your opponents imagine you to be? The answers lie at the heart of developing a message and shaping the messenger. In other words, they are unit studies in the making of a politician.
It’s not surprising that the second child and oldest son of Kinlow Sr. would take a plunge into civic activism and politics. Directly and indirectly, he’s always been training for the job. “The thread that runs between the father and son is their concern for community,” says Arrington Dixon, former D.C. Council chair and current ACC board chair, adding that the two men both greatly influence that organization’s activities.
But while there are similarities between the two menthe walk, the smile, the charisma, the attention to dress”[Kinlow Jr.] is a man in his own right,” says Pannell.
Kinlow Jr. is tough to peg. A District partisan, he breathes politics, but he has other interests. The 37-year-old legal information specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. flaunts refined culinary skills and sweet threads. He’s as well-known for his fried turkey dishes as his fight surrounding the prison. He displays a wonderful sense of humor, counts himself among the millions of Star Trek fans, and loves shopping at consignment and thrift stores.
“I like going and finding fabulous deals, like an Armani suit, and getting more compliments than anybody. Someone might say, ‘I like that suit,’ and I’m thinking ‘thrift store.’ I always try to find a way to get things for the lowest price,” he says.
“He does have a bourgeois edge to him; he likes the finer thingsclothes, an occasional good cigar, and the better liquors. His mother once told me that even as a kid, he was into cooking and fashion,” says Pannell.
But his passions go beyond creature comforts. Even before he could legally vote, Kinlow Jr. was registering people and working precincts. As an organizer in Barry’s 1986 campaign, he and others were charged with expanding the two-term mayor’s youth base. “We used to have Youth Night, registrations, fundraisers at the clubs. A lot of us who were active in that process would say, ‘One day it’s going to be our generation’s turn to lead,’” he recalls. Later, he organized a half-dozen or more student protests at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). He ran for the Ward 6 seat on the school board, but withdrew when he concluded that another candidate was more experienced. Earlier this year, he was elected to serve as a member of the board of trustees of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a prestigious 75-year-old citizens organization composed of planners, architects, conservationists, and civic leaders.
“It is really quite an honor to have him among the trustees. He has been an inspiring leader,” says Beth Solomon, a trustee.
Norton thinks that Kinlow Jr.’s ability to find a balance between his objectives and objective reality sets him apart. “I found [him] to be interesting, very determined, and neighborhood-militantbut political in that he can balance what he wants against what is possible to achieve,” she says.
Seegars looks at the same package and sees something else: “I don’t see him as a politician. He’s aggressive, and some people say he’s too arrogant and too pushy.”
Councilmember Allen concurs: “Sometimes you have to sit and learn and be concerned about the total community. He’ s a young man, up-and-coming, but he can’t do it all.”
Allen’s quietly projected enmity is understandable. Kinlow Jr. gave her fits in his effort to prevent a 3,000-bed minimum-security prison from being constructed in Ward 8. Allen initially touted the benefits of the Correction Corporation of America’s prison, arguing that it would bring jobs to the community.
But Kinlow Jr. and other civic leaders in Ward 8 didn’t see jobs; they saw destruction in the form of a massive penal institution landing on their neighborhood that would forever limit its potential. And they were not impressed with how the deal came together.
“Our biggest concern was that elected officials should have followed the rules. We needed to have a fair process. How can it be fair, though, if the other seven wards are off the table?” Kinlow Jr. asks. The community decided to fight.
Allen stayed on the fence, refusing to come out in favor of or against the project. She appointed a citizens task force to evaluate the proposal. But the group came back without a recommendation, leaving Allen fully exposed at a time Kinlow Jr. was pounding her out in the community. Still, Allen didn’t take a position. He blasted her in every newspaper that would give him a soapbox. After staging two of her own community meetings, she surrendered and decided to oppose the prison. She admits he played an important role in helping her come to a decision.
“[Kinlow Jr.’s] activism was very good around the prison issue; he’s dealing with an issue very dear to those people’s hearts,” says Allen. “His dad was the first one to pray against the prison. There was a community meeting at Ballou; he got up and prayed that the community would not allow a correctional facility to come there.”
Kinlow Sr. had already raised concerns, saying the ward already had Blue Plains, a sewage treatment plant. “This isn’t a dumping ground,” he told the Washington Business Journal.
When his father couldn’t follow through because of work on the control board and the fact that the issue might come before the five-member panel, Kinlow Jr. assumed a leadership role in the citizens coalition opposing the prison, which had been formed with his help. Many who share his point of view credit him with keeping the battle alive long enough for the opposition to the prison to coalesce and fight those who favored its construction.
“Kujichagulia. Self-determination. That’s my word for this year,” says Kinlow Jr, referring to the Swahili word that is one of the seven principles of the Kwanzaa holiday.
“From Day 1, on this prison thing, I was told, ‘This is a done deal; there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Had I believed that, we would have a prison in my community right now,” he continues.
While the prison fight offers an example of the unbroken line between the Kinlows, there are other signs of a son following the well-drawn blueprint of his father. Not unlike his father, Kinlow Jr. has been active in schools, in Democratic organizations, and in specific ward-related issues. He has proved himself an integrationist in the finest sense of the word. He works with gays, blacks, whites, and others. It’s a powerful blend, especially in the hands of the Kinlow franchise.
Not everybody is impressed by the family juju. “The father’s name can carry him only so far,” says Evans Moore, a Ward 8 activist. Will he take on Allen?
“I hear rumors that he intends to run against me. I have to leave that to the voters; I have to do my job,” says Allen, attempting nonchalance. But when pressed, she concedes that Kinlow Jr. would be a formidable opponent, especially “with his father’s help.”
Critics say the old man is already helping. They point to the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, where Kinlow Sr. is chair of the board. The organization was begun by the court-appointed receiver in a class-action lawsuit against the District involving its foster-care services. The collaborative disburses grants to organizations to perform a variety of social-service functions previously performed by the government. Some say Kinlow Sr. has masterfully manipulated the grant-making process so that many communities east of the river are beholden to him and, by proxy, his son.
Of course, Kinlow Sr. denies the charge. He says he doesn’t make funding decisions, although he sits on the board.
There will be other challenges to Kinlow Jr.’s ascension to the front ranks of political leadership. If he runs for city council, he can expect whispers about his past to become ammunition against him. There are murmurs aplenty that when he was enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh he ran into trouble. “He got so involved with drugs, and his daddy had to rescue him,” says an acquaintance, who requested anonymity.
Kinlow Jr. admits that his days in Pittsburgh nearly 20 years ago were on the wild side. “This was 1979. I was just coming of age17 years old and feeling my oats,” he continues. He says he didn’t use narcotics, but was known to smoke a joint: “Unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.”
He says he decided to take himself out of the university because he was not performing well; his father did not ride to the rescue. Later, he enrolled in UDC, taking the maximum semester credits. “Maybe I wasn’t an A student, but my grade-point average was over 3.0,” he continues. At UDC, he was vice president of the student council, homecoming king, president of the student government, and vice president of the management club. “I channeled my energy into other positive things.”
All of this analyzing and confessing may be premature, he cautions. He says he may never run for any elected office. Or he may simply run for advisory neighborhood commissioner. Either way, he demurs: “The world is larger than Ward 8.”
Back in 1987, Kinlow Jr. organized a bus trip to Georgia to protest Forsythe County’s intractable racism. And although the voyage didn’t end discrimination, it did yield a woman who eats politics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
She was a young Capitol Hill staffer working in the transition office of the newly elected Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat. A Louisiana native, she wore her smile as freely and as casually as she did her natural hairstyle. She and a girlfriend, a fellow staffer, would sit with Lewis, soaking up his wisdom and historical knowledge. When the word came down about the trip to Forsythe County, Tonya Vidal didn’t hesitate.
She and her girlfriend showed up at what was then called the District Building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. They weren’t sure exactly where to go. “We were wandering all around,” she says during an interview in which she and Kinlow Jr. alternate telling parts of the story.
Kinlow Jr. was walking around the building as well, scouting for people who could be pulled into the journey, when he spotted the two young ladies. “These were some good-looking women,” confesses Kinlow Jr. “I told them they were going to be on the boring bus, which was the one packed with nonsmokers. I said they should come get on my bus, that they would have a good time.” Vidal and her friend took him up on his offer.
“It was a 13-, 14-hour trip,” he continues. “We talked all the way down. We protested for 10 hours. And we talked all the way back.” When they arrived back in the District, it was Super Bowl Sunday. A huge snow storm began. Some of the protesters had planned to meet at Vidal’s Capitol Hill house, which she shared with two other women. The weather kept everyone away but Kinlow Jr., who dined on homemade chili and continued the conversation where they had left off. When the evening was ending, the two realized the snow would make it impossible to go home. He found a space on the couch.
The next morning, when Vidal and her roommates woke up, they found him outside. “He was shoveling our walkway. We’re all standing at the window, asking, ‘Where did this guy come from?’”
“There is nothing I love more than politics,” says Vidal Kinlow. “I’m also a news junkie; I listen to the news all the timeC-SPAN Radio, NPR, WTOP. I’ve just got to have it, constantly. My work is in politics, and my outside, extracurricular activity is politics.”
“I remember when I was a little girl, people who were running [for office] would pay my grandfather to hand out fliers, and he would pay me to hand out fliers. I was running up and down the street handing out fliers when I was 10 or 11, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” says Vidal Kinlow, who majored in political science at Loyola University in New Orleans and works as a lobbyist for Kaiser Permanente.
“I’ve always believed that government has a place in making things equitable, or making sure there is a level playing field. My involvement in government and politics is to try and make that happen,” she adds. Dressed in a brown velvet pantsuit, she is well-coiffed, but not the dandy her husband admits to being.
“She is a genuinely honest, nice person, which in Washington D.C., you rarely run into,” says public affairs specialist Myra Dandridge, who met her in 1987.
Vidal Kinlow sits on the edge of the leather sofa in her Southwest home, surrounded by family portraits and photographs. The walls are adorned with African art; a few wooden sculptures grace the mantel and end tables. The lit candles clash with the sound of her young son running through the house. Although she is a daughter of Cajun country, where cooking is taught almost as soon as a child can carry a pot, she admits that her husband spends more time in the kitchen than she.
PoliticsDistrict-styleon the other hand, is nothing but home cooking to her. She has followed the path of her father-in-law, working the grass roots of school activism until it led her to a position of prominence. During the 1995-1996 school year, she was president of the PTA at Hearst Elementary in Ward 3, which her daughter and older child, Tiye, then attended; Tiye graduated from Hearst and enrolled with her brother in Janney. Vidal Kinlow and her husband had conducted extensive research on city schools, looking at test scores, overall performance, and space availability before deciding where to try to enroll their children.
Other Hearst parents suggested that Vidal Kinlow run for a seat on the D.C. Board of Education. But she hesitated, picking up the qualifying petitions for the 1996 race only six days before the filing deadline; to appear on the ballot she had to secure the signatures of 2,000 District voters.
“The Hearst crew came in and took the first set [of petitions]. Our friends came next, and then his dad filled in the gap,” she says.
Kinlow Sr. provided a telephone list of people the couple used to secure financial support. It also didn’t hurt her cause that she bore the Kinlow name. Many people assumed she was Kinlow Sr.’s daughter until she corrected them.
A friend initially managed Vidal Kinlow’s campaign, before her husbanddissatisfied with the effortassumed the helm. “I have never run a campaign, but I know there are some basic things you have to havepeople,” he says. “We had less than 40 days to campaign.”
The short time frame meant that every moment was precious. On Halloween night, instead of simply taking the kids out to trick-or-treat, she brought along a stack of fliers and a vote-for-me speech. As Tiye and Eugene’s bags were being filled with candy, she told parents why they should punch the box next to her name on their ballots. In a field of 14 candidates, Vidal Kinlow received 12 percent of the votessecond to Robert Childswhich secured her place; there were two at-large seats being challenged that year.
Vidal Kinlow’s run and her successful bid surprised the couple, who had initially thought Kinlow Jr. would be the first to get elected to office. “I think it was just timing,” she says.
Unfortunately, the timing meant that the power she had sought was exceedingly short-lived. On the day after that election, the presidentially appointed control board, armed with unprecedented powers, seized power of D.C. public schools, leaving the elected board financially and politically impotent. The superintendent was replaced by the control board’s hand-picked appointee; school board members’ salaries were cut in half and their staff nearly wiped out.
“We didn’t have the staff to support our activities; some people said they just didn’t have the staff, and they weren’t going to do it. I thought, ‘That’s inexcusable,’” she recalls. “‘I have a fax machine….If I have to write my own stuff, I’ll do it. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.’”
Vidal Kinlow doesn’t dwell a lot on her disempowerment at the hands of the control board. She has used the tools that remain in her hands to make a dent where she can. In late summer 1997, when parents learned that all D.C. schools would open three weeks late, Vidal Kinlow had been on the board less than a year. D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye A. Christian, responding to a lawsuit filed by Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, had ruled that children could not attend classes in buildings where there were fire-code violations, or where roofs and boilers were being replaced. While most of the people involved engaged in a criss-cross blame game, Vidal Kinlow took different action.
As a high school kid, she had written an award-winning essay and been selected to intern in the White House. Her first visit to the seat of governance had had a lasting impact on her. Remembering that experience, Vidal Kinlow approached Norton, suggesting an internship program for District students during the three weeks they would be out of school.
“It was so late,” Norton says. “And this was when the District reputation was at its nadir. I said we’d really have to hustle.” Faxes were sent to congressional offices saying interns were available. The response was better than Norton anticipated. Within days, nearly 50 percent of the offices said they’d accept the city’s high school students. With the first task accomplished, finding the kids and making sure they arrived in the right place at the right time was a massive logistical challenge.
“[Vidal Kinlow] did something that was central. She knew her way around the system enough to know that to get to the youngsters, she needed to talk with principals,” continues Norton.
“I will never forget the day: There was standing room only in the gold room [of the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill], which is one of the biggest rooms over here. There were over 250 students who showed up. The experience was so positive.
“[Vidal Kinlow] may not be a Kinlow by blood, but she is certainly in the Kinlow family tradition,” Norton adds.
The kids and the program seemed to materialize out of thin air. In the tradition of Kinlow Sr., Vidal Kinlow remained out of the limelight. No one knew that a school board membera frequently maligned species in the Districthad taken it upon herself to make the best of a very bad situation. No resolutions introduced, no motions made, just elbow grease applied at a very strategic moment. It was work in service to the future of the kids she had been elected to look after.
“I didn’t want to seem like the hero here. I just wanted an opportunity for the kids to have exposure and something to do for the three weeks while they were going to be out,” she says, surprised to be discussing it.
The name Tonya Vidal Kinlow isn’t frequently splashed into the headlines, but colleagues say she has worked hard on behalf of public schools.
“She has done an outstanding job in chairing the committee on charter schools. She has fine-tuned the processmonitoring, screening, and selecting. She needs to be applauded for the work done there,” says Board of Education President Wilma Harvey. “She demonstrates a real vested interest in public education and has shown the ability to negotiate various constituencies, including those east of the Anacostia River.”
But another school board member, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, describes Vidal Kinlow as “manipulative. She plays both ends against the middle. It can be destructive because you don’t know where she stands. She also comes late to meetings. She has a lot on her plate.”
Vidal Kinlow pleads guilty to overcommitment: “I want to be in my children’s school, I want to be in the schools we have across the city, and I want
to participate in the civic association activities…. Sometimes I scream, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’ And then I think, if I didn’t do this, what else would I do?”
Perhaps it is the tug-of-war life she is leading or maybe the possibility that her husband will jump into electoral politics, but Vidal Kinlow wavers on whether to seek re-election next year. “Politics, although I love it, sort of aggravates me. I see it, especially in the arena that I’m working in, as adults getting in the way of really doing what we have to do for the children,” she continues.
She thinks she may find greater pleasure in a coffee shop or an arts centermaybe both. It maddens her that she can’t get a decent cup of coffee or the most recent hardcover without crossing a river. She has her heart set on buying a little place in the 3900 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW.
“I think it could succeed just because it’s so different. I don’t care what the people say about the people in Ward 8I think they would enjoy having a coffee shop and a place to buy books,” she says. “Besides, why can’t we have a coffee shop over here, when you can’t turn around in other parts of the city without finding a coffee shop every two or three blocks?”
The arts center primarily would be for children, patterned after the Filmore Arts Center in Northwest. Tiye is a budding artist who has taken classes at the Corcoran School of Art’s community programs. “I already know where I want to put that: on South Capitol and Atlanticwhere the Rite Aid used to be.”
Like her father-in-law and husband, Vidal Kinlow says her mission does not begin or end with her service on the elected school board. “There are so many other things I could do that would benefit this community directly,” she says.
It’s Sunday, and Kinlow Jr. has gotten up early to make pancakes. He wakes Tiye and then sends his young son to rouse his wife. After they eat, they start getting dressed for early service at Covenant Baptist Church. At some point in the ritual, Vidal Kinlow realizes it’s the month’s fifth Sunday, which means the earliest service isn’t until 11 a.m. For a moment, they are stunned. How could they forget that? The morning confusion, they admit, is the result of doing too much.
Normally, after attending church, the family drives over to Roasters on the Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue SE for coffee. But today, it’s the fifth Sunday and someone’s coming for dinner, so the routine is altered.
Just at the entrance to the Kinlow’s dining room is a huge painting, exquisitely framed. It is an abstract so finely executed that a visitor thinks it may be the work of a seasoned contemporary artist. Tiye painted the piece. The table and sideboard are solid wood, antique-looking. Kinlow Jr. doesn’t pass up the opportunity to say “thrift store.” After the food is placed on the table, heads are bowed for grace.
The Sunday meet around the big table is a primary ritual of African-American family tradition. When Ward 8’s story is told, it is usually riven with references to drugs, crime, pregnant teens, and no-good men working the corners. While there is no denying that the community has its share of socioeconomic pathology, it also has preserved an old-fashioned culture and personality not often found in other parts of the city. It feels and sounds Southern in the term’s purest and best sense.
“[The Kinlows] are true role models. They have carried on the black family tradition to the next generationwhich is very hard to do in this town and during these times,” observes Norton.
The younger Kinlows live about a block from his parents on 2nd Street SW; they have been in the neighborhood for seven years. They hadn’t planned to return; it was a blessinga wish fulfilled.They had been living in rental property on Capitol Hill and had decided it was time to buy. If they stayed on the Hill, the money they had could buy them only a small house with a “postage-stamp” yard, as Kinlow Jr. puts it. “I grew up in a house with a front yard and a back yard, and I wanted that for my kids.”
At about the same time, Vidal Kinlow announced that she had found a house with three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and front and back yards. On 2nd Street. “I said, ‘No, that can’t be. That’s the street I grew up on. No one ever moves,’” says Kinlow Jr. recalling his shock and excitement. It’s not heaven: The neighborhood bars are not as varied as those on Capitol Hill; there are few real restaurants and real flea markets; but 2nd Street is no ghetto. The house offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city. Kinlow Jr. says he can see planes at National Airport and boats on the river. At night, the lights of downtown sparkle, and it’s hard for a visitor to believe she is in the land that has been the bane of the District for so long.
Years before, Kinlow Jr. rode through the neighborhood in the morning dew, slinging papers onto front porches. He was baptized at the same church, Covenant Baptist, he and his family now attend. The apple returns to the tree almost every day.
“I probably stop by [my parents’] house four or five times a week. Sometimes I just stop by unconsciously, park the car, run in, open the refrigerator, make a sandwichsay hi to Grandma, to Mom, Dadtalk about something, go downstairs, play a game of pool, and leave. I’m happy.”
He may be happy, but his father admits he is worried about the pace his son and daughter-in-law keep. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. They just run, runalmost every night and on weekends. They don’t quit.”
When two young people with shared interests reside side by side, comparisons are inevitable. Kinlow Sr. says that even though they appear to be twins, his son and daughter-in-law are different sides of the same penny.
“She’s certainly got the public-service spirit and mentally. She’s very thoughtful and strategic. And I think she’s got some really solid natural political skills. I think she knows how to work with people, to bring people together,” says Kinlow Sr.
Kinlow Jr., on the other hand, has the fire in his belly. He is a good organizer and has tons of energy. But Kinlow Sr. says there are political skills his son must learn if he is going to work through the traditional Democratic machinery. “I’m not his best teacher, because I never became a politician.”
But the days when political savvy trumps performance seem to be on the wane, given the election of Mayor Anthony A. Williams over four experienced pols. Kinlow Sr. says politics in the District and most urban centers are becoming more mission-drivena trend that he likes to think fits the Kinlow tradition very nicely.
“We’re carrying our own torch right now, instead of carrying someone else’s torch,” says Kinlow Jr., adding that the Kinlows’ approach is not the same as that of, say, a Marion Barry or an Adam Clayton Powell. They have their own style, their own voice.
“[Our style] is more logical,” he adds.
Both Kinlow Jr. and Vidal Kinlow see more opportunity in technical, strategic approaches. They cite Williams as an example, but also mention members of the D.C. Council who understand the minutiae of policy-making and legislative oversight, and conduct their business without a lot of fanfare. It’s a version of leadership for which Ward 8 hasn’t exactly been famous. They say for wholesale change to come to the city, a massive re-education to alter the “mind-set” of the community must be undertaken.
“We have to get a unified voice from the leadership on what direction we’re going to go: whether we’re going to have prisons or whether we’re going to have schools. The decisions we make today will have long-lasting impact,” says Vidal Kinlow.
“We have our own vision. It’s about trying to move forward and articulate it and promote that vision and make it become real. The vision is easy,” says Kinlow Jr. “The hardest part is doing the work.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.