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D.C. voters who sat out last month’s crowded primaries in hopes that their electoral decisions would become easier by November now face a field of at-large D.C. Council candidates as difficult to decipher as President Bill Clinton’s definition of sex.
And unfortunately, the voters won’t have a juicy 445-page report to help them sift through all the babble.
To make the choice even more mind-boggling, voters on Nov. 3 get to punch ballots for not one but two of the following contenders for the two at-large council seats:
•At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason, the life-support system for the tiny D.C. Statehood Party, who suffered a mild heart attack on primary day and spent the next six days in Georgetown University Hospital. The 83-year-old self-proclaimed “grandmother of the world” hopes she won’t have to campaign that hard to save the council seat she has warmed for the past 21 years.
After all, she has hugged just about every voter in this city.
•Policy wonk and former council staffer Phil Mendelson, who won a 10-way race in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary by capturing 17 percent of the vote and provided organized labor its only ballot victory. Mendelson now reminds voters that he is the only candidate on the Nov. 3 ballot with the Democratic label after his name, which makes him a shoo-in for the council. He promises aggressive oversight and council hearings that will serve as platforms for local activists.
But Mendelson can sound like a Jim Nathanson clone, as he did Sept. 18 in refusing to take on Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. for suggesting that Mendelson’s unbearable whiteness of being might disqualify him from council service in a majority-black city. Four years ago, offended Ward 3 voters retired Nathanson, Mendelson’s old boss, after he failed to stand up to racial politicking by city leaders.
•Freshman At-Large Councilmember David Catania, a barely 30-something gay, white, Republican upstart. The improbable Catania stunned the city’s lethargic Democratic party last December by knocking off one of its war horses, former council Chairman Arrington Dixon, in a special election to fill a council vacancy. Once elected, Catania emerged as an aggressive councilmember, even though he had racked up the fourth-worst council attendance record as of midsummer.
He shunned the usual back-bench role reserved for freshmen and sparred with his more senior colleagues over headline issues like the new Mt. Vernon Square convention center and the Children’s Island amusement-park project planned for the Anacostia River. He irritated department heads by turning up at their agencies, unannounced, to check on whether they had told the truth when testifying during council oversight hearings.
•Umoja Party founder Mark Thompson, a former leader of student demonstrations at the University of the District of Columbia. Thompson has moderated his anti-Semitic views since declaring to a March 1994 student rally at Howard University that the African-American anthem “We Shall Overcome” should be replaced with “We Shall Not Sell Out to the Jews.”
Since then, the WOL radio talk-show host has emerged as a rebellious leader of D.C. Statehood and home rule activists, and a confidant of D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. His status among local activists soared last year after he was banned from testifying before the House appropriations subcommittee on D.C. following a tense confrontation in a U.S. Capitol elevator with subcommittee chairman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.).
Thompson’s political fortunes, however, nose-dived this past summer when he was convicted in D.C. Superior Court for failing to pay child support and assaulting the mother of his child. He since has become a political commodity too volatile for even Barry to back publicly as part of his effort to keep the majority of council seats in the hands of black leaders.
“How can Mark convince voters that he will treat the city any better than he treats his wife and child?” observes one rival.
•Malik Zulu Shabazz, the city’s most notorious anti-Semite, who sees a Jewish conspiracy behind every newspaper headline, the country’s tightly controlled banking system, vanilla Hollywood stars dominating movie screens, and even the death of 19th-century abolitionist Nat Turner, who was hanged by Southern racists, not Jews. Shabazz, a lawyer, must have skipped his history courses at Howard University.
Unlike Thompson, Shabazz makes no attempt to mask his Jew-bashing. He enjoys pockets of support around Howardwhere his destructive student demonstrations got him banned from holding events on campusand in Ward 8, where he ran unsuccessfully for a council seat four years ago. But his campaigns amount to little more than sideshows.
•Ward 8 activist Sandra “SS” Seegars, a Barry-supporter-turned-critic, who is making her first bid for political office, running as an independent. Seegars is the Matt Drudge of D.C. politics, publishing an infrequent, muckraking newsletter alleging corruption and cronyism within District government ranks. She led last year’s effort to force a recall of Barry but failed when she and her cadre of angry taxi drivers could not collect the required 33,000-plus signatures from D.C. voters to get the issue on the ballot.
This week, the mercurial Seegars was battling the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics over its refusal to toss at-large council candidate Beverly Wilbourn off the November ballot. Seegars, who hoped to eliminate Wilbourn and become the only woman contender with a pulse, alleged that Wilbourn had forged signatures on her ballot-qualifying petitions. After elections board Chairman Benjamin Wilson and the other board members rejected her challenge, Seegars blasted Wilson as “unethical” and biased, entirely on the basis of the fact that he lives around the corner from Wilbourn. Wilson says he doesn’t know Wilbourn and has ignored Seegars’ call for his resignation.
Seegars has also rejected advice that she junk her politically unappealing slogan, “Vote SS,” for one less historically insensitive.
•Newcomer Wilbourn, also an independent, who is being escorted around political circles by longtime D.C. government and Democratic Party figure Joe Yeldell. To many voters, Yeldell symbolizes the incompetence and corruption that brought the city to the brink of financial collapse this decade. The former city official narrowly escaped conviction, after two trials, in a federal corruption probe two decades ago.
Wilbourn could emerge as the key to keeping a black majority on the council, although very few voters have heard of her at this point. If Mendelson and Catania win the two at-large seats up for grabs Nov. 3, white councilmembers will hold seven of the 13 seats on the next council.
That’s why Barry has been singing his own version of the pop reggae song, “Bad Boys,” since Mendelson won the Sept. 15 Democratic primary: “White Boys! White Boys!/Whatcha gonna do?/ Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?/ White Boys! White Boys!”
Barry will do almost anything to preserve a black majority, but he is reluctant to embrace the frail Mason as the only way to keep Republican Catania off the council. Hizzoner’s uncertainty over whom to back in the race illustrates Democrats’ unease over whether their grandmother canor shouldbe elected to a final term. D.C. party leaders have invested years of energy in getting Democratic voters in the habit of punching their ballot for Mason. She, in effect, has been made an honorary member of the local Democratic Party, and she usually sides with the council’s Democratic majority.
Last month’s primary voters, however, displayed a strong intolerance for the old guard. Democrats tossed out Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith after 16 years and denied Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas a fourth term. They also rejected three veteran councilmembers in favor of newcomer Anthony Williams in the mayor’s race.
Mason narrowly won re-election in 1994 with only 34,541 votes, a mere 15 percent of the ballots cast. The overwhelming majority of her votes came from Democrats who cast their first ballot to re-elect then-At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp, the only Democrat on the ballot, and used their second vote to re-elect Mason and keep the Statehood Party from passing into extinction.
Mason hopes Democrats will continue that practice and vote a Mendelson-Mason ticket. Since most D.C. voters are Pavlovian Democrats, all Mendelson should have to do is turn out his party base. He should get some help from Williams and other Democratic primary winners, who held another unity breakfast this week, the third such love fest in 11 days, to try to instill some enthusiasm in the party faithful for the November election.
Mason’s path to re-election is much more treacherous than four years ago, given the results of the Sept. 15 Democratic primary. Williams’ biggest margins came in Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6, areas in which voters have shown the greatest tendency to throw the bums out, where they can be expected to use their two votes to elect Mendelson and Catania.
To survive, Mason must pull large votes in Ward 4, her home ward, as well as in low-voting Wards 5, 7, and 8. These are the wards where Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous reaped most of his support in the mayor’s race, and his backers may be turned off enough to stay home on Nov. 3. Unlike in the other four wards, voters on the city’s east side often don’t use their second choice in the at-large race, preferring to simply go home after voting for the Democrat on the ballot.
Mason’s strategists are imploring Democratic voters not to cast their second ballot for Republican Catania in light of the congressional Republicans-engineered takeover of District government by the D.C. financial control board. Since her release from the hospital last week, campaign workers have been calling Mason’s longtime supporters across the city to reassure them she’s not dead yet, politically or otherwise.
“It’s a matter of reminding people she’s out there and still running,” says Mason campaign manager Doug Hartnett.
Since Mason’s doctors have advised her to take several weeks off, she may not get out on the trail until the closing days of the campaign. Until then, Hartnett and others will be warning that the departure of Smith and Thomas makes Mason’s re-election even more imperative. She provides the lone progressive voice on an increasingly conservative council, they argue.
“We’re going to need somebody on the council who will vote for the people every single time,” says Hartnett. “Her first concern is helping all the people of the District.”
But some residents of Wards 6 and 7 believe Mason forgot about them when she voted with the council minority last December to build the Children’s Island amusement park they adamantly opposed. That vote cost Mason an endorsement from the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, both of which are backing Mendelson and Catania.
Catania harbors a secret desire to win Ward 7 and establish a citywide base. He has worked with Ward 7 residents and civic groups to spruce up the Fort Davis Recreation Center. When some Ward 7 residents earlier this year thought they were being overcharged by the new Safeway in the Good Hope Market shopping center, he loaded them into his car and took them shopping at the Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue NW to compare prices.
Two weeks ago, Catania stood alongside Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen in Anacostia to protest the closing of the ward’s only grocery, the Safeway on Milwaukee Place SE. Catania also sponsored legislation barring Safeway from preventing another grocer from moving into its abandoned store.
“Ultimately, this election is about individuals, and not party labels,” Catania said this week.
But he has to avoid kicking his grandmother when she’s down, or he might rally votersespecially the older black women who turn out every electionto her rescue.CP
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