For just about any candidate in a high-profile mayoral contest, inhabiting your adopted city for only three years is a campaign-trail liability. That’s at least how the rivals of former District Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams viewed his limited exposure to D.C. politics.
They tried to convince voters that the political newcomer couldn’t find his way to Anacostia without a chauffeur. Williams was so unfamiliar with District issues, they claimed, that he didn’t know the new convention center was going to be built in Shaw, not Mount Vernon, Va.
And they calculated that Williams could not be elected mayor because voters would never forgive him for firing a couple hundred African-Americans from District government.
But Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, and Kevin Chavous discovered on primary day that most D.C. voters had paid as much heed to their claims about Williams as they give to the annual denials by Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. that he plays racial politics.
All this uninformed, insensitive interloper accomplished last week was to become the first candidate in 16 years to capture a majority in a contested mayoral Democratic primary. To do so, Williams had to beat three veteran D.C. councilmembers who have been in the city for the past two decades and have spent most of this one plotting their political rise as the council’s reformist “Young Turks.”
The Young Turks looked pretty geriatric last week. At least one of them, At-Large Councilmember Brazil, privately pondered retirement when his council term expires in two years, according to a Brazil confidant. Judging from his 4 percent showing in the race, politics isn’t a growth industry for Brazil.
Williams’ stunning electoral success provides an equally dramatic testament to the colossal failures of the three councilmembers. Despite their self-proclaimed firmer connection with the city’s electorate, none of the three articulated a message that captured the attention of the voters.
Evans’ empty campaign slogan”Solutions. Not Excuses”and Chavous’ cheesy message”He Really Cares”just couldn’t compete with Williams’ reputation for restoring the city to financial health during his tenure as CFO.
Williams’ campaign-trail retort”I did my job; they didn’t”certainly came across as more believable to District residents than the re-packaged careers Evans, Brazil, and Chavous tried to peddle.
Unlike his politically seasoned rivals, Williams managed to identify his base of support among the electorate and turn those voters out on primary day.
“Tony has sort of fooled us all in talking about himself as a bean counter, as a nerd, because Tony is a fabulous politician,” says premier lobbyist Fred Cooke. “It’s really kind of a cool thing he’s done, to be so politically astute and still be regarded as a bean counter.”
His challengers didn’t think their defeat was so cool. Only Evans, who ran a much more credible campaign than either Brazil or Chavous, displayed dignity in defeat. Evans congratulated Williams on his victory the night of the primary, while Brazil and Chavous sulked for days. Chavous continued to dismiss Williams as an “over-hyped media creation.”
Media creations don’t collect 9,000 signatures on ballot petitions, as Williams dida high for this election. And LL could find no journalists among the thousands of mostly small donors who gave nearly $1 million in campaign contributions in three months. Evans spent nearly a year hitting up the city’s deep-pockets business community and still failed to keep pace with Williams.
And the media certainly didn’t orchestrate the draft-Tony meeting last May, which was organized by disaffected Chavous supporters in Ward 7. Chavous, however, shouldn’t let all that evidence discredit his theories about the media conspiracy against him. The alternative is to recognize the reality that the Williams candidacy swept to victory on the backs of regular folks tired of politicians like himself.
On primary day, Chavous couldn’t even capture 60 percent of the votes cast in his home ward and in neighboring Ward 8. Given those results, Chavous’ claims to a late-summer surge appeared as ephemeral as his boasts about public-school oversight on the council. The candidate, as it turns out, ran his mayoral campaign the same way he has run his disorganized council office for the past six years.
Chavous, not Williams, was the Sharon Pratt Kelly of this year’s mayoral race.
Chavous supporters still cling to the preposterous belief that he would have prevailed last week if voters had turned out as they did four years ago, when Barry orchestrated his remarkable comeback.
Democratic turnout fell by some 44,000 votes below the 1994 level, after taking into account the decline in voter registration during the past four years. If this year’s Democratic turnout had equaled that of 1994, Williams’ nearly 13,000-vote lead would have swelled to 18,000 on the strength of his support in Wards 2 and 3.
Chavous would have had to pull in more than 22,000 of the remaining 26,000 votesan unattainable 85 percent in Wards 1, 4, and 6, which Williams won last week. He would have had to pull off the same stunt in Wards 7 and 8a 25-point jump. Not even the media could have helped Chavous pull off such a coup.
After starting out his political career in 1992 as an environmental crusader and a symbol of the post-civil-rights move to professional black leaders and away from activists, Chavous retreated into a Barry-type campaign in 1998, shunning the city’s white voters and appealing to public housing tenants.
That strategy, adopted a month before the election, boosted his stature on the city’s east side but failed to vault him into first place. However, the candidate and his strategists, all veterans of past Barry campaigns, didn’t know how to play it any other way.
Williams ran a campaign that did away with the worn-out rhetoric of the city’s civil-rights-era leaders. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith’s loss to Whitman-Walker Clinic Executive Director Jim Graham and Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas’ stunning upset at the hands of attorney and accountant Vincent Orange helped draw the curtain on the big-government politics of the movement veterans.
Williams, if he prevails over Republican Carol Schwartz in November and succeeds as the next mayor, can finally bring closure to the Barry eraa feat Kelly failed to accomplish after winning the mayor’s office eight years ago. He also can cement the sea change in District politics that will open up the political system to other newcomers who can produce more than just rhetoric.
Not bad for a bean-counting nerd.
•Desperately needing to sew up support from seniors in the closing days of his campaign, Chavous touted a critical endorsement he never received.
D.C. Office of Aging Director E. Veronica Pace couldn’t believe what she was reading when she picked up the Northwest Current the week before the Sept. 15 primary and spotted an ad run by the Chavous campaign claiming she had endorsed the mayoral contender.
“No one sought my permission, and no one discussed it with me or contacted me,” an infuriated Pace told LL this week. “It was not in the interest of my agency or my customers to endorse anyone. And I don’t think I can, as a D.C. government employee.”
After reading the ad, Pace said, she called the Chavous campaign headquarters, and, unlike most callers, didn’t get put on hold or cut off. But she also didn’t get an explanation of how her name had gotten included in a list of people endorsing the candidate.
Throughout the campaign, Chavous had blasted Williams for once proposing elimination of the Office of Aging to trim the city’s budget deficit. Williams quickly backed away from that 1996 proposal following a noisy demonstration of seniors orchestrated by Barry’s office.
The erroneous Pace endorsement lent credibility to Chavous’ claim of being a defender of the elderly. A breakdown of last week’s senior vote is not yet available.
•Supporters of Ward 1 Councilmember Smith are flabbergasted at reports coming out of the 16-year incumbent’s losing re-election campaign that he woke up the morning after his defeat by Graham with plenty of cash in his campaign coffersas much as $50,000 by some accounts.
The councilmember refused to discuss his campaign spending but relayed a message to LL through one of his council staffers: “Don’t believe every rumor you hear.” Still, campaign treasurer Ron Linton told LL on primary night that Smith had had $45,000 to spend on getting out the vote that week. Ward 1 observers reported seeing a direct mailing and a dozen or so vans hired by the campaign to ferry voters to the polls, but little else to indicate that Smith spent anywhere near that amount.
Linton claims money was never a problem, despite the Aug. 10 campaign finance report, filed 11 days late, that showed Smith with only $9,000 in the bank one month before the primary. Linton claims that report resulted from “sloppiness” in calculating the campaign’s fund-raising success.
“I was surprised by comments we were out of money,” Linton said. “I thought there was money.”
But Smith acted like a cash-strapped candidate. During August, he canceled radio ads and refused to pay media consulting firm Tuesday Solutions for producing those ads. He also shunned his past practice of buying meals for the ward’s elderly voters to cinch their support on election day. And campaign manager Chris Long worked the final weeks of the campaign without pay.
“We were played,” grouses one campaign worker.
Campaign workers caution that Smith may have been refusing to make such expenditures because he never thought he would lose to Graham, a white gay activist making his first try for political office.
Whatever surplus Smith has in his campaign war chest, he can’t take it with him when he leaves office in January. But he can transfer the unspent funds to his favorite charity, like, say, the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation he created to build the memorial on U Street NW.
•One year ago, city officials and parents fought bitterly to get Parents United to drop its lawsuit over unsafe conditions in public schools. The lawsuit prevented even minor repairs from being made while schools were in session without prior court approval.
But parents and advocates for students at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams Morgan last week would have welcomed that lawsuit to protect their children from repairs hastily made in preparation for first lady Hillary Clinton’s Sept. 17 visit.”Our parents, our teachers, our principal, and our students were put under unnecessary stress to make our school look nice,” says Claire Jacobs of the Committee of D.C. Youth and a member of the Marie Reed PTA.
Jacobs claims workers ripped up carpeting while school was in session, further polluting the already dirty air within the school. “Our ventilation filtering system is bad,” she said. Had school officials been given more notice, field trips could have been scheduled to get students out of the building while walls were re-painted and new carpeting installed, Jacobs contends.
She said parents are planning to send letters of protest to the White House and to schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
•D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett didn’t have many kind words for the District when she addressed a recent meeting of the Texas Breakfast Club in Washington. She depicted a city government that relies on outmoded rotary phones, obsolete Wang computers, and paper records stored in boxes.
“This is the first time I’ve celebrated getting a city bond rating just below investment-grade,” Barnett, a native Texan, told the gathering, according to a report in the Aug. 2 Austin American Statesman newspaper. “I thought we were kind of backwards in Texas until I got here.”CP
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