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When At-Large D.C. Councilmember Hilda H.M. Mason told a crowd assembled for a candidates forum at One Judiciary Square that she works for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged, an enthusiastic fan clapped and cheered from a seat in the back.
Campaign staffers live for that kind of spontaneous enthusiasm for a candidate’s platform. But Mason’s camp had a decidedly different take on the spontaneous show of support.
“Shut up,” grumbled one of her supporters.
After all, the candidate’s time in the spotlight was precious. Upward of 15 people are running for the two at-large slots available this year, and the race has received so little attention that every second in front of voters counts.
It’s as if the at-large candidates were playing in a double-A farm league. The big-leaguers this year’s mayoral candidates are covering the same issues, only with sharper rhetoric and more at stake. That means candidates like Charles Gaither and Kathryn Pearson-West have to compete with Anthony Williams and Jack Evans for attention.
And just like in minor-league clubs, the no-namers rely on publicity stunts and bizarre events to garner attention.
“At the W Street SE Homeowners Association [barbecue], the TV [news] was there,” recalls Democratic at-large candidate Greg Rhett. “They said, ‘We don’t want to talk to any at-large candidates. We’re here to cover the mayoral race.’” So Rhett tried to spice up the story. ” I said, ‘I’m going to give you a scoop. I slept with Monica and her mother; all I need is three minutes of broadcast time to categorically deny it.’” Rhett still came up empty.
Fame by association is one of the few ladders up out of the dark hole of obscurity. After fighting much of the summer for a soundbite or two, the Rev. William Bennett suddenly became a brief media sensation. Why? In late August, Mayor Marion Barry endorsed him. True to their 30-year fascination with Hizzoner, the local media in this case, the Washington Times spilled some ink Bennett’s way.
In the end, at-large candidates gripe, the media follow the money. With the exception of Republican David Catania, an incumbent who has amassed an impressive war chest of $100,458, at-large wannabes rely on small change to fuel their campaigns. That rules out radio spots and a comprehensive poster presence. “It means we have to do more voter contact and try harder to meet people,” observes candidate Phil Mendelson.
When it comes to selling the voter in the at-large race, it’s retail all the way. “We’re back to old-fashioned grass-roots campaigning,” adds Pearson-West. “Everyone has to work hard.”
Everyone including candidates who have held public office. Sabrina Sojourner is the city’s congressional shadow representative a position that has earned her few points with the local media. Sojourner says it’s less of a problem than it seems. “I think that in many ways the District of Columbia is like a small town, and people are less likely to vote for you if they don’t know you,” Sojourner says. “Getting out and meeting people and asking them for the vote is the best way I find to get people to vote for you.”
Bill Rice pedals around town on his bicycle to stand out. When he dismounts, he claims that he has successfully focused media attention on two issues: the city’s overzealous parking enforcement and the theft of parking stickers and license plates. But others suspect Rice’s former career as a journalist is probably his biggest asset it gives him access to reporters that other candidates have to work hard for. “[Journalists] look to Rice for comment,” Pearson-West complains. “They don’t look to me.”
But perhaps the most innovative media tactic in the race belongs to former school board President Don Reeves. If he can’t get any media play now, Reeves concludes, he might as well play up coverage from the past. To wit, Reeves brandishes a 1997 Washington Post editorial applauding him for criticizing the closed meeting policies of the District of Columbia Public Schools emergency board of trustees.
Reeves may have cornered the at-large market for slamming the control-board-anointed saviors of the public schools. However, on most other issues public safety, council oversight, and so on he is just part of the at-large stew of conventional wisdom on fixing the city.
Among the hot issues debated in at-large candidates forums, for example, is how the D.C. Council can best enforce performance standards with agency heads. Sojourner and rivals Rhett and Phyllis Outlaw all advocate resurrecting the council’s little-used subpoena power to scare bureaucrats into compliance.
Once they finish their spiels, the debate turns to a more pressing matter: who first brought the subpoena issue to the table. Sojourner said it was she a distinction that Outlaw and Rhett claim as well.
Rice is willing to let them take specific credit for the notion of subpoena as cudgel, as long as they admit his message is “defining the debate.” “I was the first one to say that the council should use its oversight and not rubber-stamp decisions,” Rice insists. “I said it 10 years ago, and that’s the reason I got in the race.” Not exactly newsworthy stuff.