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Thousands of D.C. voters will head to the polls next Tuesday with white noise buzzing in their ears. That’s what happens when three no-account D.C. councilmembers decide to run for mayor in the same election. After a while, all the empty promises and blame distribution mix together, and you can’t tell one contender from the other.
You should vote for the one candidate who has something to say and a record to base it on: former Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams.
Most D.C. voters rightfully don’t care this time around that the awkward, quirky Williams lacks the charisma of the self-proclaimed night owl mayor currently occupying the office, who shamelessly compared himself to Jesus when caught cavorting with drug dealers and con artists. No one expects the deliverer of the castor oil to be Denzel Washington and Nelson Mandela in one slick package.
Rather, all D.C. residents want is for Williams to nurse the city back to full health without inflicting more embarrassment on them. That seems little to ask from the next mayor. But Williams will be hailed like home-run hitter Mark McGwire if he succeeds where the city’s three mayors since home rule have all failed.
The election of Williams promises to bring a revolution to D.C. politics and government. Until now, political wannabes have followed the gospel that the key to success is first getting elected to an advisory neighborhood commission or the Democratic State Committee. If you don’t rock the boat in those posts, you can eventually move up to the school board and then the D.C. Council. Finally, you’ll earn your shot at mayor.
Williams’ move from the appointocracy straight to the top office shreds the gospel and demonstrates that simply occupying space no longer gets you up to the next rung on the political ladder: You must, alas, produce.
Many of this year’s crop of mayoral and council contenders have pursued the place-holder gospel. To them, Williams is a heretic, an outsider who hasn’t paid enough dues to earn a shot at the mayor’s office. Never mind that Williams can rightfully claim most of the credit for producing the budget surpluses that now allow his harshest critics to trumpet the return of local self-governance well ahead of schedule.
Williams’ candidacy has also embarrassed the city’s top political gurus and pundits. Sages like WAMU political commentator Mark Plotkin, Washington Times columnist Adrienne Washington, political essayist Sam Smith, super lobbyist Fred Cooke, and pollster Ron Lester not to mention Williams’ mayoral rivals and their advisers dismissed his candidacy from the outset as a passing fad.
They couldn’t conceive of voters, especially black voters, accepting Williams a candidate who consorted with the congressionally imposed financial control board and actually fired incompetent D.C. employees instead of just threatening to do so. But this is the same group that for years preached that delivery of public services should take a back seat to maintaining a united front in defense of home rule.
Williams is proving that residents value good government and delivery of services as much as home-rule fantasies. He pledges to pursue both.
His creed, “The city must command respect, not just demand it,” is considered blasphemy to the home-rule-above-all-else crowd. This bunch decries the creed as requiring District leaders to demonstrate they can govern before the government will be handed back to us.
That’s like questioning why you have to prove you can drive before getting a driver’s license.
Last week, both Adrienne Washington and Plotkin hailed former Mayor Walter E. Washington’s endorsement of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous as a turning point in the summer campaign. After all, Washington, the city’s first elected mayor under home rule, has vowed to call 300 voters a day until the election and urge them to back Chavous to stop Williams.
Assuming Washington spends an average of three minutes per call, he’ll only have to devote 15 hours a day to achieving his goal. That’s not much to ask from an 83-year-old man whom the city’s political establishment dismissed 20 years ago as a bumbler who kowtowed to Congress.
“I’m the only candidate who touches people,” a frustrated Chavous boasted during a campaign stop last Saturday at Kennedy Playground, 7th and O Streets NW, as he searched in vain for voters to touch.
Voters will have to run 25 mph to touch Chavous in the closing days of this campaign. He is spending most of his time speeding through neighborhoods and public housing projects, waving to voters as his motorcade bullhorn blares out a desperation appeal for the candidate.
In a sign that he, too, senses the race is over, Chavous didn’t even bother to schedule campaign events on Labor Day, traditionally a heavy day of politicking.
Chavous’ chief political adviser is former Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Ike Fulwood. If Fulwood gets the chance to inflict the same management wizardry on the mayor’s office that he performed at the police department, the staff over at the financial control board won’t have to worry about dusting off their resumes until well into the next century.
Likewise, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ yearlong investigation of MPD hasn’t prompted noticeable changes in the streets, nor scored the kind of victories in the battle against crime that would warrant a step up to the mayor’s office. His careerlong council battle against prostitution has also failed to stem the flourishing downtown flesh trade.
And being on the losing end of many 1-to-12 council votes hardly demonstrates leadership or qualifies At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil for the city’s top office.
Punch your ballot for Williams. There is no other choice.
The 10 Democrats vying for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council resemble Ross Perot clones brandishing pie charts that slice up the electorate. With no big name on the ballot to attract voters and hike interest, most of the contenders are trying to pile up big pluralities in their own back yards.
The pie-slice approach to vote-getting will further distance city hall from voters, who will know nothing about the candidates when they go to the polls on Tuesday.
Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner Phil Mendelson and former journalist Bill Rice stand out through their efforts to wage citywide campaigns. Mendelson may stand a better chance of winning election. He has won backing from the Sierra Club and organized labor, which must deliver for him to prove that unions have any clout at all in D.C. politics.
Mendelson has seven years of experience as a council staffer to former Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson and late council Chair Dave Clarke. As Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose is demonstrating, former council staffers make good councilmembers. And Mendelson, who ran for this same job two years ago, is well versed in the fine points of regulatory reform, tax revision, and environmental law.
The lesser-known Rice, however, has waged a more aggressive, hands-on, in-your-neighborhood campaign. While Mendelson has relied on detailed mailings to touch voters, Rice and his committed band have stumped for votes across the city, raising the level of interest in this race in areas such as Anacostia and Congress Heights.
For years, Rice (a former contributor to Washington City Paper) has traveled to all corners and nooks of the District, usually on his one-speed bike, to witness firsthand the latest neighborhood dispute or zoning battle. He has attended regulatory hearings that inspired nothing but yawns from most reporters.
Like a die-hard activist, Rice tracked the workings of District government for little or no money. (Many of his past contributions to this column went uncompensated.) He read the fine print of council legislation and turned up at community meetings nightly out of a passion for the city.
True, he never met a development project he liked which has earned him a cold shoulder from the business community. (Both Rice and Mendelson oppose the new convention center proposed for Mount Vernon Square, and business groups have withheld endorsements in this race.) But the city’s most vocal activists have rallied around him as a defender of neighborhoods.
Rice has tried to break out of the pack by championing populist issues such as friendlier parking laws, elimination of trash-transfer stations in Ward 5, and rejection of the new prison planned for Ward 8. He pledges aggressive use of the council’s neglected oversight powers to block unqualified mayoral appointees.
Rice would bring new energy and enthusiasm to the at-large council job. And once elected, he won’t disappear, as most councilmembers do.
In Wards 1 and 5, the challengers are talking trash.
“We had a great morning,” Ward 1 challenger Jim Graham exclaimed last Saturday afternoon. “We moved eight tons of trash. And we’re talking serious trash.”
Every Saturday, Graham and his campaign workers pick up tons of trash around Ward 1 while shaking hands and handing out fliers.
That alone should warrant a change in council leadership in what the challenger claims is the city’s filthiest ward. But Graham, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, also pledges to be a hands-on councilmember, getting out in the community to tackle problems instead of hiding in his office, as 16-year incumbent Frank Smith is accused of doing.
Last weekend, Graham met with Smith’s own neighbors in the 300 block of T Street NW to hear their beefs about the incumbent’s failure to clean up the trash and drive out the drug dealers in his own front yard.
A change in Ward 1 is long overdue. Vote Graham, who has been endorsed by mayoral front-runner Williams.
In Ward 5, irascible incumbent Harry Thomas refuses to attend forums, leaving his four Democratic rivals to punch at a phantom over the councilmember’s support of trash-transfer stations in Northeast communities. The challengers can even tell their audiences how many toxins are released into the air from trash trucks rumbling through their streets.
But none have figured out how to unseat Thomas, despite his reckless driving habits and feuds with community leaders. Lawyer and accountant Vincent Orange, who has run for the council twice before, stands the only chance of beating the incumbent. But Orange is shadowed by housing activists who allege tenants in a Dupont Circle apartment building he manages are being exposed to lead paint poisoning and inhumane conditions due to broken electrical and air-conditioning systems.
In Ward 6, George Stallings stepped down from the pulpit of the breakaway African-American Catholic Church he founded, dropped the “Rev.” from his name, and tried to depict incumbent Ambrose as insensitive to public housing tenants and residents east of the Anacostia River.
But that depiction has resonated with few voters. Ambrose’s constituents seem pleased with her aggressive style, and she deserves to be re-elected.
In the only Statehood primary on the ballot, Howard University professor David Schwartzman gets the nod for D.C. delegate over Pat Kidd. Schwartzman is a longtime party member, while the opportunistic Kidd has just arrived, after losing a council bid two years ago running as a Democrat.