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City Paper’s 1998 Election Issue.
This summer’s crop of politicos would have you think they’re offering innovative ideas for the District’s future. Kevin Chavous talks about saving neighborhoods, Harold Brazil about managing finances, Jack Evans about a business renaissance. All of the candidates have drawn up big plans for D.C.’s future. On the hustings, they talk about “defining the debate.”
Trouble is, they haven’t. The 1998 debate was defined long before the candidates attached their posters to every lamppost in town. It was defined by Andrew Brimmer, Tom Davis, Lauch Faircloth, Charles Taylor, and Dick Armey. While the candidates may be talking about the pothole on your block or the school in your neighborhood, their scripts come straight from D.C.’s federal overseers.
They’re the ones who tell us how to view the errors of our home rule generation. They’re the ones who tell us where municipal priorities should lie. They’ve even outfitted us with the catch phrases to blast our vanquished leaders.
One of these days, though, this fall’s winners are going to govern. The control board will leave. Congress will get distracted. Elected rulers are going to be handed the burning baton of governance and yielded the bully pulpit of leadership. They’re going to have to write their own script. And then they’re going to grab for the power that Marion Barry didn’t even have in his Reagan-era heyday.
Which means that 1998 has to be more than a recitation contest. It means we have to do more than just suss out which candidates have learned their lessons best. Even if the rhetoric has changed, this year’s election still features the standard array of gimmicks, groaners, mysteries, old dogs with new tricks, and even older dogs with the same old tricks. Let Washington City Paper’s biennial political issue walk you through the pound.
It Might Be a White Thing
What would a majority-white D.C. Council mean for city politics?
By Michael Schaffer
Bill Rice has a drawing of a bicycle on his campaign literature. It is, he explains, a symbol of his knack for visiting every corner of his racially and economically divided city: In his earlier career as a reporter, the bicycle-propelled Rice got used to pedaling into neighborhoods many journalists visit only in locked cars.
The bike, like any symbol, connotes a lot more than Rice intends. No one ever compliments black politicians for showing up on MacArthur Boulevard, yet a white guy pedaling up Sheriff Road gets to profile as a race-blind idealist. Rice’s bicycle ultimately works to allay a persistent local fear: that a white candidate can’t truly know predominantly black Washington.
That concern may soon need to be addressed all across the District. Though the city’s population remains 60.3 percent African-American, the D.C. Council this fall may emerge from the electoral season with a white majority for the first time in its history. Five white incumbents sit on the existing 13-member body, and a glance at the fall campaign suggests that the addition of two new white members is a distinct possibility.
The math tells the story: Two of the five white councilmembers aren’t up for re-election. Another two, Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson and Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, look like winners. And three of the other seats up for grabs this fall could easily go to white candidates.
In Ward 1, Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Jim Graham, a white man, is mounting a ferocious Democratic primary challenge to African-American incumbent Frank Smith. In the race for this year’s two contested at-large seats, chances are fairly good that either Phil Mendelson or Bill Rice could use the Democratic nomination to take one of the spots, while incumbent Republican David Catania could hold onto the other one. The result would be a new council consisting of seven white members and six African-Americans.
This scenario is by no means certain: Smith is far from out of it in Ward 1, and African-American candidates Phyllis Outlaw, Gregg Rhett, and Sabrina Sojourner look like strong candidates for the Democratic at-large nomination. In November, Statehood Party incumbent Hilda Mason and Umoja Party candidate Mark Thompson, both African-Americans, could also emerge with seats. Still, depending how the numbers and the turnouts break, there is a better-than-even chance that most of the faces on the next council will be white ones.
To some extent, a shift toward a less black council would reflect a shift toward a less black city. The non-Hispanic black population has fallen to just over 60 percent from 70.3 percent in the 1980 Census. Ward-by-ward breakdowns show new white demographic muscle in Ward 2, which now has a slim white majority, and in Ward 1, which in 1990 was over 50 percent African-American but today has no clear majority. According to data from the District’s Office of Planning, Wards 1, 2, and 3 had the smallest population loss between 1990 and 1998, while Wards 5, 7, and 8the most heavily African-Americanall lost more than Washington’s 14.2 percent citywide average.
“You don’t have that consistent in-migration of blacks that built up the black population,” says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, a longtime District watcher. “Blacks are not replacing themselves. Whites are. With the out-migration, the District has a larger proportion of white population than it did in the 1970s when home rule was passed. So the electoral demographics are changingand it’s changing so that the white population has become the swing vote.”
Even if D.C. is less black than it used to be, a white council majority would nonetheless mark a major cultural shift in D.C. politics: A city whose quest for emancipation from white overseers is the stuff of local legend may once again feature a legislaturedemocratically elected, this timein which the white minority predominates. More remarkable still in a city where race is part of so many conversations, almost nobody is talking about it.
The reception area on the seventh story of One Judiciary Square, where the D.C. Council has its offices, is ringed with portraits of councils past. It’s a great place to check out disco-era fashion blundersdig Marion Barry from the ’77-’78 term, in a high-volume plaid three-piece suitbut it also presents a nice visual perspective on the evolving history of home rule in Washington.
That history has always included a council with a white member or two, because the city has always had a predominantly white ward or two. Ward 3, in Northwest, has always elected representatives from the white community. White legislators like Betty Ann Kane have also been able to win citywide seats for at-large positions.
D.C.’s most famous white politician, David Clarke, never had to rely on white votes. Clarke practiced the civil rights and social activism of home rule as fervently as the movement’s black leaders. He championed rent control, social welfare, and statehood, running on his movement track record as well as the politician’s standard array of promises and plans. “He didn’t have to say he was white, or apologize for being white,” remembers former Ward 7 colleague H.R. Crawford.
On the mayoral level, there are limits to that we-are-the-world ethos. It’s important to remember that the pan-racial appeal of Clarke petered out when he ran for mayoreven though he’d cruised to citywide victory as council chairman. White mayoral candidate Jack Evans has been out front in confronting race. By doing so, Evans acknowledges that it is a crucial question for an office whose occupant is as much civic symbol as government executive.
Council seats, however, have been far less symbolically loaded than the mayoral office. After the last election and the special elections that followed in 1997, the number of white councilmembers jumped from three to five, but the race issue is still rarely a part of council discussions. The ideology foisted on the city by five years of local atrophy and outside interferenceless cronyism, smaller government, and smaller dreamsappeals to voters of all ethnicities in a post-Barry District. In ward races and at-large contests alike, the talk is of potholes and services, not of who marched at Selma or who is more down with the folks. “Not a single person has called attention to race on the trail,” says Rice.
This year’s demographic changes on the council would, in places, reflect the city’s. For instance, in Ward 1, a victory by Graham or fellow challenger Todd Mosley would likely capitalize on the city’s burgeoning gay vote. Most of the homeowning gay men who have transformed several neighborhoods in Wards 1 and 2 are white. So are Evans, Catania, and Carol Schwartz, the councilmembers traditionally most popular with D.C.’s gay community.
More than raw demographics is at work in amplifying white power in a majority-black city. White candidates have an easier time pulling in money in a city economy still by and large white-controlled. The informal network of donors that is crucial for any candidate tends, at first, to consist of folks who share a candidate’s background, neighborhood, or profession. For years, the well-connected Evans has outpaced most council colleagues in fundraising. Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Graham, meanwhile, has had access to another branch of the giving tree through his connections as a longtime nonprofit fundraiser. Catania would have been just another who-was-that in the pantheon of also-rans if he hadn’t been able to put together money for his nascent campaign last December.
As well-funded white candidates have increasingly integrated the council, racial dynamics have begun to play a different role in people’s decisions. Umoja candidate Thompson says white Washingtonians are less eager to vote for African-Americans today. “The liberal white community does not feel the same sense of obligation that they once felt to elect black elected officials in a majority-black city,” he says. Thompson says media attacks on D.C.’s black elected officials have “Willie Horton-ized” them in the eyes of some white voters.
But Vickey Wilcher, a former Ambrose aide who helped her boss become Ward 6’s first white representative, says whatever changes the council may see will be due to less cross-racial suspicion, not more. According to Wilcher, a younger generation of black voters will help shape D.C.’s political future. “We’re smarter now,” says Wilcher. “We’re not going to just vote for the ‘Vote for me, I’m black’ guy, because we know that guy is just as likely to turn around andpardon my languagefuck us as the white guy is.”
Where Wilcher sees sophistication, others see fatigue. After five solid years of government atrophy, federal usurpation, and the forced dismantling of D.C.’s Great Society-civil rights movement heritage, some fear that talented, concerned African-Americans are just a lot less eager to run for office. According to former University of the District of Columbia urban affairs department chair Howard Croft, black Washingtonians ran for office in the ’70s and ’80s because they believed it would win them the city they wanted. Now that custody of the city is in the hands of Congress, some potential warriors wonder what they would be fighting for.
“More and more African-Americans in this city believe that politics does not work for them,” says Croft. “On the other hand, you do have a white population that believe that politics works for themthey’re getting the kind of city they wanted.” In the 1997 special election that elevated Ambrose over Croft and a slew of others to her Ward 6 council seat, Capitol Hill Precincts 85, 88, and 89historically whiter parts of the wardhad an average turnout of 42 percent, according to information on the D.C. Board of Elections Web site. Much more heavily African-American Precincts 133, 114, and 112, east of the Anacostia River, averaged just 18 percent.
Those who don’t want to read demographic or cultural trends into the council’s changing makeup can always opt for the coincidence theory. The council has taken on a certain musical-chairs quality of late, with candidates like Ambrose and Catania winning office through little-publicized special elections and, in both cases, achieving their considerable popularity after gaining office. When Catania won last December’s special electionthe third in a yearhis victory certainly had more to do with inept opposition than shifts in ideological or racial sensibilities. Yet given that the demographic change on the D.C. Council has been concurrent with a major shift in the city’s political priorities, pure happenstance remains a pretty hard case to make.
It’s been a subtle process of adding cream to the coffeeit’s a nuanced, little-remarked change that has taken place in a number of obscure elections over time. But trust that people will wake up and smell that coffee if the D.C. Council gets a white majority.
For some white people, the change would be a heartening one, more important than the simple election of three candidates. Of course, few will admit itand those who will won’t do so on the record. “I think it’s a good thing,” says a politically active Democrat. “Because it shows we’re a racially blind city, that we’re moving past all this stuff.” The Democrat says Capitol Hill and business will be particularly impressed with such a resultsomething that could wind up aiding the District’s economic development. Call it the Plan, or call it a zany coincidence, but some folks would have a kinder, gentler view of a whiter D.C.
Some black Washingtonians are whispering the same calculationalbeit in less exultant languageabout white candidates pleasing the outside powers.
Wilcher says D.C.’s African-Americans know that it’s their call. “How is there going to be a backlash?” she asks. “If it happens, we’re going to be the ones who did it.” Meaning that if whites end up dominating the D.C. Council, people can say it’s the black community’s own damn fault.
Of course, all of the speculation, math, and potential outcomes depend on who turns out on Election Day. Thompson, for one, fears African-Americans may be the minority of voters in the primaries.
To many in the city, a white council would just be the latest reversal of black-majority home rule. The past two years have featured the removal of major agencies from mayoral control, the installation of an unelected school board, the appointment a white woman from Texas as chief management officer, and the elevation of a white woman to run the control board. With Congress bearing down on them, it’s likely that a council of any racial composition will keep working with these folks to maintain the belt-tightening agenda that has left many poorer people feeling cut. According to Jim Gibson of D.C. Agenda, D.C.’s lack of a white working class means flaps over proposed cutbacks can, inaccurately, be perceived as racial. “If it were Seattle or Portland, they’d call it a class reaction,” he says.
With such a backdrop, particularly if the national economy goes in the drink, D.C.’s white leadershipof both the elected and the unelected varietycould become a lightning rod for people alienated by retrenching government. It’s fine and well to say that potholes are nonracial, but when things get tight, resentment has a logic all its own.
For a century, the city was run like a plantation. The past few years’ worth of demographic changes, electoral coincidences, and political-cultural shifts haven’t quite buried that history the way they’ve buried the home rule dreams of building Chocolate City. “Race is a factor we can always count on as injecting an element into politics that is irrational and pathological,” says Gibson. A change that has up to now seemed organic and incremental, once realized, could end up having a radical impact. CP
Sign Me Up
By Bradford McKee
The clumps of Coreopsis “Moonbeam” and ivy are almost getting crowded out of Robert Hodgson Jr.’s tiny front yard at 1680 Kalorama Rd. NW in Reed-Cooke. Not by weeds, but by another prolific late-summer bloomer: campaign signs. Hodgson has about as many signs as he has square feet of available space. The front-yard slate, Hodgson says, reflects his support for neoconservative fiscal policy and gay rights. There are props for Jack Evans, Phil Mendelson, Linda Cropp, David Catania, and Hodgson’s current boss, Jim Grahamnot counting the Clinton/Gore sticker still warping in his front window.
“I told David Catania, ‘You’re the last candidate I can support, or I’m going to have to get a bigger yard,’” joshes Hodgson, who currently works as Graham’s west-side field coordinator, and who previously served as Cropp’s campaign manager, and worked for Sharon Ambrose in last year’s special election.
The signs are a blunt way to convey his refined views on D.C. politics. Although he put up his sign for Evans, deep down he thinks Harold Brazil should win the mayoral race. “Harold is the most competent candidate to be mayor,” Hodgson says, “but his campaign has gone nowhere and is going nowhere. As for Jack [Evans], he’s done a lot for gay and lesbian people in D.C., and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that.” With any luck, Hodgson himself will get in on the payback come November. “I will have a job,” he avers, “if the right person is elected.”
øQuien Es Mas Macho?
Scrambling for every last vote, D.C. pols don sombreros to win los votos latinos.
By Jake Tapper
Todd Mosley is determined to pick up every last Latino vote in the race for the Ward 1 D.C. Council seat. At the July 25 Latino Civil Rights Center debates, a young Latina, maybe 7 years old, hands out fliers on his behalf. Mosley says that earlier in the day, a group of Latino vendors took him to lunch to toast his advocacy on their behalf. In case those credentials don’t cut it, Mosley has plastered Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights with posters telling the Spanish-speaking voter: “Reciba más con Mosley” (“Get the Most With Mosley”). Mosley’s dark, goateed face decorates each one, but when asked if he has Latino ancestry he ‘fesses up: “No, I just look it a little bit. Everybody tells me I look it.”
Mosley has powerful incentives to profile like el candidato. “Society is not black and white anymore,” observes Ernesto Clavijo, a reporter with Univision’s local news coverage on Channel 48. “We’re also brown. And the brown part is growing faster than the other parts of the population. And people want to exercise their vote….They’re very dissatisfied.”
Santiago Távara, editor of the La Naci&oactute;n, delivers a less boosterish assessment: Latinos constitute about 5 percent of D.C. voters, but “because there are so many candidates, they’re counting every vote.” Távara, whose newspaper has endorsed Anthony Williams for mayor and Jim Graham for the Ward 1 council seat, also says that as the Latino population balloons, pols are paving the way for future campaigns. “In a few years, the Latino population will be more in number than the African-American population,” he says, overstating a trend that nonetheless can’t be denied. For that reason, according to Távara, this election marks “the first time that [politicians] are so aggressively approaching the Latino voters.”
It also accounts for the cheesy scene outside the July 25 debates. Two supporters of Councilmember Frank Smith make like mariachisone strums a guitar, the other shakes a shakarand ditties as authentic as “La Bamba” flow from their Anglo mouths. Mosley seizes the moment, and a little of his opponent’s juju, by grabbing a woman and, for a few moments, using the sidewalk as a flamenco dance floor. He’s not that bad.
At the start of the debate, incumbent Smith demonstrates his feel for la comunidad by announcing he’ll set aside 30 seconds of his two-minute introductory statement for a moment of silence to honor the recent passing of supporter Eduardo Perdomo. Smith’s “30 seconds” tick-tock down more like five in real time, but he’s made his point: The Latino vote in Ward 1 is important, and he respects it. In case you were wondering if Latinos other than the departed Perdomo support Smith, he’s provided a list of 34 “Latinos for Frank Smith.”
Smith’s challengers use other ploys to project la credibilidad: The Green Party’s Scott McLarty rattles off an impressive, if poorly accented, stump speech en español; Democrat Baruti “BJ” Jahi can’t muster a whole speech but manages to come up with a loud CÛmo estás? Despite his self-proclaimed Latino visage, Mosley admits to the crowd that Spanish was the one college class he flunked, and delivers his remarks solamente en inglés.
The mayoral hopefuls have bypassed South of the Border kitsch in favor of more sophisticated outreach. Kevin Chavous hired political consultant Pedro Aviles to run phone banks specifically targeting voters with Latino surnames. Harold Brazil has taken a more direct route, appealing to Latino voters at area Latino churches and on the two main Spanish-speaking AM radio stations in town, according to Daniel Jones, the campaign’s Latino coordinator. Brazil’s appeals are delivered mainly in English, Jones admits, because the candidate can muster little more than: “Vote por mÌ. Me llamo Harold Brazil. Soy el candidato de los latinos.”
“Every candidate’s trying to get the attention of the community, and trying to be original,” says Latino Civil Rights Center Executive Director Mario Acosta-Vélez. Attempts by white and black candidates to seem brown, says Acosta-Vélez, aren’t in any way patronizing; on the contrary, he says, “they are just trying to appeal to the community in different waysit’s part of the whole game.”
Regardless of linguistic barriers, candidates all talk a good game on hot-button issues for Latinos. None of the candidates, for example, hesitate to hammer the D.C. public schools for failing to provide services to Spanish-speaking students, or the city bureaucracy for discriminating against Latinos, such as when Department of Motor Vehicles employees insist on seeing Latino drivers’ immigration papers (a request Acosta-Vélez says is against the law).
Getting the office-seekers to wax rhetorical in favor of Spanish-speaking guidance counselors, after all, is like asking a Redskins season-ticket-holder to support free beer. What Acosta-Vélez has found a tougher sell is a key item from the Latino Civil Rights Center’s 1998 Public Policy Platform: requiring the District government to fill 10 percent of its jobs with employees of Latino descent. That idea smacks of affirmative action, a toxic issue none of the major candidates will touch. “Right now [the percentage of Latinos working in District government] is like 2 percent,” he says. “Or less.”
To reach his magic number, Acosta-Vélez will have to boost another tally: Latino candidates for elective offices around the city, of which there are zero. Only one Latino currently holds elective office in the entire cityadvisory neighborhood commissioner Omar Zavala, who isn’t running for re-election. The scarcity of Latino candidates has always been a “main concern,” says Acosta-Vélez, who anticipates more (or even just one) Latino candidates in the next election cycle. Until then, though, he and his compañeros will have to suffer the pidgin español of the white and black faces before them.
However much salsa the candidates end up splattering around, politics is politics in the District. When asked about La NaciÛn’s endorsement of Williams, Chavous adviser Aviles says, “We’ve been informed that Tony Williams is one of [La NaciÛn’s] stockholders. You might want to check on that.” We did: It isn’t true. As of press time, it couldn’t be ascertained whether Williams is a stockholder in the Hispanic Business Alliance, the Organization of Salvadoran Americans, or the local branch of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, all of which also have endorsed the bow-tied front-runner. Maybe “Antonio” Williams knows something about la gente the rest of the candidates don’t. CP
Fish In a Barrel
Out of a thousand possible campaign issues, pandering candidates have seized upon parking ticketsthe one thing D.C. does right.
By Amanda Ripley
People call Deborah Morton a bitch. They call her stupid and tell her to get a real job. Morton, however, can’t concern herself with the abuse. She has been on the job for two hours today and has already issued 35 parking tickets. That’s on a Friday in August, when a lot of the regular violators are away on vacation. Two days prior, Morton pumped out 85 tickets. If she keeps it up, she’ll net close to 90 today.
Better slow down. Ninety is a dirty number in her line of work. Until this summer, Morton was one of the most efficient employees in the D.C. government. In two years, she went through three pairs of sneakers. For a salary of under $10 an hour, Morton would give out an average of 90 tickets a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. She called the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) 90-tickets-a-day guideline a performance-review standard. District leaders and their car-dependent followers called it a nasty, scurrilous quota. In June, District Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett had a stern meeting with DPW officials, who owned up to the 90-a-day goal.
In doing so, they gifted some of the city’s opportunistic politicos with a rallying cry for the campaign trail. At-large D.C. Council candidate Bill Rice has made the parking-ticket “war” a symbol of what’s wrong with the District; so have mayoral candidates Harold Brazil, Carol Schwartz, and Jack Evans.
Whether it was political pressure from the Rices and Brazils or just the workings of the omnipotent Barnett, the quotas tumbled in a DPW press conference on Aug. 21. Now parking-ticket-writers are supposed to be customer-friendly. They are judged not by the number of tickets they write, but by how crisp their uniforms are and whether they get to work on time. They spend less time on the streets and more time in customer-service seminars, where they watch video clips of rude cashiers and get lectures from D.C. tour guides about how to be street-level ambassadors.
And that, according to the powers that be and wanna be, is good government at work.
Candidate Bill Rice appreciates the rallying power of a common enemy. His campaign put up 15 anti-ticket signs by the ticket adjudication office downtown. In July, it dropped 10,000 parking-ticket simulacra on cars all over town. Rice is quoted in large print on each pink slip: “The parking ticket policy is war against D.C. citizens!” He calls the 90-ticket quota a “punitive policy” that symbolizes “why D.C. government is considered [an] unfriendly place for residents and businesses alike.” You wouldn’t think Rice would be so passionate about vehicular concerns, given that the symbol of his candidacy is the bike he rides all over town. But Rice swears he speaks for the people when he agitates about aggressive ticketing.
All that politicking, says Rice, is what forced Barnett’s hand. “I brought this issue out,” he says, adding that the sins of parking enforcement don’t end with the quota system. He’s calling on the city’s inspector general to investigate the parking-ticket racket. Then there should be a D.C. Council hearing, he says.
Rice could spend a good hour arguing with other office-seekers over who debuted parking enforcement as a political issue. Mayoral contender Harold Brazil, for example, went as far as to declare himself “your parking mayor in 1998 and beyond.” In addition to touting his “Parking Relief Act of 1991” at forums across town, Brazil has denounced the “predatory practices” of the blue-and-white foot soldiers. Republican Carol Schwartz held a press conference to herald her measure allowing free parking at meters at night and on Saturdays.
Candidates who don’t have pro-parking legislation in their pasts can at least spout some venom. Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral contender Jack Evans: “Parking-ticket-writers go out and, in order to meet their quota, stand at parking meters at 6:30 at night waiting for someone to come in a minute early to plop a ticket on that car,” he said at a June mayoral debate.
Vilifying meter maids is good politics because it’s wildly popular among the people who vote and give money to campaignsthe people who have cars. And despite Rice’s claims to the contrary, it’s a perennial. Years agoafter city leaders waxed outraged over the rumored quotaMayor Sharon Pratt Kelly made just the sort of promises Barnett has made, vowing that ticket-writers would be friendlier and more service-oriented. In a 1991 Outlook story for the Washington Post, Brazil referred to parking tickets as those “evil pink flags.”
Motorists do get bogus ticketsmost often for violations that weren’t posted or for cars that were stolen. “Sometimes I honestly feel that we make mistakes,” Morton admits. But that’s what the adjudication system is for. If the ticket isn’t fair, Morton says, it won’t stand. According to a D.C. Council report, 28,414 of the million-plus tickets issued for parking and related violations in 1996 were dismissed after the recipients gave the city worthy explanations. “We cannot issue a ticket if they’re not in violation,” Morton insists.
In the 20 years he’s lived in D.C., Brazil supporter Shaun Pharr has gotten many parking tickets. He says he considers himself a “victim” of “unduly aggressive” ticket-writers, and he applauds efforts to ease up on drivers. Still, admits Pharr, “Every [ticket] I’ve gotten I’ve probably earnedtechnically.”
It takes Morton about a minute to write out a ticket. And less to find a car that deserves one. On her beat near Union Station in downtown D.C., red meters blink all the way up the block. On an average day, she’s on the streets for six hours, not including two half-hour breaks and time spent at roll call at the beginning of her shift. If she writes just 15 tickets an hour, or one every four minutes, that adds up to 90 tickets. The number of violators varies with the day, but she doesn’t have to slink through shadows to find them.
And for every person who bitches about unfair tickets, there’s someone who gets off scot-free. Although she may be keeping her pen capped to ensure good PR for DPW and Barnett, Morton says she figures the Bell Atlantic repairman needs a little extra time. And the car parked illegally by Gonzaga College High School gets a bye. “He’s probably registering,” Morton says. Morton claims she won’t finish a ticket if the driver appears before she’s done.
Tickets written tend to be tickets deserved. After Morton slaps a ticket on a shiny white Lexus, a man starts yelling at her from down the street. She turns around slowly. He’s running toward her now, still talking on his cell phone. When he gets to the car, he starts waving his hands, demanding an explanation. Morton points to the street-cleaning sign right next to the Lexus, clearly prohibiting parking during that period. At first, the man argues that the sign is confusing. She lets him talk. Then she shows him the back of the ticket, explaining how to appeal. By the time he walks away to get back on his cell phone, he’s smiling. “OK, thank you,” he says to Morton.
Morton’s patience and people skills make her a valuable commodity in the D.C. bureaucracy, as Schwartz pointed out in a June mayoral debate. “First of all,” she said, “I would put the parking meter people in charge of every aspect of our government. I’d like them filling potholes. They would get it done. I would like them fixing the roofs in the our school buildings. They would get it done.”
Instead, these DPW busybodies drive residents out of D.C., or so the parking crusaders claim. But so does a lack of parking, which gets worse when restrictions go unenforced and spaces don’t turn over. And if you think it’s bad in D.C., go to New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has told even diplomats they can damn well leave if they don’t like parking tickets. Or Virginia, where Arlington authorities have recently started forcing handicapped people to pay for meters. The District has yet to take up that “predatory” practice, even though it would raise big bucks. On an average weekday, Morton and other city officials claim, up to half of the parking spaces are tied up by people using handicapped placards.
And even though Rice calls aggressive ticket-writing a war on D.C. citizens, more than half of the tickets Morton issues on her shift that Friday afternoon land on cars with suburban tags. Of the approximately 1 million cars circulating through the city each weekday, almost four out of five are not registered in D.C., according to a DPW report. Parking tickets represent the next best thing to a commuter tax. Until Barnett’s crackdown on ticket writing, the practice brought in $49 million dollars a year.
For God’s sake, people report having tried to chase down ticket-writersand failed. If only the cops were that fit.
Not everyone has gotten the word about the new Starbucks-caliber service of parking-ticket-writers. Patrick, a Nigerian-born construction worker, has an impression of ticket-writers that will be hard to reshape. “If I saw one of them drowning, I would walk away,” he says. His work site is right next to the 65 K St. NE ticket adjudication office, and he’s just been approached by Morton, who wants to know how long a construction truck is going to be parked on the sidewalk. There’s some talk of a permit, but the issue is quickly forgotten as Patrick seizes his day in court, rattling off war stories and demanding explanations for past wrongs. “I put 45 minutes in that meter and you gave me 30 minutes,” he says.
Not waiting for a response, Patrick complains about a ticket he got for allegedly running a supposedly red light. It doesn’t matter that the police and the DPW ticket-writers aren’t the same folks. He then coins a soundbite that would work well for folks like Brazil, Evans, and Rice: “You people hide in the bushes.” CP
Part-Timers Finally Show Up
D.C. councilmembers will do anything to prepare for the campaign season, including showing up for work.
By Frappa Stout and Eve Tushnet
Harry Thomas apparently isn’t too concerned about losing his position as Ward 5 representative on the D.C. Council. During this summer’s campaign, Thomas has skulked out of candidates forums, antagonized labor leaders, and dismissed his rivals in the Sept. 15 primary as poseurs.
And over the past couple of years, Thomas hasn’t been a role model on the council, either. Washington City Paper’s biennial analysis of attendance at council votes places Thomas last among the 13 councilmembers. In the two council sessions since January 1997aka Council Period 12Thomas missed 24 percent of all council votes.
However, Thomas denies that he has missed so many votesas far as he can remember. “I’m one of the few guys who is always there. I’m there for consent and everything elseunless it was when I went out of town a couple of times,” he says. And when asked whether there was a health emergency that caused his absence: “There may have been….I can’t remember.”
His colleagues remember things a little differently. “I know there have been a number of times when [Thomas] has been absent,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
The Ward 5 councilmember, though, was the only D.C. politico whose impending campaign induced torpor. Worried about alienating voters and hoping for a few extra crumbs from Congress, councilmembers once renowned for playing hooky are putting in face time on the dais. “All but two councilmembers are running for something this year,” notes Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “They decided it behooved them to pay attention.”
Ambrose’s generality doesn’t work for all of her colleagues. At-Large Councilmember David Catania, for example, joined the council last December amid pledges of accountability and oversight. In just seven months, though, Catania racked up one of the council’s worst attendance records, registering absences on 25 of 287 votesa fourth-to-last-place showing. When asked to account for his record, Catania refused comment, insisting he needed to check the tally for himself. If he does, he’ll find absent marks alongside critical council actions such as a whistle-blower protection act, a bill granting enforcement powers to the city’s inspector general, and a welfare reform act.
Catania can only hope that D.C. voters care as little about attendance as in 1996, when Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous breezed to re-election with a dead-last attendance ranking (see “Absent and Unaccounted For,” 8/30/96). Chavous and then-Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil missed over a quarter of the council’s votes in the 1995 and 1996 sessions, aka Council Period 11.
Since then, they must have decided that 99 percent of running for office is showing up for the one you have: Mayoral contender Brazil didn’t even make the bottom three in this year’s rankings. Chavous, another mayoral wannabe, climbed two spots, missing only 12 percent of the votes.
In Council Period 12, the average councilmember missed only 36 votes out of 681, or just over 5 percent, compared with 13 percent in the previous period.
The improvements seem to translate into better government for D.C. residents. Many bills before the council have two or sometimes three “readings,” or votes. In Washington City Paper’s last survey, Chavous and Brazil had missed all the votes on critical measures like budget and health-care legislation. This time around, when an important bill had two or three readings, almost nobody missed all of them.
Patterson says councilmembers now know their records are being scrutinized: “[They] have been much more circumspect about being in attendance for major votes. Councilmembers are more aware of their voting records.”
Patterson has no dearth of credibility when it comes to judging her colleagues on attendance: She missed only one vote0.1 percent of all council votesin Council Period 12, a distinction that she shares with Chair Linda Cropp. “It may have been that I stepped out to go to the restroom,” says Patterson of her missed vote, the final reading of the Business Improvement Districts Emergency Amendment Act of 1997.
Thomas, first elected in 1986, is fighting for a fourth term against six candidates, the best known of whom is Vincent Orange. According to informed sources, Thomas suffered a stroke late last yearwhich may explain why nearly 61 percent of his absences occurred in the first six months of 1998.
And even though Thomas seems to be back in better health, he won’t relinquish his title as king of the don’t-shows unless Ward 4’s Charlene Drew Jarvis skips out on a few more votes. Jarvis, who served as chairman pro tempore for much of Council Period 12, still managed to miss a stunning 103 votes, or 15 percent of the total. “That isn’t anything that comports with my attendance,” argues Jarvis. “I’m not one who misses council meetings.”
“She missed votes for meetings she was present at,” says Council Secretary Phyllis Jones. That may sound impossible, but not when it comes to the council. Jones suggests that Jarvis may have ducked out of votes to get some food or use the bathroom. Jarvis missed most of her votes74 out of 103during just two sessions.
However, those votes are just as important as any others. Some say that since she became president of Southeastern University in July 1996, Jarvis has been burning the candle at both ends. Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, city historian and president of the 16th Street Neighborhood Association, says Jarvis has not been seen as often in her ward lately. “Some of our members feel that we need more presence from her office,” she says.
And present doesn’t always mean accounted for, according to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. He says mayoral opponent Chavous has a simple MO when it comes to missing votes. “What Kevin does is he shows up, just to be marked present, and then he leaves,” he says.
That theory may explain why Adam Maier, a campaign volunteer for Chavous, insists his candidate’s record is actually better. “What we’ve got in our records is a study that was done by Kevin’s office. From ’93 to ’98, [of] 127 legislative sessions, he was absent for seven, making over 90 percent.” Like any home-cooked figures, though, the Chavous numbers skew reality, including only sessions in which Chavous missed every single votenot sessions where he left in the middle.
In Council Period 11, Chavous’ ranking sank under the weight of his absence from number-heavy consent-agenda votes. The consent agenda is a long docket of action items, set aside as noncontroversial by the council’s Committee of the Whole, that are approved with one vote at the beginning of a meeting. It typically contains items like the Bishop Aimilianos Laloussis Park Designation Act and the Definition of Optometry Act.
Evans also blames consent-agenda votes for his fifth-to-last place standing in Washington City Paper’s 1996 survey. Evans claims he was at the hospital with his wife, Noel, who was pregnant with their now 21-month-old triplets, when he missed two lengthy consent-agenda votes, distorting his record. This period, Evans missed only 18 votes, or 2.5 percent, putting him in the top half. “My record has not improved,” he says. “It has always been good.”
Brazil did even better. This period, the at-large councilmember missed only 14 votes, or 2 percentgiving himself the greatest margin of improvement over last period. However, that doesn’t mean his record is cleanhe actually missed votes in more sessions than Evans. One of Brazil’s colleagues says he is famous for pulling the in-and-out routine.
Patterson says a vote cast doesn’t necessarily reflect a vote considered. She fingers colleagues who show up to give their “aye” or “nay,” then scurry out the door, missing any debate on the issues. Another member says that colleagues do the same at council hearings, reciting a set-piece speech and then leaving. “Harold does it all the time. Kevin does it. Harold’s done it a couple of times at the Special Investigative Committee on the Police,” says another council source.
And frivolous consent agendas are not the only votes being missed. On July 1, 1997, six councilmembers were absent for the final reading of the budget bill for fiscal year 1998. “It’s an important act,” says Jones. She suggests that members probably missed the final vote because they had already voted on the budget in an earlier legislative session.
That kind of bump-and-run approach to governance has to go, says Patterson. “Sometimes there are critical amendments that surface between first and final readings,” says Patterson. “It’s important to be there for all of the discussion.” That means sitting through every single consent agenda, enduring lengthy debates, and suffering through meetings that can last as long as 16 hours.
Why are Patterson and Cropp the only ones equal to the task? Some members argue that these two, who have no outside employment, just aren’t as busy. “Most people are out because they’re doing other council-related things,” says Evans. “It’s not like they’re sitting outside having a cigarette.”
Input = Output
The chart below shows the number of votes each councilmember missed from January 1997 to July 1998 and the percentage of missed votes as measured against the total of 681. Also included is each councilmember’s rank in vote attendance for the previous council period:
Kathy Patterson, Ward 3: 1 vote .1% (1)
Linda Cropp, Chair: 1 vote .1% (5)
Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6: 3 votes .5% (n/a)*
Hilda Mason, At-Large: 7 votes 1% (2)
Carol Schwartz, At-Large: 9 votes 1% (n/a)
Harold Brazil, At-Large: 14 votes 2% (11)
Jack Evans, Ward 2: 18 votes 2.5% (9)
Sandy Allen, Ward 8: 19 votes 3% (n/a)
Frank Smith, Ward 1: 27 votes 4% (7)
David Catania, At-Large: 25 votes 9% (n/a)*
Kevin Chavous, Ward 7: 84 votes 12% (13)
Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 4: 103 votes 15% (6)
Harry Thomas, Ward 5: 163 votes 24% (10)
* Percentages for Ambrose and Catania, who were elected mid-term, are computed from 5/9/97 to 7/7/98 for Ambrose and from 12/15/97 to 7/7/98 for Catania. CP
Ward 2 school board candidate Raymond Avrutis desperately wants to help save District schools. Almost as desperately as he needs a job.
By Eddie Dean
Everything is mellow at Cafe Luna on P Street NW this late summer afternoon: pastel decor, low lighting, the Ben Folds Five’s alt-pap whining on the house stereo, and a handful of bookworms nibbling at salads. Everything, that is, except Raymond Avrutis.
At a side table, Avrutis is putting on a one-man show, clapping his hands, stomping his feet, and chanting his adaptation of a civil rights anthem he sang as a teen. “Ohhh textbooks,” he bellows in closed-eyed rapture. “Ohhh textbooks! Ohhh textbooks over me, over me. And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” Loud and overbearing as it is, no one pays much attention; Avrutis is a regular at Luna.
Besides, this is only a rehearsal. Avrutis plans to play chorus leader at a sit-in as part of his campaign for the Ward 2 seat on the D.C. Board of Education. The dearth of up-to-date science and social studies textbooks obsesses Avrutis, and he has made it the main plank in his platform. He’s still seething that the school system has failed to order new books, leaving inadequate materials in the desks of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students. “We have complaints periodically that the texts are older than the kids,” confirms Mary Levy, researcher for the advocacy group Parents United.
Not that there’s all that much Avrutis can do about it, elected or not: The school board can’t compel DCPS to buy erasers and rulers, let alone solve the textbook shortage. In November 1996, the control board stripped away nearly all of its powers and entrusted them to the D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees. That’s why it falls to radicals like him to use old-fashioned, nonviolent protest to speed up the reforms of DCPS Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. It’s a deeply personal vision of electoral governance and direct action that yields an odd prospective list of job duties. “The school board can appoint charter schoolsand get arrested to get textbooks for the childrenthat’s about it,” says Avrutis. “So I want the parents and teachers arrested and me arrested, to get these books. I see my role in this not so much as a school board member but as the children’s representative. I want to raise hell for the children.”
And yet Avrutis readily admits what many a politician dare not speak: Sure, he cares about the children, among the most underserved, cheated students in the nation. But he also cares deeply about Raymond Avrutis, who has been mostly unemployed for more than two decades. So even if November’s school board election isn’t exactly the most anticipated event of the political season, it’s a chance for Avrutis to finally nab his first steady paying gig since the Nixon years. “I’m 50 years old,” he says. “And when you’re 50, you find your mission. And I’m also looking for a job.”
Back in the ’60s, Avrutis picked up his radical sensibilities at the now-defunct private Walden School in the District. He says his parents tried to enroll him in public schools but he was rejected due to his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He remembers fondly his time at Walden, particularly the faculty. “They were a bunch of beatniks,” he says. “They were teaching us about sex and love and relationships. We read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. It was an experimental, bohemian high school….That’s probably why I’m in favor of charter schools now.”
After graduating from Walden in ’65, Avrutis enrolled at American University, where he made a brief foray into politics as senior class president, and later garnered a graduate degree in sociology from New York University. Back in his native D.C., he earned an M.S. in labor studies from the University of the District of Columbia and became a research writer at the National Council of Crime and Delinquency; then he was laid off and his world fell apart. “I couldn’t do the job as well as they wanted it done,” he says. “And I didn’t fit in with the straight-laced people at the office.”
His exile from the workplace soon became permanent, and his journey through unemployment offices resulted in a book, How to Maximize Your Unemployment Benefits, a between-opportunities homage to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. First published in 1975, the acclaimed how-to guide survived through three editions and three publishers before it went out of print last month. No one has benefited more from the book’s lessons than Avrutis himself: By working sporadically as a clerical temp and repeatedly getting laid off, he has managed to exhaust his unemployment claims no fewer than 11 times. For nearly 20 years, the bachelor has resided in a rent-controlled Dupont Circle efficiency and subsisted on disability checks and an annuity left by his late father, who was run down by a speeding fish delivery van on a New York City street.
And yet, all this time, Avrutis says he has never stopped looking for a regular job, anything short of manual labor. His brief stint as a fast-food cook ended in his dismissal. He carries a business card that reads “$100 Reward for Information Leading to My Obtaining a Full-Time Job” and the motto: “I Don’t Smoke or Drive.” According to Avrutis, he has handed out more than 2,000 cards and has yet to find a taker for the reward money. Meanwhile, he has continued to write articles and pamphlets in the for-the-downtrodden tradition of his book, which he likens to Noah’s Ark (“a lifeboat in the flood of capitalist greed”). His most recent piece, entitled “How to GET FREE FOOD from a Quality Restaurant,” features such tidbits as “Vegetarian places and eateries staffed by hippies are often good for many free meals” as well as the caveat to those who would abuse the advice: “Those pretending to be poor and needy who really aren’t may have the reality of poverty thrust upon them in their next life, perhaps in a foreign country.”
It’s a brand of homespun wisdom that Avrutis wants to bring to local politics. In 1996, Avrutis tried to run for a seat on the D.C. Council, but he fell short of the required 250 signatures on his petition. In his bid for a school board seat, he exceeded the 200-signature threshold and filed his papers before all of his opponents. So far, he has spent nearly $100 on copies of his seven-point campaign platform; his pet project is the so-called Slum School of the Week, an exposé that would feature a photo and editorial harangue against the offender.
The candidate’s election war chest tops out at $5 and comes from one source: a Ward 2 voter who met Avrutis in a McDonald’s. (Avrutis says he will accept no individual donation more than that amount.)
Though a long shot, Avrutis says he’s ready for the upcoming election, which may be the most ignored contest this November. Even the incumbent has decided it’s not worth the effort. Not only does the school board have no power, but the control board slashed reps’ salaries from more than $30,000 to $15,000. “It was a difficult decision, but the money was an issue,” says Ann Wilcox, an attorney who opted not to run for another term as the Ward 2 rep. “I wanted to have something more full-time. And while I think the board may transition back to getting its authority, I think its position is still precarious.”
To Avrutis, those words ring of the mainstream politics he is vowing to uproot. “She’s a good lady, but she’s like Jack Evans, who’s a good city council person. They’re not radical like I am. I don’t have the social graces to fit in with the wealthy. I want to change things up.”
Avrutis, though, may need more than radical fervor and five bucks to overcome his five challengers, who range from a concerned parent to a minister to a policymaker who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations. “I have an 11-year-old in a D.C. school, and that’s the reason I’m running,” says longtime activist Westy Byrd. “The money needs to go into the classrooms and not into a bloated bureaucracy. We don’t need any trips to Florida in the wintertime for administrators when our teachers are spending their own money on toilet paper.”
Avrutis can match her outrage word for word, and add in some invective for good measure. “We need an accountant to come in and see where the money’s been going, and find the thievesthose sons of bitches who stole from the children,” he says. “Like it says in the Book of Mark, ‘If you make the little ones suffer, it is better for you not have been born.’” Avrutis says DCPS’s little ones suffer every time they bite into a school lunch. “[Former DCPS head Gen. Julius] Becton was quoted as saying that the food in schools was ‘bland but passable,’” says Avrutis. “I will be dipped in dog turds and sued for having a bad odor if I’m going to send any kid to school for 12 years and expect that kid to eat ‘bland but passable’ food.”
If his rhetoric doesn’t shake up this year’s school board elections, maybe some of Avrutis’ proposals will. To help children from broken homes get through their classes, Avrutis advocates hiring former military personnel in uniform as mentors. And he wants every labor union in the city to hire DCPS students who don’t want to go to college as apprentices. “The best social program is a job,” he says. On this subject, above all others, Avrutis knows whereof he speaks. CP
A bloodsucking lament for the District’s future
By Bradford McKee
It looks as if D.C. is finally coming out of the woodsnever mind the fact that the woods are the best place in town to be. We have a budget surplus. We have a new police chief and cops who, at times, actually troll the alleys without having to be asked by 911. The infant mortality rate in Washington is dropping closer to that of an industrialized nation. There’s a new school superintendent, and classes actually opened on time this year. We have a higher municipal bond rating.
It’s all very bracing and threatening at the same time. The past tense of Marion Barry will be our own local version of that queasy time after the Cold War ended for the Soviets. In Barry’s place, we will likely get the Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt for mayorsomebody we don’t know terribly well, but with whom we’re willing to deal anyway because, well, he’s not one of those guys. The faces of the D.C. Council are likely to change, too, and beyond that shift lie promises of new trolley buses and improved access to Little League baseballnot to mention murmurs of restoring home rule. It seems that the D.C. we’ve come to know and loathe is poised to turn into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the D.C. that Fanny Trollope liked so well.
But failure, we have found, is a secure place. Deep down in our subconscious, the citizens of D.C.troopers who always seem ready for anythinghave developed a perverted fear of success, and we are totally unprepared for the likelihood that things actually will get better.
The sport of apocalyptic lament has blossomed into a profitable service industry employing thousands of people in the city and serving as a durable hobby for countless others. Look no further than the pages of Washington City Paper, a franchise fueled by dysfunction. What can we possibly produce without the reliable raw materials of scandal and discontent?
Over the years, municipal hopelessness has grown with each serial application of dull shocksthe flow of drugs and blood, the militarized zoning of the neighborhoods, the nasty water, the snow-buried streets, the trash haulers’ seizure of downtown one morning, the jailing of our mayor another. The pain has turned chronic; it has fallen into the background of the everyday, and complaining about it has become as much a part of the city’s landscape as empty malt liquor bottles.
Discomfort often brings a measure of clarity to our sensesD.C. keeps its collective psyche stable by inertia and snuffed expectations. The city’s relentless alienation has been dreadful in large ways, but nifty in little onesit frees you and me from blame for the decay all around us. What’s one more flicked cigarette butt into a sea of flotsam? Why not make that illegal left turn, seeing how gangs have sprayed graffiti on the traffic sign prohibiting it? Because our city is always getting over on us, we’ve all become small-time outlaws as a form of payback in the civics department.
The excuses and alibis of the it’s-bigger-than-we-are mind-set have long since insinuated themselves into the District’s popular blue-book valuation and become, for better and for worse, a way of livingooh, the noir glamour of a hardship post! Ah, the righteous confidence that one is superior to the system. All of that, it would seem, is about to roll over. And when you take away a people’s way of life, no matter how awful, and supplant it with something strange and diceyas any average Russian today can tell youthe future becomes a genuinely scary place.
We resent people who pretend to do us favors, and we resent those who actually do us favors even more. Feel for the losers on Election Day, but save your deepest pity for the winners. They are doomed to be less than they would be or should be because we have again reserved the right to be disappointed.
I remember feeling shades of unease one morning while sitting on my brother’s front porch in San Francisco, where I witnessed an amazing phenomenon: street-cleaning day. A parking cop came down the street in a little Cushman, a block ahead of the street sweeper. There were only two cars illegally parked; he ticketed them, and the sweeper edged around them. Like clockwork! I tried to imagine such a paradigm in D.C. and immediately dismissed the idea as too nicey-nicey. (At the time, I hadn’t seen a regular street cleaner since the late Dave Clarke, who lived up the street from me, first became D.C. Council chairman.) What do these San Francisco peoplewho aren’t up every morning fighting for basic services or debating the merits of suffragedo with their time? I couldn’t wait to get home.
Well, now the streets here are being swept with the same sanitary efficiency that I saw by the Bay. With cleaner streets come other initiatives that whitewash our urban landscape: homeless crackdowns and the shuttering of corner bodegas.
The folks in New York thought they were waiting for order, too, and now look at those malcontents squirming under the “good government” of Rudy Giuliani as he closes down sex shops and socially engineers pedestrian behavior. Next, he’ll implement diction lessons. Manhattan has never been so safeor so boring.
The promise of new order inevitably means the threat of new capital, which has already begun to cross the formerly money-proof District line. It means that prospective homebuyers in my neighborhood wash their hair too much and tuck their shirts into their tennis shortson Saturdays. It also means that speculative developers are gutting 1910 row houses, renovating them to look like condominiums in Burke and selling them for $400,000east of Rock Creek Park. The kind of people who live in that kind of house expect services such as curbside recycling, which will inevitably lead to social breakdown in my neighborhood, Mount Pleasant. We will no longer be able to depend on the vigilante recycling center up the street, a de facto community forum where Green Party activists unfailingly tell us each Saturday why legalizing medicinal marijuana is the single most important issue facing D.C. voters this year. The type of people who buy such houses also like to run outside and start taking Polaroids when their neighbors’ noxious weeds pass the dreaded 9-inch mark.
Once the last vestiges of antisocial behavior are quashed, many of ushighly trained professional complainerswill find D.C.’s new civic spirit too much to take, and we will flee in a diaspora of panicthe bitter, displaced Kurds of the mid-Atlanticsurrendering the District to a tyrannical race of gentrifying clones. Remember that it was once our city: We kept saying we wanted a better life, but saying it was the point; realizing it is another thing entirely. CP
Inside the Media Conspiracy to Elect Tony Williams
By David Carr
Remember that guy who came out of nowhere your junior year in high school? All of the girls gathered around the new man on campusso sleek, so shiny, so mysteriouswaiting for the next tidbit to fall off his lips so they could jackknife with glee. You stood there watching, suddenly so much spoiled lunch meat, wondering where the hell he came from.
Now you know how Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous, and Harold Brazil feel. They’re convinced Tony Williams, arriviste smartypants, is having his way with D.C. media and, by extension, the voters of Washington.
And they’re righthalfway. Reporters and editors love Tony Williams, at least the idea of Tony Williams. There wasn’t a reporter in town who didn’t want to see God’s own accountant jump into a race full of longtime public servants. The Williams surge spawned interest in the election at a time when media outlets could no longer depend on Marion Barry to move papers. We always vote for the story.
The romance developed over time. In a government that couldn’t findor wouldn’t give updata, Williams seemed more than willing to treat public information like public information, earning the lasting gratitude of reporters all over town. At the same time, the former chief financial officer knocked out the kind of reportable successes that gave journalists a break from covering the grind of D.C. municipal dysfunction. Williams’ penchant for unchained metaphor and the occasional vicious sideswipe didn’t hurt, either.
More than a few reporters, including me, played peekaboo with the draft-Tony movement, calling for updates and looking for an exclusive. It beat the hell out of a summer watching three equally uninspiring councilmembers pull each other into the mud they’d all had a hand in creating.
And once he jumped in, he reaped huge pieces in Style, Metro, and the Washington Times. Even Washington City Paper blew some wind into his sails with a cover (his second, actually). There were plenty of chinks in the armor to write abouthe can be a stiff personally, a flake historically, and an arrogant little bugger to boot. His backdoor power grab with Congress was unseemly as hellhe said he was sorryand some of the millions that went unaccounted for in the school system passed under his eyeshade. Still, Williams, a man with so little interest in elective office that he occasionally didn’t bother to vote, became a walking, talking bundle of wish fulfillment to many of the reporters in town.
“I think of Tony Williams as more of an idea than a candidate,” says Chavous supporter Beth Solomon. “He’s this superhero action figure that is totally a product of imagination. It’s as though they believe that wishing for a phenomenon that represents good government makes it so. All of this starry-eyed coverage misses a lot of what is wrong with this guy.”
The starry-eyed coverage, insists Brazil proponent Carl Rowan Jr., is part of a backlash against the sort of government that Williams’ opponents represent. “There is a visceral dislike of the city council candidates because the city council is held in such low regard, but that shouldn’t color the coverage of their opponent. We really don’t know who Tony Williams is.”
Mau-Mauing the media for giving Williams a bye disregards the fact that he had substantial support the day he came off the sidelines. The media didn’t invent Tony Williams; the hunger for a fresh face was extant before he ever entered the race. Media types weren’t the only ones fatigued by the hopeful claptrap and hopeless performance perpetrated by the councilmembers who wanted to be mayor.
The other campaigns are having none of that thinking, countering that the media séance with Williams has made it impossible to break through with their own message or countervailing information about the King of the Nerds. Leading the media blockade, say non-Williams partisans, are Post reporters Vernon Loeb and Michael Powell, who have written candidate profiles as well as issue-driven patdowns.
“The Chavous camp, where there is an incredibly heightened sense of paranoia, says that they want us to find something dark and dirty in Williams’ background, and when we don’t find it, therefore we favor Williams. It’s silly,” says Powell.
Loeb says he spent plenty of time looking into Williams, and the hippie-turned-Harvard-grad came up aces for the most part.
“I really took seriously the power this paper has in a campaign….I wrote four lengthy stories about the candidates’ records, and I applied exactly the same methodology to all of them. Their records speak for themselves.”
The Post cannot be accused of sparing muscle or space. It has spilled an oil tanker full of ink on this race in the past few weeks, with three separate storiesone on record, one on personality, and one day-in-the-life of the campaignfor each of the four candidates. That’s 12 stories and hundreds of inches, just in the past few weeks. And the coverage has been all over the road. Brazil, of all people, came off as semiheroic in one story, Chavous was warmed up and deepened a great deal by his profile, Evans was lauded sincerely for his dauntlessness, and Williams, most especially in the biography sketch, came off as kind of a twit.
Ashley Halsey, District political editor at the Post, says that there are always noises from other campaigns after the other guy catches fire.
“On any given day, one candidate or another will see something in the paper with which they can find fault, but I think any objective examination of the continuum of our coverage over the course of the campaign will prove that we have been fair and evenhanded,” says Halsey.
Halsey had a solid set of facts behind himuntil last week. The Post came up with a story about Williams’ decision to pay severance last year to Frederick King, former D.C. lottery director, after his misuse of government credit cards. The scoop was front-page material because it put a serious dent in the notion of the mayoral front-runner as an avatar of financial rectitude and guardian of the public trust. It landed on the inside of Metro, no doubt bumped by a sizzling story about a GOP split in the Howard County executive race. Whoo-whee. As is often the case in journalism, the story was victimized by bad timing, breaking as it did just a couple of days before the Post planned to endorse Williams. (It might help explain the remarkable tepidness of the endorsement, as well.)
People at the Post will tell you there is a huge firewall between the news and opinion shops, but institutional cant is subtle, sometimes so subtle that editors aren’t sure why they are burying a story that belongs on the front page.
Another important Williams story ended up even deeper in the backwater of Metro. In his campaign literature, Williams proudly trumpets his four-year tour with the U.S. Air Force. In fact, he served less than three and was honorably discharged after he made a stand as a conscientious objector. In the résumé-stretching tradition of the District, the prolongation of military tenure is misdemeanor stuff, but there is something really, really disgusting about Williams’ using the military as a political chit after he left the service because he had moral objections to the way it does business.
“I am not saying that makes him a bad person,” says Rowan, “but I think it’s something that should be looked athard. If we want a fresh face, let’s do the due diligence on the fresh face and see what’s behind it.”
And if you really wanted to go deep into conspiracy theory, way out there where the Plan is cooked up, you could get worked up about an Aug. 30 Post poll. Williams clocked in at 38 percent in the poll, to Chavous’ 19 percent. It added fuel to the Williams bandwagon by suggesting that he had more than twice the support of his nearest rival. Too bad it was wrong. Because of a problem with the weighting given various constituencies in the poll, it underestimated Chavous by a point and overestimated Williams by a point. Chavous was actually 17 points behind Williamsnot a pretty picture, but not a death knell, either. It was within the margin of error for the poll and was corrected immediately, but many thought that the damage had already been done.
Williams’ opponents have also managed to weave Washington City Paper into their media conspiracy theories. City Paper published a hard hit on Kevin Chavous several weeks ago written by Jonetta Rose Barras. Chavous supporters pointed out that the day after the story was published, Barras endorsed Williams in her Washington Times column. In letters and phone calls, they charged that Barras had been in the tank for Williams from the get-go and shouldn’t have been assigned to put a hit on Chavous.
They should have checked the record: Barras’ sweet tooth for Williams is of fairly recent vintage. In both her Times columns and features for City Paper, she had relentlessly attacked Williams’ use of consultants, his spendy ways within his own department, and his quiet appetite for power. As an experienced political reporter, she arrived at her choice of Williams as a choice among relative evils. Chavous and his posse are still hanging on to the notion that Barras is part of a media elite determined to pick the next mayor. Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood thinks that’s silly:
“This is the same bunch that tried to bash Barry so bad that he couldn’t get elected to anything, and nobody paid attention to [the media] then. Why should they be able to elect Tony? People are smarter than that. Has Tony gotten a free ride? No. Has he gotten a nice ride? Yes.”
WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin says that Chavous and his cohorts should check the mirror when they complain about Williams’ graceful waltz through the minefield of a mayoral campaign.
“There is no conspiracy. The three other candidates did not do what they could have done to define Williams. All of the candidates should have been out there the minute he got into the race, reminding voters that Williams went behind the backs of District leaders and tried to make a separate deal with Congress. You know, ‘If you want Lauch Faircloth to be the next mayor of the District, then just cast your vote for Tony Williams,’” says Plotkin.
“It reminds me of one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns. He suggested his opponent committed unnatural acts with a chicken. His advisers reminded him that it wasn’t true. And Johnson responded, ‘I know it’s not true, but make him deny it.’” CP
The Younger Turks
A rough guide to the post-Barry generation
By Elissa Silverman
“Nik Eames is making sure that our community stays safe and secure,” the Ward 1 D.C. Council candidate assured Mount Pleasant voters at a candidates forum two weeks ago. “Young people commit half the crimes in this neighborhood….I can identify with these young people.”
Perhaps a little too much. Eames, a 26-year-old Howard University senior and advisory neighborhood commissioner for LeDroit Park, agreed to serve 40 hours of community service two months ago after threatening to bash a fellow commissioner’s “fucking head in.” The incident occurred after 1B advisory neighborhood commissioner Tom Coumaris testified against another commissioner in a forgery investigation.
That rough-and-tumble image sharply contrasts with the one Eames displayed two Saturdays ago as he stood on the panoramic corner of 13th and Clifton Streets NW handing out school supplies to District youngsters. Eames and his campaign volunteers, trading in ’60s street-level activist fatigues for the more fashionable hiphop uniform of the ’90s, handed out hundreds of backpacks and goody bags filled with folders, papers, and pens for D.C. public school students. Parents thanked him for his direct action. “We can’t talk about our future without talking about these young people,” Eames says.
His aphorism holds true for the political class as well. This fall’s elections will be a watershed in D.C. politics. Hizzoner Marion Barry will descend from the thronesupposedly for good this timeand a baby boomer will take his place. But the generational handoff is not exclusive to the mayoral contest. This year, a number of candidates under or hovering around the age of 30born after the March on Washington and, for the most part, too young to remember the fiery riots of the late ’60shave sensed that their time has come and are running at large, within wards, willy-nilly.
In some ways, the young crop diverge quite a bit from their predecessors. Most learned politics not on the streets, but in the classrooms of the District’s prestigious universities. It was Poli Sci 101 that inspired them, not pressing economic or social injustices. And few young candidates ascended from the District’s traditional political steppingstone: the school board. Not that they haven’t served in elected office of some sorthalf are current or previous advisory neighborhood commissioners.
But there is little fresh rhetoric emanating from the fresh faces. They don’t threaten to derail the status quo so much as become part of its manufacture. History will repeat itself, with a few new mugs in the same old picture. This election might shut the door on the Barry era, but his legacy lives on in young candidates like Eames and fellow Umoja Party candidate Mark Thompson, who is running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. “It’s no secret that the mayor, Congresswoman Norton, and myself are tightly allied,” Thompson admits. “Some of my supporters are upset I’m not running for mayor.”
Thompson, like Barry, delicately meshes his rabble-rouser activism with academic chops and a nice touch in the hallways of power. He hit the political scene hard when he spearheaded a 1990 protest at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) that shut down the university for 11 days. Since then, he has become reputed for his Barry-like ability to make an entrance; he even emulates the mayor’s wearing of the dashiki to remind folks which part of the term African-American he most identifies with.
But along with his dogged activism on UDChe’s been one of the most sustained credible defenders of the institutionThompson carries some dirty laundry. Last month, D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard E. Morin ordered Thompson to undergo counseling and perform 150 hours of community service after convicting him of assaulting his estranged wife. Earlier this year, Thompson admitted that he had failed to pay $2,500 in outstanding child-support bills for his daughter. “I am sorry for what has happened,” says Thompson. “I take full responsibility for my actions and the embarrassment it has caused my family.”
The blight on his record has even persuaded some Umoja Party supporters to back away. “I thought he had a real chance to win,” says one Umoja activist, who wished to remain anonymous. “But the brother has some serious family problems, and you can’t ignore that.”
Concerns about human failings are sometimes coupled with suggestions that many current up-and-comers are merely serving as new bottles for some very old wine.
“I don’t think that any of the young candidates have spoken anything different than other candidates,” notes Howard Croft, a UDC professor and longtime observer of District politics. Croft points to one of his former students, 31-year-old Charles Gaither Jr., who is chasing after an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. “They’re not talking about the kinds of issues young people are facing in this city.”
Two Sundays ago, Gaither brought his youthful message to the split-level, suburban-style homes of Colorado Avenue NW, a well-to-do section of Ward 4.
As Gaither removed a white handkerchief from his pocket to mop the sweat from his brow, 20-year-old Vaughn Estwick opened his door. Gaither introduced himself and informed Estwick that he had quit his job as a community liaison to the Metropolitan Police Department to run for D.C. Council.
“What are you going to do for us?” Estwick asked.
Gaither explained that his highest priority would be to attract high-tech firms from along the Dulles toll road and Interstate 270 back into the District with tax incentives.
“I’m not going to work in Northeast, Southeast, or Anacostia. I only park my car in Georgetown and along Wisconsin Avenue,” Estwick continued.
“I wouldn’t park my car in a lot of District neighborhoods either,” Gaither said. But instead of making a resident feel good about the place he lives, Gaither seemed to be suggesting to one more member of Ward 4’s black middle class that crossing the District line was a viable response to troubles in their neighborhoods.
“I’m not an idealist; I’m a realist,” Gaither notes in an interview. His political record largely reflects that attitude. After losing an ANC election in 1988, Gaither won a spot on the D.C. Democratic Committee in 1992 and was re-elected two years ago. He served as the party’s executive director for one year, at a time when its endorsements had zero impact and Republicans began to show their faces in the District without fear of being laughed out. He has served, but to what end?
It’s not all hack work and bromides on the hustings for Gen X. Two candidates who market themselves on the strength of their visionary qualities are Todd Mosley and Baruti Jahi, who are vying for the Ward 1 D.C. Council seat. Mosley, a 34-year-old former Madison Avenue advertising director and current resident of Adams Morgan, has made his youth enterprise program, Thumbs Up, a prominent part of his campaign literature. Thumbs Up employs 36 predominantly black youngsters from Mosley’s 17th and Euclid Streets NW neighborhood in recycling and neighborhood cleanup projects. Mosley, like any good ad man, knows that pictures of kids doing what looks like a good thing sells. And he’s earned the right. While many of the younger political hopefuls have been trying to speechify their way to the next level, Mosley has organized and delivered in the trenches.
Mosley promotes Thumbs Up as a prime example of his creative approach to solving the District’s problems: He pays youngsters up to $10 an hour for work at three recycling drop-off sites and various landscape projects. He came up with the idea when the city first ended its recycling program in May 1995. “The money Thumbs Up provides gives young people power to purchase,” Mosley explains. But, even Mosley admits, it provides little formal help in critical areas like education and job training. In the end, Thumbs Up, like many other District programs targeted to youth, offers fish, not a lesson in how to catch them.
Mosley calls what he does “economic activism,” but even he has hard time explaining what he means by it. “I don’t know exactly what an economic activist does,” he admits at one point.
Nomenclature is just as important for 29-year-old Ward 1 candidate Baruti Jahiright down to his name. “I wanted a name closer to my personality,” Jahi, né Dexter Davis, explains. “Both are words from African languages: ‘Baruti’ means ‘teacher,’ ‘Jahi,’ ‘dignity.’” But the name doesn’t exactly roll off a voter’s tongue, or his friends’ for that matter, so Jahi has reduced his name to “BJ.”
Jahi, a graduate of Howard University and a current doctoral student writing his dissertation on D.C. statehood, has the look, walk, and talk of a new brand of young Democrats. Make that “new Democrats.” “I use the term ‘The New Democrat,’ even though many of the ideas that I propose have been used before,” Jahi acknowledges in his campaign literature. So instead of talking about what government can do, he begins with what it can’t. “Government is limited in what it can do,” he adds. “We need to take back our neighborhoods ourselves.”
It’s not exactly the kind of rhetoric that will have voters going through walls to get to the next generation of leadership. “I think what’s missing is a certain creativity,” says Bernard Demczuk, a former Barry staffer and advisor who is now an assistant vice president at George Washington University. “If they studied some of the more creative political positions, say from the Green Party in Germany or the young students in Asia, I think they would come up with some more interesting ideas.” The two youngest candidates, Ian Alexander and Joseph Romanow, have distinctive political affiliations but have not exactly broken new ground in their platforms.
Alexander is a rare species in District politics, not only because he has just reached the legal drinking age of 21: He’s a Republican running for the D.C. Council seat for overwhelmingly Democratic Ward 5. At times it almost seems like a college prank, given that Alexander is still a senior at Catholic University. His Ward 5 address is a dorm room on Catholic’s campus.
“When I decided to run, people told me I had no shot….’You’re too young and inexperienced,’” says Alexander, who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Brookland. “The fact is, I’m here. I disagree with people when they say, ‘Young people are the future’ and then when you show up they say, ‘You need to pay your dues.’”
Romanow, a 24-year-old member of the D.C. Statehood Party, is running against Linda Cropp for chair of the D.C. Council. When asked about a politician he admires, Romanow settles on an interesting choice. “Jimmy Carter’s pretty cool,” he answers. “He wasn’t all that effective as a president, though.”
The biggest problem, though, is that young candidates don’t even take advantage of biology. “I think in some ways they’re simply being out-hustled by the older candidates,” says Croft. “[At-large candidate] Bill Rice isn’t a spring chicken, though he does have a youthful face.” CP
Run of the Mill
What it takes to get 15 minutes of fame in the at-large race
By Paula Park
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-leaguersthis year’s mayoral candidatesare 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 mediain this case, the Washington Timesspilled 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 representativea 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 assetit 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 issuespublic safety, council oversight, and so onhe 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 shea 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. CP