Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Weary mayoral front-runner Anthony Williams staggered into the Sankofa Video and Bookstore near Howard University at the end of a 14-hour campaign day last Friday expecting to relax and chat with students interested in art, filmmaking, and literature. Instead, the Yale grad found himself the main course in a midnight roast of conservative urban politics.

The leftist students grilled Williams on everything from whether his trademark bow tie is an embrace or mockery of the Nation of Islam to his declared support for preserving the rent-controlled housing they live in. But they spent most of the night berating him for cutting programs for the poor while serving as the city’s first chief financial officer.

“You’d have thought I had just asked them to cut the tags off their mattresses,” the battered candidate joked the next day. “It was not a very appealing message to them.”

Apparently, the students never learned from the rest of the city how to fawn over Candidate X. Over the past 10 weeks, Williams has swept through the city like a late-summer hurricane storming out of the Caribbean. Despite persistent efforts to tag him as an interloper and a panderer, his rivals have failed to slow him down.

The mayoral campaign of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous might have benefited from consultations with the Howard students. Chavous and his strategists relied on the conventional wisdom coined by the city’s political establishment that Williams would appeal only to white voters who value good government services. The stuffy Williams, they felt, could never win over the majority of black voters after firing 232 city employees and consorting with the District’s financial control board and a Congress that shredded home rule.

Now, Chavous et al. are paying the price for their shortsightedness. Williams no longer seems to be running against his rivals but against history. He openly talks about becoming the first mayoral candidate to win all eight wards, a feat Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. could never accomplish. His campaign is concentrating on winning a mandate that will enhance his power when he takes office next January.

Williams’ latest campaign polling shows him at 48 percent, with high favorable ratings from voters, while Chavous and mayoral rival Jack Evans are still trying to crack the 20 percent barrier with voters who hold strong negative feelings about their councilmembers.

“My opponents from the council well up with umbrage at the credit I get for the budget surplus,” Williams delighted in telling some 40 voters gathered at the Colorado Avenue NW home of Ward 4 resident Ethan Landis Aug. 21 to meet the candidate. “They say, ‘All Tony was doing was his job.’ That’s the point! I did my job; they didn’t.”

An angry Chavous stormed out of the Aug. 19 mayoral candidates forum at the voter-rich Marbury Plaza apartments in Ward 6 just as it was getting under way. The source of outrage? He spotted former supporter Alice Dennis wearing a Williams sticker. To the surprise of his staff, Chavous never returned. Perhaps newly hired deputy campaign manager Anita Bonds, who recently deserted the Brazil campaign, will help the candidate keep his seat at future forums.

Last weekend, Williams appeared more irritated by the students’ hostile reception than by the vandalism of his Ward 8 campaign headquarters. Just hours before the headquarters’s scheduled opening last Saturday, campaign workers found feces smeared on its front door, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, and trash containing campaign literature from mayoral rival Harold Brazil strewn across the patio in front of the brick building.

But the Williams camp was too smart to fall for that ploy. Brazil’s followers aren’t committed enough to show up for debates, let alone vandalize an opposing encampment.

Like most attacks on Williams, the smear campaign backfired, guaranteeing media coverage for an event that might otherwise have been ignored. The real message behind the news stories: Williams is the only candidate to open campaign offices east of the Anacostia River; he has outposts in both Ward 7 and Ward 8.

During last Saturday afternoon’s opening in the sweltering August heat, the motorcades of mayoral contenders Chavous and Evans drove by more than once, hoping to steal a little coverage from the TV crews recording Williams. On its second drive-by, the Evans caravan blocked the avenue in front of the headquarters while Evans and Williams supporters engaged in a good-natured poster-waving and sloganeering match.

“Everybody loves a winner, including Jack Evans,” the Williams sound truck taunted.

The moment didn’t go unnoticed when the Williams campaign’s biggest celebrity, boxing promoter Rock-the-Boat Newman, introduced the candidate a short time later.

“You are never going to make a difference in a community that needs it the most by just passing through, as these other candidates have done today,” Newman told the crowd of 50 supporters and onlookers gathered for the opening. “I am supporting a candidate who has no interest in waving to the crowd and just passing through.”

Saturdays are Rock Newman Days in the Williams campaign. The manager of former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe and sturdy Barry ally draws more attention than the candidate. Passing motorists lean out their windows to call to him, and he even gets top billing from the Williams campaign.

“Say hello to Rock Newman and Tony Williams, your next mayor! Say hello to Rock Newman and Tony Williams in the Rolls Royce right behind us!” the Williams sound truck blared as the campaign rolled through Wards 4 and 5 last weekend.

Newman’s Rolls, not Williams’.

Reform-hungry voters turn squeamish over Williams’ embrace of Newman, as well as his endorsement from Barry’s fiery pastor, Union Temple Baptist minister the Rev. Willie Wilson. Add support from other highly visible Barry allies, such as former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford, and the Williams campaign begins to smell like a Barry stew.

LL never thought we’d see Newman, Wilson, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, and Ward 1 activist Marie Drissel on the same bandwagon.

Eager for any issue to nail their rival, Chavous, Brazil, and Evans charge that the conflicting agendas of the Williams coalition will render it incapable of governing.

“I say, hel-lo! That’s our city, and you’ve got to be mayor of all of our city,” Williams responds. “I don’t buy this zero-sum, divide-up-the-pie mentality: Are they going to get, are we going to get, but we all can’t get. I don’t buy that.”

Wilson’s endorsement, in particular, has sparked speculation that Williams is making unsavory deals to cinch his election. The Anacostia minister wants to be appointed to the board of trustees for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). At Wilson’s urging, Barry has refused to send a slate of new trustees to the city council for confirmation because his pastor is not among the nominees.

Williams would not rule out naming Wilson to the UDC board. “But no one is offered anything for an endorsement,” he insisted to LL last weekend.

So what about that bow tie question Howard University students fired at him last weekend? Williams said he had some Muslim chums “Maybe they were Nation of Islam” who taught him how to tie bow ties, and he has been wearing them ever since.

Would he accept an endorsement from Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan?

“I’m looking for endorsements in our city,” Williams sidestepped.

He’s sounding more like a winner with

every dodge.

SABRINA

SOJOURNER’S TRUTH

At-Large D.C. Council candidate Sabrina Sojourner wants voters to know that she’s a lesbian activist who once was married and has a son. Although Sojourner holds the meaningless elected post of lobbyist for D.C. statehood at the House of Representatives, she wants voters to think of her as their “U.S. representative.”

“Eleanor is the delegate,” she said Aug. 19 on radio station WAMU, implying that D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton occupies a lesser office than her own.

Sojourner wants Democratic voters to remember that she once worked as a congressional staffer and has paid her dues by sitting on the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the ruling arm of the city’s useless but dominant political party.

In fact, she wants voters to know everything about her except her previous name, Debby Daniels.

LL can understand why Sojourner shunned our attempts to confirm her original name for the past two months. “Debby Daniels” won’t resonate with D.C. voters the way the candidate hopes “Sabrina Sojourner” will, conjuring up images of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner, who moved to D.C. in 1991, says she legally changed her name more than 20 years ago while living in her native California and going through a divorce. “I had a dream in which Sojourner Truth came to me and said, ‘Take my name.’ I’ve been Sabrina Sojourner ever since,” she told LL this week.

Her campaign recently went through a shake-up that sent campaign manager Sherry Brown packing on account of the candidate’s cash shortage. Brown this week signed on with rival council contender Bill Rice.

Brown is among the list of operatives forced to the sidelines by Sojourner’s dwindling treasury. But she got into the race well ahead of her nine Democratic rivals and sewed up critical early endorsements from party and community activists. She is counting on those endorsements, along with her prior citywide success in the 1996 election for shadow U.S. representative and her politically advantageous name, to pull her through the crowded Democratic primary.

With so many little-known and unknown contenders on the ballot spewing the same platitudes about “new leadership,” “aggressive oversight,” and “vision for our city” voters may be apt to skip the at-large race Sept. 15 after pulling levers for their favorite mayoral contender. So LL is offering a brief primer here to help voters focus:

First, throw out Ward 8 school board member Linda Moody and Ward 3 school board member Don Reeves. They can’t claim with straight faces that they’ve excelled in their current jobs and deserve promotions.

Also throw out the Rev. William Bennett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Deanwood, who invokes Hizzoner’s name in almost every sentence he utters. Bennett is counting on an endorsement from Barry to elevate his candidacy. However, he should check with past Barry endorsees, like former Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington, before shopping for office furniture.

Next, set aside the candidates who have shown little or no success in raising campaign money, have not built viable organizations, and are not running citywide campaigns.

That rules out Ward 7 community activist Greg Rhett, who is spending most of his time in his ward and may be preparing to challenge Chavous in two years; Ward 5 Democratic party stalwart and control board foe Kathryn Pearson West, who is thoughtful and articulate but almost invisible on the campaign trail; and former Barry administration employee Charles Gaither, running as “the youngest candidate” and advocating tax breaks to attract hi-tech firms and a $5,000 tax cut for church tithing.

So much for separation of church and state.

That leaves Sojourner, former city council staffer Phil Mendelson, former journalist Rice, and Democratic party official Phyllis Outlaw. (Full disclosure: Rice formerly worked for Washington City Paper and contributed to this column.) Mendelson and Rice are running the most aggressive citywide campaigns, taking detailed stands on issues in mailings to voters. Outlaw has no message, but she has the backing of former independent At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, if that means anything.

Outlaw is the candidate most in need of a more appealing political name. Maybe she should try Debby Daniels.CP