Back in 1990, D.C. school board member Calvin Lockridge accused At-Large D.C. Councilmember Hilda Mason of reaching “senility.” The comment marked the first public airing of doubts about the longtime councilmember’s suitability for office.
In the eight years since, allies of the 21-year council veteran and Statehood Party member have tried to persuade her to step down. Before Mason’s successful re-election bid in 1994, Statehood Party stalwarts such as the late Josephine Butler called her “tired” and publicly urged her to retire. The self-proclaimed “grandmother to the world” refused.
The years of pressure finally paid off this summer, when Mason decided that 21 years on the D.C. Council was enough. LL expected the decision to prompt a street carnival among Statehood Party members. Not so: The party refused to accept her exit and began lobbying her to seek a sixth term.
No wonder Mason often appears confused on the dais, everyone around her can’t seem to make up his mind.
The reason for the about-face? Statehood Party leaders realized that they had no one else to carry the party’s banner in this year’s contest for an at-large council seat. That council seat, held previously by Statehood Party co-founder and icon Julius Hobson Jr., is the life support system that has kept the tiny party hanging on for nearly three decades even though only 1 percent of District voters care to register as Statehooders.
If Mason went, party leaders concluded, then their party would go the way of their cause. never to be resurrected
“Hilda didn’t want to. We had to talk her into it,” admits a longtime Statehood Party member. “We weren’t able to find another candidate.”
After party stalwart Sam Jordan shunned pleas to run as Mason’s successor, party leaders, led by current Statehood chairman John Gloster, turned to de-programming Mason and her frail husband, Charlie Mason, who had also been convinced that it was time for his wife to step aside. The weekend before the July 8 filing deadline, Gloster raced around town collecting the 40 signatures from registered Statehood voters that Mason needed to get her name on the Sept. 15 ballot.
Statehooders should be grateful that Jordan turned them down. On the stump, he can be as dull as D.C. financial control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer reciting the D.C. Code. And Jordan failed in his two attempts to gain a second council seat for the Statehood Party.
Statehooders don’t want Mason to serve another four-year term, just part of it. The party’s four-point plan for survival is as cockamamie as its vision for the city: 1) Mason somehow wins election to her sixth council term; 2) a month or so into her term, she steps down; 3) the Statehood Party convenes to select someone to serve the four-month period until a special election is held to choose a permanent replacement; 4) the temporary replacement runs in the special election as the incumbent.
Statehood officials calculate that they stand a better chance of holding on to the council seat in a special election than they do this year by throwing up a candidate at the last minute to succeed Mason. The battle for two at-large seats on the council has already attracted sixteen Democratic, Republican, Statehood, and Umoja Party candidates, with independents yet to file.
If the plan doesn’t backfire on Statehood, it will punish District taxpayers. A special election to fill Mason’s seat next year would cost the D.C. Board of Elections $350,000.
Furthermore, the strategy ignores the lesson of last December’s special election to fill an at-large vacancy. In that contest, the D.C. Democratic Party’s anointed choice, former council chairman Arrington Dixon, suffered a stunning upset at the hands of Republican newcomer David Catania.
Local Democratic leaders had appointed Dixon acting councilmember four months earlier with the expectation that his name recognition would make him a shoo-in. They failed to detect that D.C. voters were fed up and ready to turn their backs on has-beens and political hacks, even if that meant voting for a gay, white, 20-something Republican.
The party’s win-and-resign strategy could keep Gloster on the campaign trail for two years. Right now the Statehood die-hard is engineering a pointless campaign for mayor, a seat that he couldn’t win even if Hale-Bopp swept away all his rivals. However, the mayoral stump appearances could warm up Gloster for a run at Mason’s at-large seat.
During candidate forums, Gloster has staked out a niche as an avid defender of government programs for the poor and working people. He advocates a new entitlement for D.C. residents, guaranteed homeownership during the next century, plus a new government program to pay the rents and mortgages of residents laid off from their jobs.
After bowing to Gloster’s appeals to seek re-election, Mason displayed some of her old spunk and civil liberties vigilance last week during council deliberations on toughening the city’s anti-prostitution laws. She led the fight that stripped provisions allowing police to arrest streetwalkers wearing provocative clothing that exposes genital areas. “I think the bill too broadly criminalizes activity that should not be criminalized, namely dressing inappropriately while communicating with people in public,” Mason said during last week’s council debate. “I do not want the District to be known as a jurisdiction that makes it a felony to be dressed inappropriately in public.”
The city’s home rule charter reserves two of the four at-large seats for candidates of the nondominant party. In practical terms, the restriction means that the Democrats can nominate only one candidate for this year’s two at-large races. If Catania manages to hold on to his seat, the winner of the Sept. 15 Democratic primary and Mason will be battling for the second at-large seat on the November ballot.
And the Democrats appear ready to walk
over their own grandmother, if necessary, to win that seat.
Even the city’s 5,000 schoolteachers will be hard pressed to come up with a lesson from last week’s political endorsements handed out by their union. The Washington Teachers Union snubbed Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous in the mayor’s race, slamming his record on school issues as chair of the council’s education committee the past 18 months. Union officials claim Chavous has been as beneficial to the city’s public schools as the tobacco industry has been to teen health.
But his biggest sin, according to union president Barbara Bullock, is that he failed to court and consult the union.
Former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams didn’t make that mistake. He actively sought the union’s endorsement and promised to give teachers a pay hike in addition to the 5 percent increase they are due next year.
While passing over Chavous for supposedly having one of the worst council records on education, the union also refused to endorse Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who is the council’s most vigilant defender of public education. Patterson has pushed for smaller class sizes, fought to restore money for kindergarten aides, sided with communities in last year’s school-closing battles, and protected school librarians from RIFs.
She also committed the mortal sin, in the eyes of the union, of pushing work rule changes that would protect younger teachers during layoffs. The union wants to protect the teachers with the most seniority, a tradition that has turned the city’s public school system into a retirement home for aging instructors.
Patterson and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, whom the union also refused to endorse, say they were asked to meet with union officials July 7, only two days before the endorsements were to be announced and in the midst of the last legislative session before the council’s July 31 recess.
Ambrose and Patterson told the union they could not break away from the busy session to be interviewed. But Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas climbed down from the dais to meet with union officials and picked up the teachers’ endorsement for his effort.
The teachers broke with their parent body, the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, to endorse Williams, and their insubordination may encourage other unions to break rank. The Metropolitan Labor Council on June 30 handed out a lukewarm endorsement of Chavous, refusing to endorse Williams because he had fired some 220 city employees.
Last week’s nod of approval from the teachers provided added momentum to the fast-moving Williams’ express, leaving his rivals scrambling to try to slow him down.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil accused Williams of making promises to the teachers he can’t keep in order to win their endorsement. “The press calls him ‘Tony the Tiger,’” Brazil said the day after the teachers union handed out its endorsement, after failing to even consider Brazil. “I describe him as ‘Turnaround Tony,’ shamelessly attempting to trick the voters just like the carnival house con man playing a cruel shell game of deceit.”
When the teachers interviewed the candidates in one group last month, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans sought to discredit Williams in the eyes of union members by claiming the teachers could have gotten even bigger pay raises, and sooner, if the CFO had kept the schools from overspending this year’s budget by $62 million.
But union officials turned a deaf ear to the councilmembers. Emily Washington, a member of the appointed emergency school board of trustees, raised eyebrows during the meeting by delivering a blistering attack on all incumbents for failing to resolve the city’s lingering education crisis.
Chavous, who normally spews fire on the stump, was reserved during that meeting, apparently sensing that the endorsement was a foregone conclusion.
Many union members think Brazil, Evans, and Chavous are the ones pulling a con game, by inflating their council records.
“I think Chavous is a mini Marion Barry,” says Ballou High School coach and union member Wanda Oates. “He just doesn’t appear to be his own man. He says whatever is necessary at the moment.”
Chavous, Brazil, and Evans have earned their reputations through years of keeping council seats warm. They now have to try to paint Williams as a do-nothing CFO, which, if they succeed, will be their greatest, and maybe only, significant achievement.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has not officially endorsed Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. for re-election, as LL reported last week. The union, as LL reported, did indeed vote to endorse the third-term councilmember. However, Thomas opponent John Frye, president of AFGE Local 2553, forced the union to “defer” the endorsement until he and Thomas settle their personal feud.
Frye, a Ward 5 resident, has accused Thomas of softening the council’s stand on trash transfer stations to accommodate a constituent and potential campaign donor. Thomas refused to meet with AFGE officials at an endorsement forum last month because Frye was in the room, and he accuses the labor leader of plotting to run against him as an independent in the November election.
“We officially have not endorsed him,” says AFGE District 14 representative Thomas. “He was deferred.”
Rager said the endorsement could come up again as early as this week.
But the chance of Frye and Thomas settling their feud seems about as likely as President Bill Clinton inviting Kenneth Starr over to the White House to watch X-rated films. Frye predicts his union will “stay silent” on the Ward 5 council race.
The 1998 D.C. mayor’s race is set to take off in cyberspace.
Evans is preparing to make a big push for votes on the Internet, including a sophisticated get-out-the-vote drive and wide dissemination of his stands on issues. Evans campaign chairman Warren Graves says his candidate will be the first mayoral contender to use the Internet for more than just posting schedules and a bio. Graves predicts most candidates will be plying the Internet in the future.
Evans got his inspiration from none other than Catania, whose aggressive use of e-mail last fall propelled him to an upset victory over heavily favored Dixon. Catania received 10,818 votes in that contest, and an estimated 800 to 1,000 of those votes came through use of the Internet.
“It was a lot of votes,” Catania said this week.
“It’s a terrific way to reach people,” he added. “You can put your message out very quickly. Zap, it’s off to a couple thousand people.”