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Jeffrey Gildenhorn hooks a right out of Banneker Field across from Howard University and starts trekking south on Georgia Avenue. Dressed in a white “Gildenhorn for Mayor” T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, the mayoral candidate has just exited the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, where he made an impromptu pit stop to press some flesh. D.C.’s summer ethnic and neighborhood street festivals are the equivalent of New Hampshire and Iowa for District politiciansa hot and sweaty 13 weeks of smiling, hand-shaking, and wooing potential voters.
As Gildenhorn knifes through the packed sidewalk, he shuns eye contact with the hordes of people headed toward the festivities. And few festival-goers recognize the Ward 3 restaurateur, even though campaign posters bearing his photo hang directly above their heads. Perhaps his recognition problem has something to do with his build: Gildenhorn is 5-foot-6, and his slouching posture miniaturizes him further.
As he approaches V Street, he stops and points across the street. Where most people see an ambulance parked in front of Howard University Hospital, Gildenhorn sees the ghost of Harmon Killebrew fielding balls at third base for the Washington Senators.
“I think that’s where Griffith Stadium used to be,” says Gildenhorn, who is competing against a crowded field in the Sept. 15 Democratic mayoral primary. “The outfield was over thereno, there, I think,” he continues. After he schmoozes with a street vendor, Gildenhorn returns to his boys-of-summer theme. “Bringing baseball back to the District of Columbia,” says the candidate, “that’s an important part of my platform.”
That’s one way Gildenhorn has distinguished himself from the pack in a campaign that D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has characterized as the most important since home rule. Whereas political pundits have branded the trio of D.C. councilmember mayoral wannabes candidates of the past, Gildenhorn is the candidate of a more distant past. When asked how to clean the streets, Gildenhorn invokes Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s public works projects. When asked to identify the symbols of hometown D.C., he talks about the abandoned Howard Theater. It’s an odd message to send to a body politic looking for fresh ideas and new leadership.
And it isn’t working: A recent poll gave Gildenhorn a generous 1 percent of the vote in the primary. Polls, however, can’t capture the intangible that the straight-shooting Gildenhorn provides on the campaign trail: comic relief.
At every event he attends, Gildenhorn introduces himself the same way: “I’m not a politician, I’m not a lawyer, and not an accountant,” he tells a shopper at the Georgetown Safeway. “I’m a small businessman, a native Washingtonian, and a product of the public schools of the District of Columbia.” Among this year’s crop of mayoral candidates, it’s a claim to which Gildenhorn has exclusive rights.
For a guy who’s lived in town 55 years, though, Gildenhorn has a tough time finding his way around. On a campaign outing on a recent Saturday morning, he’s wondering how to get from upper Georgetown to One Judiciary Square, the seat of the very office he is seeking. He jerks his red Mercedes through the southbound traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and repeatedly asks for directions from his executive assistant, Reina Wooden, who is a recent Howard University graduate and a native of Philadelphia.
“What’s the best way to get down there?” he asks. Wooden suggests M Street. “Do I make a left or a right?” he says as the car approaches the corner. That’s kind of like the Secret Service asking for the way to the White House.
Gildenhorn has as much trouble navigating D.C. politics as the city’s street grid. On this trip, he’s headed to a downtown church for a press conference to out the killer of a District 7-year-old who died in a hit-and-run accident. A local minister who identified himself as a leader of the D.C. Black Church Initiative phoned Gildenhorn to solicit his participation in the event. “Calls like this give my candidacy legitimacy,” Gildenhorn remarked. When he arrives a little after 1 p.m. at First Trinity Lutheran Church, near One Judiciary Square, he discovers that his rivals don’t crave that legitimacy: He’s the only one there, and only 10 people have bothered to show up. The minister quickly ushers Gildenhorn out of the sanctuary into a side room and asks him for a contribution.
He stands in the row of attendees, awkwardly consoling the victim’s grandmother for the cameras from Channel 5 and Channel 7. It comes off as unnatural and tacky. Later that day, Gildenhorn wonders whether he made the right move by showing up. “It seemed like a hastily put-together event,” Gildenhorn reflects. “I wonder if the minister was just looking for publicity. I don’t want to be exploited, but I’ll help out where I can.”
Although Gildenhorn lacks a politician’s feel for the city, he has scored some points at the raucously partisan candidate forums that crowd the candidates’ schedules. At a June 24 debate at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Ward 7, Gildenhorn asked the crowd of more than 250, “And why do we have a control board?”
“Is it because of you?” said the candidate, pointing to the audience. “No!” he screamed before the crowd had a chance to respond.
“Is it because of me?” he asked. “No!” he thundered again.
“Is it because of these guys on the Council? You bet it is!” he said, carving out a spot for himself as the campaign’s premier outsider.
Gildenhorn took his seat but then hopped to his feet again, striking Richard Nixon’s classic victory pose. Everyone laughed.
Gildenhorn’s campaign headquarters expresses his campaign platform even more effectively than his appearances on the stump. The interior is a time-travel machine back to Gildenhorn’s youth with its cherry-red booths, shiny chrome counters, vintage Wurlitzer jukebox, and pin-ups of Marilyn Monroe. Elvis reigns over the speakers. Hamburgers rule the grill. The headquarters doubles as the American City Diner, a Connecticut Avenue retro establishment.
Gildenhorn learned customer service from his father, who owned the Circle Liquor Store on Connecticut Avenue. When his father passed away in 1965, Gildenhorn left Georgetown University and took control of the family business.
The younger Gildenhorn quickly earned a reputation as a savvy and creative marketer. He sold cigarettes below cost and held crazy promotions to draw in more customers. During the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Gildenhorn put pictures of Israeli commander Moshe Dayan on T-shirts. “A friend of mine was Miss Maryland. I took an ad out in the paper with a sexy picture of her and big bold letters announcing ‘Moshe Dayan Has Arrived!’” Many in Washington flooded Circle Liquor to buy the T-shirts. Gildenhorn donated the proceeds to charity and soaked in all the free publicity.
He gradually became the dominant presence in the Chevy Chase Circle commercial corridor, owning, at one time or another, five restaurants, a gas station, a small market, and a handful of other small businesses. Ten years ago, he cashed in on his love affair with the ’50s when he opened the American City Diner.
“I’m a collector of the nostalgia of my time,” Gildenhorn says about his reasons for opening the establishment. “I’m a prisoner of my past.”
His neighbors have been less than infatuated with him, though. When he opened American City Diner, Chevy Chase residents objected to Gildenhorn’s commissioning of a mural depicting a ’50s cruising “All-American Family” on a brick wall contiguous to the restaurant. The flare-up recently reignited when Gildenhorn covered over the mural with a large campaign poster bearing his photo. A few years ago, residents accused Gildenhorn of cutting down an old, storied tree so that drivers headed up Connecticut Avenue would have a better view of his colorful eatery.
Gildenhorn quickly dismisses their complaints. “What upsets them is that it isn’t their political candidate up there,” he says. “Every time Kevin Chavous sees me, he says, ‘I wish I could have that sign.’”
Though he declared his intentions last year, Gildenhorn officially kicked off his campaign four weeks ago on the sidewalk outside his diner. The scene was a credit to his marketing proficiency: He erected a dais and offered plenty of freebies, including hats and T-shirts and even a cart stocked with Hebrew National hot dogs, sodas, and ice cream sandwiches. No passers-by could resist.
About a dozen campaign workers were stationed on the blocks surrounding the diner. They were all hired to work the event as employees of Field Strategies Inc., a local political consulting firm. “I’m not exactly 100 percent volunteer,” says one Gildenhorn worker. “I’d like to think of myself as an independent contractor.”
Field Strategies works for other candidates in District politics, such as at-large D.C. Council candidate Bill Rice. “I’m a service provider for the [Gildenhorn] campaign,” said Matthew Schneider, one of the firm’s founders. Although the firm in nearly every case merely helps out campaigns that already boast a corps of volunteers, Field Strategies that day was the Gildenhorn campaign.
“The hot dogs will be ready once the candidate finishes his remarks,” announced Schneider just before noon. As Gildenhorn made his way to the podium, only six people were in the assembled seats. Twelve were in line for hot dogs.
He delivered a straightforward speech, emphasizing education, public safety, and economic revitalization. “I can remember a time when Washington had wonderful small businesses…Garfinkel’s, Woodie’s, Hechinger’s…” he reminisced.
After the 10-minute speech, the assembled crowd of 20 or so quickly got back in line for the free munchies. All in all, the event was no Moshe Dayan T-shirt day, but it did generate a little publicity. “I’m getting a freebie,” Dottie Sherwood yelled to one of her friends walking down the sidewalk as she stood in line. “Get a hot dog. They’re free. Gildenhorn’s running for mayor and he’s giving out hot dogs. Ice cream sandwiches too.”
If Gildenhorn wants to compete, he’d better think about ordering up a whole lot more treats.CP