Since leaping into the rough-and-tumble mayor’s race one month ago, former Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams has sent his rivals reeling. Williams came out of nowhere and left his competition sprawled on the pavement like those guys in old Clint Eastwood westerns who wonder, “Who is that guy?”
Opponents are scrambling to find out.
Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral wannabe Jack Evans sent a campaign staffer to the Petworth Branch Library last Saturday to videotape Williams’ campaign kickoff, as well as the faces of the 250 or so enthused supporters cheering him on.
(Evans will probably scour the video in search of potential turncoats. After LL reported two weeks ago that Northwest resident Tom Adams intended to yank down his Evans campaign poster and replace it with one touting Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous for mayor, Evans phoned Adams to plead for his allegiance.)
Evans’ eavesdropping substantiates Williams’ claim that he has emerged as the front-runner in the intense mayoral contest, with 11 weeks to go before the Sept. 15 primary. Over the weekend, the Williams campaign released the results of a poll conducted by Greenberg-Quinlan Research, which anointed the ex-CFO the favorite among 29 percent of District voters polled, followed by Chavous at 24 percent, Evans at 19 percent, and Brazil at 13 percent.
Williams radiated the confidence of a front-runner at his kickoff. Although he is new to D.C. electoral politics, he could teach his D.C. Council rivals a thing or two on how to launch a citywide campaign. Eschewing the canned speeches of his opponents, Williams rallied the crowd with short, punchy lines stressing his stock in trade.
“I run on my record,” he proclaimed. “It’s a record of making the tough decisions, of demanding efficiency and performance on behalf of the people of the District, of promoting changes that were long overdue.”
“I got the job done,” he said, to chants of “Tony! Tony! Tony!” from eager supporters.
Evans, the flushest candidate, with more than a half-million banked so far, is the only one who can afford to follow Williams around in hopes of finding a chink in his political armor. And he’s found at least one: With an assist from mayoral campaign aides to At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, Evans staffers have documented Williams’ virtual boycott of the D.C. voting booth since becoming a registered voter in the District two years ago.
He did not register to vote in D.C. until June 18, 1996, weeks after District voters already had cast ballots in that year’s presidential primaries and the primary contests for the D.C. congressional delegate, the city’s lone voice in Congress. After switching his registration from Connecticut, where he had continued to vote by absentee ballot despite moving to the D.C. area in mid-1993 to accept President Bill Clinton’s appointment as CFO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Williams also skipped the September 1996 Democratic primary for D.C. Council seats.
Had he been clairvoyant, Williams might have cast his ballot against Brazil, who won that primary contest and cinched his switch from his Ward 6 council seat to an at-large seat so he could run for mayor this year without risking his council job.
Williams did visit his Mount Pleasant voting precinct in time to cast ballots for president and local offices in the November 1996 general election. However, he sat out the two 1997 special elections to fill the council chair vacancy created by the death of former chairman Dave Clarke and to fill the at-large vacancy created by Linda Cropp’s ascension to the chairmanship.
“I didn’t vote. I regret that,” Williams told LL this week. “But 95 percent of the District’s citizens didn’t vote as well.”
That weak excuse was a reference to the special D.C. Council chairmanship race, a snoozer that drew a mere 5 percent of the District’s registered voters. In the crowded special election last December to fill the at-large vacancy, however, a whopping 7 percent of the city’s registered voters rushed to the polls. Perhaps Williams didn’t want to risk getting trampled in the stampede.
Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. is lending a hand to the opposition research effort aimed at Williams. The mayor’s aides have been phoning African-American leaders in New Haven, Conn., where Williams served a stint on the city council, including a term as president pro tempore, during the 1980s. Hizzoner’s probe is focusing on Williams’ opposition to a then-extant program promoting minority business development.
“I had the program changed because it wasn’t getting the job done,” Williams said this week. “I proposed shifting the money to a program that would. Look at my entire record, and you’ll find a commitment to minority business.”
Brazil and Chavous hope to build a firewall against the Williams juggernaut among the District’s African-American voters, where the former CFO runs weakest because of his alliance with the D.C. financial control board.
On the campaign trail, however, Williams is trying to undo another perception problemnamely, that he is a heartless bean-counting nerd who doesn’t relate well to people. Toward that end, the candidate ditched his prepared kickoff speech in favor of an ad-lib address that connected with his crowd by invoking the name of Frederick Douglass and pointing out that the statesman and abolitionist was also a bean counter, having served as the recorder of deeds for the nation’s capital.
“Behind each line item in a budget book, and every failure of the system, are very human stories,” Williams said.
“People denied medical care, their lives threatened, because we didn’t pay our bills,” he continued. “Small businesses, mom-and-pop stores, facing financial ruin because the District hadn’t paid its vendors.”
“Nonprofit organizations with critical missions, including day-care centers and shelters for battered women, threatened with closing because the District failed to properly distribute federal grants. Thousands of men and women didn’t get the job training they needed to earn a living and support their families, while millions of job training dollars were wasted on unnecessary administrative costs.”
Although predominantly white, the Williams crowd included voters from all of the city’s eight wards, as well as the ‘burbs. John Meredith, who lives in Gaithersburg, works in Tyson’s Corner, and would like to move into the cityif his candidate wins the mayor’s raceattended the “Draft Williams” meetings in late May. He stood Saturday on Georgia Avenue in the sweltering heat.
“This is our nation’s capital, and it’s a disgrace.” Meredith said. “I think we can do better.”
•With his thundering message of political empowerment for all, improved services for the poor, and a better deal for public-sector workers, Chavous has openly courted the constituency that awarded Barry four mayoral terms.
In case that’s not enough, Chavous is now copycatting Hizzoner’s sleek political style, customizing his appeals to fit the area of the city and the group he is addressing. While speaking to African-American voters on the eastern side of the city, Chavous has blasted the new convention center proposed for Mt. Vernon Square, vowed to oppose future downtown development until neglected neighborhood commercial corridors are restored, and accused Ward 3 schools of claiming more resources than schools from other wards.
When he switches to predominantly white west-side voters, however, Chavous doesn’t bring up the myth of favorable treatment of Ward 3 schools, fails to mention his opposition to the convention center, and softens his stance on downtown development.
Brazil sought to portray Chavous as two-faced during a June 25 forum hosted by tenant activists. Although Chavous assured the forum’s organizers that he had always sided with tenants, the Ward 7 Councilmember had failed to cast a vote on the 1995 renewal of the city’s controversial rent control law, Brazil noted.
Amid speculation that his mayoral bid was foundering, Brazil last week unveiled his five-year plan to save the city’s troubled public school system. The plan calls for comprehensive yearly performance evaluations of each school, better training for teachers, smaller class sizes of no more than 20 students and as small 15 students in disadvantaged neighborhoods, reopening closed schools to establish “smart schools…fully wired to accommodate 21st-century technology,” and expansion of before- and after-school programs.
“In this campaign, and as mayor, I intend to build and lead the powerful force of the people to accomplish public school excellence in our city,” the candidate vowed at his June 25 news conference.
First, he’s going to have to find a way to instill some excellence in his mayoral campaign.
The Brazil camp this week got stung by charges from a former council staffer that she was paid out of council funds during the summer of 1994 but spent all of her time helping Brazil campaign for re-election. Deborah Lindeman, currently a member of Capitol Hill’s advisory neighborhood commission 6B, said she devoted an entire two weeks to entering names into a computer for a fund-raising mailing. She also claims that everyone else in the councilmember’s District Building office, except for constituent services director Kay Mitchell and a receptionist, spent most of their time that summer on the campaign.
Lindeman, who admits she is not a Brazil supporter but claims she is not backing any of the current crop of mayoral candidates, says she went public this week after the D.C. Inspector General’s office failed to investigate her March 24 complaint that this use of council staff violated city and federal laws.
IG E. Barrett Prettyman said he could not comment on whether his office currently is investigating any such complaint against Brazil.
Brazil campaign chairman Anita Bonds claims Lindeman is confused about the tasks she performed for the councilmember four years ago. Bonds claims Lindeman entered names of campaign contributors for a mailing of the councilmember’s constituent services newsletter.
“I don’t think there’s a lot to this,” Bonds said.
• Democratic at-large candidate Bill Rice was so impressed with the vocal crowd at his campaign kickoff last Sunday evening that he almost jettisoned his “boring speech” for fear it would quell the enthusiasm. He plowed ahead anyway, outlining for supporters at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street a five-point program: protect “neighborhoods threatened by inappropriate development,” reject mayoral appointees like former Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director David Watts, end “the punitive nature” of parking enforcement, move the proposed new convention center out of Shaw, and end the MCI Center tax imposed on small businesses.
Rice’s candidacy has attracted a citywide band of supporters, from Ivanhoe Donaldson protégé Marshall Brown to former Carol Schwartz campaign strategist Conrad Smith.
“This is exciting,” D.C. school board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow exclaimed afterward. “There was a lot of energy in that room.” (Rice is a former freelancer for Washington City Paper and occasionally contributed reporting for this column.)
•When Imani Temple Archbishop George Stallings decided to wage a rematch against Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, he no doubt expected to latch onto the constituency alienated by the councilmember during her 14 months in office. On Saturday, Stallings got a hint of just how small that constituency is. He closed the street in front of his Anacostia house for a political rally that managed to attract only 30 or so curiosity-seekers.
Undaunted by his small beginning, Stallings pledges a vigorous campaign against Ambrose, blasting her for opposing the Children’s Island development and the Mount Vernon Square convention center.
“She is against everything that will provide jobs, jobs, and jobs for our people,” Stallings says of the incumbent who soundly beat him in the April 1997 special election to fill the Ward 6 council vacancy. “She’s up there goosing butterflies.”
Evidently, Cable Channel 13 didn’t catch that shot.CP
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