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At a dinner at the Indian Ambassador’s residence Friday night, former South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler was explaining his potential mayoral candidacy to fellow diners. When he mentioned his interest in school vouchers, Bob Dole piped up. The ex-GOP presidential nominee said he’d support Pressler on that issue. The South Dakotan replied that he didn’t actually want to run, and maybe Dole should.
Dolewho took 9% of the D.C. vote in 1996laughed.
That was a pretty common reaction as Pressler publicly mulled a run at Marion Barry’s job. Just when it looked like city politics had taken a turn for the duller, Pressler’s potential campaign added a brief dose of mirth to D.C.’s first post-Barry election.
By Tuesday, however, the former senator had heeded the cackling and bowed out, promising to continue pushing for school vouchers, low taxes, and zero tolerance of crime. “I’m going to work very hard for the District,” said Pressler. “And I will for years.”
Pressler is threatening to become a local political Svengali. In addition to becoming involved in foundation activities, Pressler says he’s been actively seeking to draft a mayoral candidate. “I’d like to get a candidate who supports school vouchers who is an African-American woman,” says Pressler. “I met with one of them Sunday.”
That woman should be careful. The former Rhodes Scholar spent his three terms in the Senate earning a reputation as one of the dimmest bulbs there. After one particularly wrenching markup session, an industry executive told Business Week that Pressler was someone who “makes Quayle look like Kissinger.”
Just imagine what he could do for Jack Evans or Harold Brazil.
Bored Washingtonians might be dismayed at Pressler’s decision not to run. But if he does find a surrogate, he’s got a long record she could take her cues from:
•Congress often faults D.C. Council members for their easygoing treatment of witnesses at hearings. That’s one place in D.C. where a protégée could learn something from this South Dakotan. As a member of the Senate’s Commerce Committee in the mid-1980s, Pressler once chose to testify before his own committee. According to a report, when members began grilling him, he protested, “I don’t think its proper to ask tough questions to members.” That’s already standard protocol on the D.C. Council.
•As a legislator, Pressler’s greatest achievement was authoring the massive 1996 telecommunications bill, derided as a giveaway to big-bucks communications interests. The same year, he bungled a ham-fisted effort to privatize PBS. Home-state enemies responded with bumper stickers that read “Privatize Pressler.” Maybe a Pressler-style free-marketeer would spice up D.C. Council sessions by obliging Frank Smith to endorse products during Channel 13’s broadcasts.
•D.C. has a long history of city politicians getting bashed by politicians from the suburbs. A Pressler candidate might have an even more distant civic foe: Pakistan. As a senator, Pressler authored an amendment that cut off aid in retaliation for that nation’s nuclear program. His 1996 opponent, Tim Johnson, capitalized on this move by winning support from pro-Pakistan contributors. Look for a Kevin Chavous meet-and-greet at Islamabad restaurant.
•In the age of the control board and the chief management officer, Washington’s mayor hasn’t had a whole lot to do. That’s fine for Pressler. Time once reported that GOP committee staffers were obliged to pass an endless supply of notes to the senator during meetings so people would think he was busily involved in the goings-on. Just imagine the props it would take for a Pressler-spun candidate to look busy as generalissimo of the Department of Recreation of Parks.
•Big-city mayors are often called upon to take stands on gay rights. Well, this conservative Republican from Humboldt could probably help sensitize a protégée to folks who come out of the closet. Marching out of a committee hearing a couple years ago, Pressler mistook a closet door for the exit. After initially trying to wait out his colleagues, he finally realized that the hearing wasn’t going to end any time soon. He walked back out of the closet, waved as if he’d been talking to someone inside, and left the chamber.
Announcing his decision not to run, Pressler vowed to work toward a “Hong Kong on the Potomac.” Considering that the way Hong Kong’s democratic rights have been trampled by China is awfully familiar to locals here, that’s a metaphor that Pressler’s apprentice might want to axe.
Pressler’s exit may have cost D.C. its best chance in years at a dose of political fun. But let’s not get too gloomy about it. Ultimately, the ex-senator’s local activism ought to be considered a compliment: We used to have to go up to the Hill to hear congressional blowhards prattle about their quick-fix solutions. Now they come to us. So if a car with a South Dakota license plate offers you a flier touting the driver’s dream candidate, step right up. At least it’ll be entertaining.CP