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On the stump, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous depicts himself as the only mayoral contender with the guts to battle downtown developers, special interests, the D.C. financial control board, and a Congress intent on stripping the last vestiges of democratic rule from District residents.
He may be right. After all, those battles may not seem like much after the candidate finishes presiding over disputes in his own campaign headquarters. The source of tension is the pecking order at the Chavous-for-Mayor offices at 1328 Florida Ave. NW.
Reports of internal leadership strife within the Chavous campaign have spread since the candidate launched his mayoral quest May 2. And in recent weeks, the battles seem to have intensified.
According to a source close to the campaign, aide Bob Bethea two weeks ago exchanged words with Ward 5 volunteer Ron Magnus over Magnus’ role in the campaign. Magnus lacks a clearly defined role and has tried to amplify his influence over the candidate, the source says.
Bethea and Magnus insist the arguments are standard for a citywide campaign
“There’s a lot of tension,” claims one campaign consultant. “That happens when you bring a lot of people together in a hurry.”
“I just don’t see it coming together over there,” laments a key Chavous supporter.
Campaign workers clash with outsider Blair Talmadge, hired through the Democratic National Committee to serve as the campaign’s deputy director. Frustrated campaign manager Vickey Wilcher looks like a bewildered tourist trying to navigate Washington Circle as she maneuvers around the oversized egos of Bethea, Magnus, former Police Chief Ike Fulwood, and campaign finance director Jim Hudson.
Throw in Attiba Mayers, leader of the “Fighting 54th Brigade” of young campaign workers who helped propel Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. back into the mayor’s office four years ago, and the Chavous campaign headquarters resembles a board meeting of the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School.
Talmadge and Mayers got into a dust-up recently when Mayers requested a dozen or so
T-shirts for a community event, and Talmadge rationed him to just a couple.
Campaign spokesman James Allen dismisses the reports as wild exaggerations spread by rival camps and claims Wilcher is as happy as Cinderella at the ball. Allen gets the big bucks$4,000 a month, according to the campaign’s latest finance report, filed last weekfor that sort of spin control.
Allen, however, may have trouble explaining why Wilcher is longing to return to her old job in the office of Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “You get frustrated in campaigns, and you get angry,” says Wilcher. “As for me and Kevin, we’ll work it out.”
Chavous’ disheveled campaign might not be an issue if the candidate weren’t promising to exercise firm control over the unwieldy District government.
“Kevin is running his campaign the way he runs his council office,” notes a council colleague, referring to the constant turnover that has plagued Chavous during his nearly six years on the D.C. Council. “He just has too many chiefs over there.”
Perhaps Chavous draws inspiration from chaos and confusion. On the campaign trail, he has been the most focused of the mayoral contenders, espousing a clear message that appears to be winning over D.C. voters. The next mayor, he insists, must strengthen the city’s neglected neighborhoods and commercial corridors, and spread economic development throughout the District.
Chavous’ forceful presentation has helped him overshadow his rivals at the candidate forums held to date. His audiences seem to nod even when he makes outlandish promises, as he did during a labor forum on Capitol Hill two weeks ago.
“I think we can get rid of the control board in less than two years,” he vowed to a roomful of government employees, telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. (Afterward, Chavous easily carried the day in a straw vote of members of the American Federation of Government Employees local who were present.)
Chavous must think that the mayor’s office has been vested with the authority to ram legislation through Congress. Under current law, the control board must remain intact at least until the city has balanced its budget for four years running. In the best of worlds, the city won’t dump its autocratic overlay until 2001.
D.C. officials hope to end this fiscal year with a budget surplus, following on last year’s unexpected windfall. Many, including Chavous, appear ready to forgo spending on city services over the next two years to get those four balanced budgets. They apparently believe that D.C. residents care more about the return of their democratic rights than about getting the potholes filled.
During a June 9 debate in Tenleytown, the candidate’s weakest performance of the three forums held so far, Chavous even dared to utter the “L” word: “I support linkage,” he told some 150 residents crammed into the Tenleytown-Friendship Heights Library for the occasion.
That’s like telling Georgetown voters he supports more off-campus housing for students. For Ward 3 residents, linkage means the siphoning off of tax dollars from downtown development for dubious projects in other areas of the city, some of which never get off the books. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who comes across as unfocused and stumbling about in these candidate forums, suddenly found a moment of clarity.
“Linkage is a bankrupt concept,” Brazil fired back at Chavous. “The council just soundly rejected it two or three days ago, and it’s not going to help economic development in the neighborhoods.”
Chavous is particularly persuasive in living rooms across the city, where he conveys the image of a candidate who will act swiftly and decisively, once in the mayor’s office, to improve the quality of life for District residents. (Never mind that his council record doesn’t back up that image.)
“If Rudy Giuliani can do it in New York City, Kevin Chavous can do it in D.C.,” said the candidate on Monday evening. No word yet on how he’ll get locals to use the crosswalks.
During Monday’s meet-and-greet at the home of hardware mogul John Hechinger, Chavous softened his prior vow to oppose downtown development until developers begin to invest in five neighborhoods he will pick during his first 100 days in the mayor’s office. He will back both downtown and the neighborhoods, he told the Hechinger reception.
After listening to Chavous outline his vision for the District’s next four years, retired foreign service officer Tom Adams said he was ready to switch. Adams said he was going straight home to take down the mayoral campaign poster for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, which has adorned his living-room window for several weeks, and replace it with a Chavous poster.
“I just think he’s run out of steam,” Adams said of Evans.
That’s an odd perception of a campaign that has built a war chest of $540,000-plus, more than double the $260,100 Chavous has raised, and nearly four times the paltry $142,00 Brazil has managed to wheedle out of donors. Brazil’s weak showing in the quest for campaign cash has sparked speculation over whether his candidacy will survive until the Sept. 15 Democratic primary.
But Adams’ switch indicates that D.C. voters want to be courted personally this year.
Chavous hopes to sway these voters by promising to be a candidate and mayor who will unite the city. Perhaps he should start closer to home and try getting his campaign staff to work together before he takes on bigger targets.
So far this campaign season, Chavous and endangered incumbent Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith have sought to don the mantle of the late D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, one of the most popular and successful vote-getters in the city’s history.
Now, however, a newcomer is staking a claim to the Clarke legacy. Roving journalist and political junkie Bill Rice last week announced his pursuit of the Democratic nomination for an at-large council seat.
Rice already is identified with the symbol that many voters came to know Clarke by: the bicycle.
“He’s seen as the same kind of scrappy, progressive reformer as Dave Clarke, who can appeal to white and black voters, and who is not afraid to show up at any meeting anywhere in the city on his bike,” notes a political consultant who market-tested Rice’s candidacy among activists around the city. “And he does have that bike.”
The transition seems logical: For years, Rice has been telling politicians and civic leaders how to act while masquerading as a reporter. He covered politics for the Washington City Papermaking contributions to this columnand then took a position with the Northwest Current.
Rice’s candidacy has shocked his friend Phil Mendelson, a former Clarke staffer who is making his second try for an at-large council seat. Mendelson, a stickler for process, no doubt will scrutinize Rice’s petitions closely once they are filed next month in hopes of knocking his friend out of the crowded field.
Fourteen candidates so far are seeking the Democratic nomination for the at-large council seats now held by Republican freshman David Catania and 21-year council veteran Hilda Mason, the aging, lone representative of the city’s tiny Statehood Party. The Democratic field includes school board members Don Reeves and Linda Moody, U.S. Statehood Shadow Rep. Sabrina Sojourner, D.C. Democratic party busybodies Phyllis Outlaw and Charles Gaither, and a host of even-lesser-known contenders.
Mendelson, who officially announced his candidacy last weekend, is the front-runner in fund-raising, far outdistancing his closest rival, school board member Moody. Mendelson’s latest campaign finance report shows that he has raised more than $19,000, $2,000 of which came out of his own pocket.
Moody has collected only $8,400, and Reeves, who has flirted with both the mayor’s race and the at-large council race since November, has collected a measly $545. Perhaps D.C. donors no longer are willing to finance school board members who spend their time fighting with each other, then try to leverage lackluster incumbencies into stepping stones to higher office.
Mendelson announced his candidacy on the vacant lot at First and M Streets NE that is the alternative site to Mount Vernon Square for the proposed convention center. “The new convention center could be built here cheaper, quicker, and better than at the other, smaller site,” he told some 30 supporters on hand for his kickoff. “This site is about spending public dollars wisely.”
The candidate also sought to quiet criticism from his last campaign that he is too mild-mannered.
“Some people have suggested that I am not aggressive enough, that I don’t stand on the stump breathing fire and kicking butt,” Mendelson said. “Such style may be exciting, but it doesn’t build winning coalitions.”
Nor did Mendelson’s MO in the 1996 at-large primary, in which he finished fourth.
At the end of his first mayoral forum June 9, former Chief Financial Officer Tony Williams approached a heckler who was clutching a sign bearing his picture underneath the caption “Enemy of the People.” During the debate, several protesters had stood, turned their backs to the candidates, and waved the posters in front of the packed room when Williams rose to answer questions.
Williams, however, disarmed the protester with his offer to provide a better picture and to sign the posterwhich he autographed “Mayor Williams.”
At the start of the forum, Williams had quieted his noisy criticswho were shouting accusations that he was a “puppet” of the control boardby confronting the protesters head-on. Yes, he admitted, he had summarily fired some 163 city workers. But those employees should never have been hired in the first place, he said, because they couldn’t do their jobs, or, once hired, they should have been given the proper training.
And, yes, he had replaced those employees with new hires making much higher salaries. But those replacements knew how to provide services to city residents and had collected an additional $198 million in revenues over the past two years that now could be used to provide D.C. employees with long-delayed pay raises.
After that, the anti-Williams folks remained seated whenever his turn came to answer questions.
That was one of his better moments during the forum. Some of his other answers were harder to follow than a New York City subway map.
Williams’ candidacy picked up a surprising supporter and worker last week: former Barry chief of staff Barry Campbell.
The mayor’s network may be so fractured among the contenders this year that it will be safe for every candidate to have some of Hizzoner’s supporters in camp.CP
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