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Kevin Chavous’ mayoral campaign kickoff last Saturday went pretty much as planned. The Ward 7 councilmember touted his leadership abilities to a crowd of supporters, pledged to rebuild the city neighborhood by neighborhood, and called for the return of democracy to the District. The candidate slipped up only once, when he actually came close to offering a real, concrete proposal.
Chavous tossed out his pie-in-the-sky goal of persuading the city’s nine private universities and colleges to offer “reduced in-state tuition” to every D.C. high school graduate.
Appealing to local universities fits nicely with the politics of caution that Chavous has practiced in his two D.C. Council terms. After all, setting tuition rates at places like Georgetown University and Trinity College does not figure among the mayor’s few remaining duties. So Chavous can hardly be held accountable if those private institutions balk at his suggestion.
Except for that one dubious political plank, the Safeway parking lot in the East of the River Shopping Center remained an idea-free zone
during the mayoral wannabe’s rhetoric-laden announcement last weekend, broadcast live on radio station WOL (1450-AM). Although Chavous appeared strapped for new ideas,
he loaded his announcement speech with
every trite political slogan conceivable in the
hope that voters will read into his words the message and vision they seek in this year’s crop of mayoral contenders:
“Washington, D.C., needs someone to stand tall, speak for the people, and be counted.”
“Now is the time for new leadership.”
“Together, we will generate a renewal of spirit. Then we will renew our neighborhoods, our government, and our prosperity.”
“The Chavous administration will give its citizens a government that works, keeps its promises, and pays its bills on time.”
“My vision of Washington is that we can change, feel better about our city, and do better for our children.”
“But we cannot reach our vision unless we
“I will be the mayor who makes democracy work again for D.C.”
For the record, that’s 14 political clichés in just seven hackneyed declarationspretty good for a first-time mayoral candidate. Just what is the message voters are supposed to salvage from this avalanche of uninspiring political drivel?
“Neighborhoods and democracy,” interprets former Barry communications director Johnny Allem, now an enthusiastic Chavous backer and adviser. But Allem cautions that priorities could change as Chavous campaigns across the city and sharpens his focus: “It could become democracy and neighborhoods.”
Although Chavous has sat on the council for the past five years, few voters can cite his accomplishments. Even the candidate himself seemed hard pressed to come up with a list last Saturday, touting pedestrian achievements like removing abandoned autos from his ward, reducing the number of liquor licenses issued to his ward’s businesses, shutting down crack houses, and improving the quality and taste of public school lunches.
At times, Chavous sounded like an aspirant for advisory neighborhood commission instead of the city’s top office.
“My process is simple and direct,” he told his followers. “With citizens in the neighborhoods, I help identify specific problems. Then I use open hearings to find out the facts. I listen to everyone concerned. I probe to find new and better ways. Then I fight for decision and action.”
Chavous, who has compiled one of the lowest attendance records among the 13 councilmembers and one of the highest staff turnover rates, would have a tough time convincing those who follow his council career that he actually practices what he now preaches. The total absence of public-school activists at last weekend’s announcement vividly illustrated his failure as chair of the council’s Education Committee.
Chavous supporters excuse his lackluster council record as a byproduct of the local power drain created by the congressionally imposed D.C. financial control board and chief financial officer and chief management officer posts.
“In this climate, it’s been difficult for anyone on the council to build a distinguished record,” claims a former city official, who views Chavous as the suitable “transition” between the chaotic, unfulfilled era of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and a new era of talented, committed politicians yet to emerge.
“We need a transitional mayor who won’t leave a lasting anger in the city,” says the former official.
Primarily because of his nearly blank political slate, Chavous enters the mayor’s race with the greatest potential for emerging as a citywide candidate among a group of contenders whose strategies all rely on carving up the city’s political turf. Unbound by a record, the successful, attractive practicing attorney and family man can be everything to everyone.
Chavous can become a turn-of-the-century version of the 1978 Barry, who briefly embodied the hope of uniting the city before he created racial divisions and a bloated government work force that ensured his political survival.
If that strategy doesn’t work, he can pick up the reform banner dropped by former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly after she failed to deliver on promises of improving city services and holding a trimmed-down city government accountable. He can even impersonate the 1990s version of Barry, by standing up for home rule and democracy in D.C., but, unlike Hizzoner, without alienating Congress and the control board.
“Seventy percent of politics is positioning,” notes Allem. “Kevin is the best positioned in terms of who he is, where he’s from, and what he stands for. He is not a regional candidate. Every neighborhood can find in him something they want.”
Certainly those endorsing Chavous last weekend were reading into their candidate a lot more than political reality would permit. Hardware business mogul John Hechinger predicted that the election of Chavous would guarantee “the quickest return” to better schools and safer streets. D.C. Democratic National Committeewoman and former school board member Barbara Lett Simmons hailed him as the candidate who can bring an end to “the oligarchy” currently ruling the District. Ward 6 environmental activist and failed council candidate John Capozzi looked forward to the day his infant daughter could enjoy the reduced college tuition Chavous promised last Saturday.
Let’s hope those folks will settle for much less, like having abandoned cars towed away.
The turnout of some 200 supporters and onlookers would have been respectable for an at-large council candidate but seemed meager for a mayoral contender, even with the persistent rain. And Chavous, despite positioning himself as the only candidate in the running who can draw substantial votes in Ward 3 as well as Ward 8, spent the rest of the day campaigning in his home ward.
Despite this unimpressive kickoff, Chavous can take solace in the expectation that his two main rivals at this point, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, won’t be any more inspiring when they launch their campaigns over the next three weeks.
And Chavous’ competitors will have to spend a lot of time with the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying and Quotation to match his flair for cliché.
•Don’t start calling him Professor Barry just yet.
While toying with the idea of stepping down at the end of this year to accept a roving professorship endowed by his deep-pocketed friends, Hizzoner has sent his pollster out into the field to hear what D.C. residents have to say about a fifth Barry term.
The poll, the first substantial one taken by a mayoral contender this year, asks voters to rate the performances of Barry, his political rivals (including Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz), President Clinton, and control board chairman Andrew Brimmer.
“That may just be reflex, just muscle memory. He can’t help but do it,” says a longtime Barry supporter, who believes the mayor won’t seek re-election.
Among the questions D.C. voters are being asked is whether Barry should run again or step aside for new leadership. Hizzoner also is taking the public’s pulse on numerous other issues, including whether D.C. residents support a return of home rule.
“Who should be responsible for Home Rule? The council, Barry or Congress?” reads one of
For reasons that stump LL, Barry is also using the poll to test the mayoral waters for Michael Brown, the politically ambitious son of the late Democratic political strategist and Clinton cabinet member Ron Brown. The answer Barry’s pollsters are likely to get back is: “Michael who?”
Since the beginning of the year, Michael Brown has been telling disbelieving D.C. politicos that he will get Barry’s endorsement should the mayor decide to abandon his bid for a fifth term.
Mayoral rivals Evans, Brazil, and Chavous have conducted small focus groups to sample the mood of the electorate. Most of those samples show Brazil slightly ahead of the pack, including Barry. But all four candidates are bunched within a few percentage points of each other, and more than half the electorate remains undecided.
• Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee, is picking easy targets in his quest for the mayor’s office. Although Evans appears reluctant to clash publicly with Barry over the use of on-duty D.C. police officers to provide security and crowd control for MCI Center events, he quickly called an April 30 news conference to blast Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) for stripping Barry of his few remaining police powers. Before the news conference at Evans’ campaign headquarters, his campaign staff kicked out a Brazil staffer who had come to spy for his boss.
LL can’t figure out what secrets Evans was trying to protect. Brazil already knows how to posture and feign outrage with the best of them.
Faircloth, chair of the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee, last week won congressional approval of an amendment requiring new Police Chief Charles Ramsey to report solely to the control board. Faircloth acted after Barry said he wanted to renegotiate Ramsey’s contract to require the chief to report to him.
Barry and MCI Center owner Abe Pollin have defended the use of on-duty police officers to patrol outside the arena, stating that it is part of the original agreement between the city and Pollin. If so, then Barry failed to include money in the police department’s budget to cover these costs. Evans’ Judiciary Committee last week discovered that $800,000 in city funds have been spent since December to provide police officers for MCI Center events.
Perhaps the city could recoup its loss by setting up its own $4 hot dog stands.
Evans initially threatened to subpoena Barry and Pollin to testify, but backed off after both reacted angrily and promised to cooperate.
•Barry certainly acted like a mayoral candidate as he worked the room and pumped hands April 30 at the annual Kennedys-King Recognition Dinner sponsored by the Democratic State Committee. Surprisingly, the annual banquet of the city’s moribund Democratic party attracted some 600 guests in tuxedos and evening gowns, who relished the long night of Republican-bashing.
The council’s two Republicans, At-Large Councilmembers Schwartz and David Catania, also attended and were forced to grin and bear it.
“Anybody who takes one bit of freedom from me, I’m going to be angry about it,” Barry declared, naming several congressional Republicans as culprits. “This is not their city. This is
Republicans were not the only target of D.C. Democrats that evening. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) came under fire after he voted with conservative House Republicans earlier in the day to impose school vouchers on the District.
“We’re gonna get Jim Moran!” D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton proclaimed from the podium.
The evening also served as a pep rally to remind Democrats to vote this year or risk seeing more members of their party go down to defeat in local elections.
“We need a political Viagra pill in this city,” International Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Vice President Ron Richardson told the crowd.
The evening’s keynote speaker, Clinton administration Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, did not get to the podium until 10:45 p.m. and was forced to speak to a half-empty ballroom.
LL hopes the District doesn’t have to go begging for federal relief funds any time soon.CP
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