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With only five months to go before this year’s primary elections, the stakes in D.C. politics are on the rise. Just witness the action at last week’s D.C. Council meeting.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil introduced an amendment to pump more money into summer jobs, a program popular among District kids, parents, and mayoral contenders, like Brazil. The initiative seemed straightforward enough, but the budget numbers behind it didn’t add up for At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who asked Brazil to repeat his explanation of his amendment.
Brazil snapped back that Catania should “listen up.”
Catania, his anger peaking, told Brazil he wasn’t going to sit still for a lecture from him, especially after Brazil had seemed to be totally unaware of what he was voting on during a council session two days earlier.
Although the council eventually moved on to other business, Brazil pursued his tete-a-tete into the council’s back rooms after the meeting. The red-faced, heavyweight councilmember pointedly removed his coat to improve his right hook against the lightweight newcomer. Catania quickly withdrew from the ring, reminding Brazil that he had already apologized from the dais for his remarks during council debate.
“Harold, it’s over,” Catania insisted.
But Brazil slapped away the apology like a tornado tearing through a trailer park.
“Don’t you ever pull that shit on me again, buddy!” Brazil warned Catania. “And you don’t know me well enough to call me Harold.”
Perhaps Catania should have called him “buddy.”
If Brazil appears a bit touchy these days, perhaps it’s because he’s making so little headway in his campaign for the mayor’s office. The only comfort is that his rivals—Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.—aren’t doing much better.
Once the three mayoral wannabes on the council threw their hats into the ring, they all climbed under those hats to hide. None has delivered a major speech or even staged the customary campaign announcement and kickoff.
At this point eight years ago, D.C. voters had already witnessed one of the pivotal candidate forums in the crowded 1990 mayoral race. The packed forum at Luther Place Memorial Church in April of that year marked the emergence of Sharon Pratt Dixon as the feisty newcomer willing to take on Barry and the “blind mice” on the council.
The candidates this year appear fearful of sticking their heads out before a citizenry lusting for a visionary. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t yet discovered from their focus groups what vision they should project.
While Brazil is framing himself as the neighborhood bully, Chavous says he is running to restore power locally so that the District’s elected officials can reclaim control over their own back yard.
The councilmember’s grandmother apparently never admonished him to clean up his own back yard before he starts on someone else’s.
The condo association board of Fairfax Village IX this week sent Chavous a letter asking him to help keep the area behind his home at 38th Street and Suitland Avenue SE free of trash. Residents of that complex last month took a walking tour of the neighborhood and rated the area between their condos and Chavous’ house as the trashiest eyesore in the community.
Chavous, through campaign spokesman Jim Allen, said part of the yard behind his home is a public right-of-way that is being used as an illegal trash dump. The councilmember said he and his two sons clean up the area at the beginning of each month, but the trash soon piles up again.
The letter to Chavous was signed by Larry A. King, the city’s former personnel director and political troubleshooter who once handled such delicate tasks for Hizzoner. Two years ago, D.C. had two Larry Kings occupying the top rungs of its government—the personnel director and the director of the Department of Public Works. That era ended in September, when personnel director Larry King departed to become condo association honcho and governmental consultant.
None of this year’s mayoral contenders has yet addressed the Larry King deficit.
Unlike his rivals, master political chameleon Barry does not need to consult with focus groups and political consultants to settle on his vision for the city. Hizzoner can quickly change his spots to fit whatever mood he detects among voters.
When D.C. voters four years ago were looking for a leader who had been spiritually tested, redeemed, and rejuvenated, Brother Barry delivered an Oscar-winning performance as the fallen sinner who got back up again, wiser, and stronger. Fallen evangelist Jimmy Swaggert would have been reduced to tears by Barry’s 1994 sermons.
During his first run for mayor 20 years ago, voters fatigued from home rule and civil rights battles sought a harmonious city, so Barry became the racial healer who could unite white, affluent Ward 3 with isolated, overwhelmingly black Ward 8. When racial competition and distrust soured the city’s mood during the ’80s and ’90s, Barry became the champion dealer of the race card.
At the moment, the mayor is struggling to determine whether his current tour of the city’s eight wards will become his farewell lap or the beginning heat of a fifth sprint for the top political office. The struggle was on display on Monday during a whirlwind tour of Ward 2, the fourth ward Hizzoner has visited via his “Mobile City Hall” during the past two months. Barry held a town hall meeting at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW and made other stops at various ward hot spots.
At the town hall meeting, a proud Barry started out by touting the city’s lowest crime rate in 20 years, bragging about cleaner streets and more courteous D.C. employees, claiming he would have balanced the city’s budget and set its financial house in order without the “out-of-control board” imposed by Congress, and taking credit for everything Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams has accomplished.
“All the good he’s done, I have to take credit for,” Barry shamelessly proclaimed. “He wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t hired him.”
Check that: Williams wouldn’t be here if Barry hadn’t been forced to hire him. And when Hizzoner picked Williams in September 1995, under pressure from Congress, he thought he was getting a patsy instead of a tough-minded, glib, and innovative CFO.
In the next moment, the Ward 2 audience witnessed a weary politician ruminating about his 24 years in the city’s public trust, as mayor, councilmember, and school board member. Barry even fretted over paying son Christopher’s tuition at Hampton University this fall.
“I’m praying on it,” Barry told the audience of his decision on the mayor’s race.
So are a lot of D.C. residents, who hope that this fall’s elections will mark the beginning of the post-Barry era and that Congress will then remove its foot from the District’s neck.
After previous stops in the friendly environs of Wards 4, 5, and 7, Barry was eager to do rhetorical battle with the enemy in Ward 2. His aides, however, seemed disappointed to discover that their 12-hour blitz through the ward didn’t even rate a check-in from Evans. The mayor had boasted at his April 8 weekly news conference that councilmembers couldn’t resist coming out to see what he was up to when he ventured into their wards.
But Evans demonstrated a peaceful resistance that would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud. Perhaps the mayoral contender, the clear front-runner in the quest for campaign cash, was busy working on a strategy to avoid the John Ray label as this year’s candidate with the big bucks—and voter support as evanescent as the morning dew. The best the Barry camp got was Evans staffer June Hirsh, who was spotted at the back of the room during the town hall meeting.
“Sending a staffer is fine,” noted city ombudsman Willie Vasquez, “but you got to face the public.”
Barry staffers claimed they encountered complaints about Evans all across the ward on Monday, ranging from concerns about his coziness with developers to anger over his role in setting tougher sentencing guidelines for convicted felons. “I would think he would want to get rid of some of this baggage before the mayor’s race begins,” says Vasquez.
Barry’s Ward 2 stops this week attracted the smallest crowds of his current citywide tour. Had his town hall meeting begun on time, the 20 or so citizens present would barely have filled the first row. It was hard to figure out who had a smaller constituency: Barry or the convention center opposition, which was holding a ragtag protest out front.
But Barry spent 45 minutes on his car phone dealing with an undisclosed “emergency” and scrapped a scheduled meeting with Ward 2 advisory neighborhood commissioners after keeping them cooling their heels for an hour and a half. By the time the town hall meeting got underway, an influx of city workers and police officers had swelled the crowd to more than 60.
Maybe that was the “emergency”: filling the meeting room.
Hizzoner would have been envious of Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett, who drew more than 200 a week earlier at a community meeting near Dupont Circle. D.C. residents have learned where the buck stops.
In a nod to Barnett’s popularity, Barry began his day in Ward 2 by telling a small breakfast gathering of the Georgetown Business and Professional Association that the CMO should replace control board executive director John Hill. Bean-counter Hill, the mayor explained, “is the kind of guy you bring in after the train has crashed”—while Barnett is capable of driving the locomotive.
That’s Barry’s idea of a compliment to Barnett, demoting her to being the factotum for the next control board.
Barry’s handlers managed to attract a larger crowd when they strategically parked the mayor’s van in the Giant parking lot at 7th and O Streets NW during the after-work shopping rush. At the end of the day, they seemed pleased with their Ward 2 showing.
“Everybody wants him to run,” exuded mayoral aide John Fanning.
The mayor’s Ward 2 tour failed to draw out Evans, but rival Brazil couldn’t resist showing. Brazil, who once sought the role as Barry’s chief critic on the council, now seems to be holding his fire against the mayor in hopes of picking up Barry’s support in the event Hizzoner withdraws from the race. Instead of the political antidote to the mayor, Brazil runs the risk of being tagged “Barry Lite.”
Barry acknowledged Brazil’s presence during Monday’s town hall meeting and credited his rival with helping to restore money for the mayor’s coveted summer jobs program. That’s about all the help Brazil can count on from Hizzoner.
The mayor, however, didn’t credit Brazil with stealing his longtime political adviser, David Wilmot. Last year, Wilmot hosted a fundraiser for Brazil’s mayoral exploratory committee that sounded more like a campaign kickoff. Since then, Barry has yanked Wilmot out of the Brazil campaign until the mayor decides his own political future. Wilmot is trying to shape that future, and clear Brazil’s path to the mayor’s office, by collecting a $2 million endowment from local business leaders to fund a professorship for Barry at area universities.
Wilmot, one of the savviest political insiders in the District, could solve the tug of war with a simple solution: a hybrid Barry-Brazil candidacy. The merger would create a new Candidate X who would combine Brazil’s short attention span and absentee record with Barry’s night-owl wanderings and penchant for cronyism.
That would cure District voters of their cravings for Candidate X forever.