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Last spring, firebrand Imani Temple Archbishop George Stallings made his virgin foray into the rough-and-tumble world of D.C. politics. In a special election to complete the term of Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, Stallings preached empowerment and reconciliation to rally supporters in predominantly African-American sections of the ward. He even took big campaign bucks from nonsectarian strip joints to further his ambitions. The strategy failed, as longtime council staffer Sharon Ambrose edged out Stallings and a crowded field of other contenders in a low-turnout election.
Now Stallings is pondering a try at a full term in this year’s elections.
What makes Stallings think he’s got a better shot this time? More experience on the campaign trail? A new message? A new campaign strategy?
Close. Stallings is drafting a new campaign manager of sorts: Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. Although the four-term mayor has become persona non grata all over town, his services are in great demand in Wards 6, 1, and elsewhere. To be sure, Stallings and other pols don’t want Barry helping them craft their platforms; they just want him to run for mayor.
With his us-vs.-them appeal and underdog cachet, Barry rouses the city’s disaffected voters better than anyone else on the ballot. In a Barry-less election season, low voter turnouts open the door for anonymous newcomers. Just ask Arrington Dixon, who lost last December’s special at-large council contest to neophyte Republican David Catania.
Following his defeat to Ambrose last year, Stallings set a December deadline to decide whether he would run again this year in the September Democratic primary. Two months later, the breakaway Catholic priest still can’t figure out whether he should challenge Ambrose in Ward 6, seek one of the two citywide council seats up for grabs, or bow out of politics and tend to his congregation. Stallings had counted heavily on Barry’s support to pull him to victory last April, only to discover what already was obvious to many: The mayor only has coattails when he is on the ballot.
The aggressive Ambrose has confronted the Barry issue without trepidation. She was the first councilmember to sign the petition last summer in the failed effort to recall Barry. And Ambrose repeatedly urges her constituents to envision what they want the District to be like in four years and to vote for the candidates who offer that vision in 1998. In doing so, she is trying to keep her Capitol Hill base rallying behind her reform agenda, as well as to motivate the sizable anti-Barry voting populace in her ward in case the mayor runs again and seeks to aid her challengers.
No doubt Ambrose and Stallings have searched for signs of Hizzoner’s campaign plans as diligently as the Washington Post.
So has Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, who may not be around for a fifth term come January if Barry takes his final bow before September. Smith needs someone other than himself to energize his increasingly apathetic base, which has kept him in power for 16 years. Of course, a fifth Barry campaign could also energize the growing constituency that wants to boot the entire old guardBarry, At-large Councilmember Hilda Mason, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, and Smithout of office.
“Marion Barry is a very complicated issue for us all, and he’s a particularly complicated issue for Frank Smith,” observes Whitman-Walker Clinic executive director Jim Graham, who is poised to bring Smith’s council career to an end.
But Graham is not yet ready to throw his hat into the ring despite having raised $50,000 over the past year in an exploratory bid for the Ward 1 council seat. Before officially declaring his candidacy, Graham first wants to poll voters in the predominantly black precincts east of 12th Street NW to test his appeal and to gauge the Barry factor.
When Smith sought re-election four years ago, Barry was in the midst of his stunning mayoral comeback after serving a six-month prison sentence for cocaine possession. During that campaign, Barry frequently appeared with Smith in the eastern half of Ward 1an area where Graham plans to poll voters in the coming daysbut was rarely seen with the councilmember west of 16th Street, home to a majority of the ward’s white voters.
Some of Graham’s supporters are urging him to run for one of the two at-large council seats on the fall ballotin the belief that race won’t be as big an issue in a citywide contest as it is expected to be in Ward 1. (Graham is white.) Furthermore, Mason and Catania, who must seek a full term this year, appear highly vulnerable to well-financed Democratic challengers.
But Graham, a longtime resident of Ward 1, seems to have his sights fixed firmly on Smith’s seat. He has chosen a good time to attempt to bounce the incumbent. Last December, Catania proved that Ward 1 voters will vote for change, as he carried Smith’s former precinct in Adams Morgan and the ward’s Shaw and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, long Barry and Smith strongholds. Those are stunning feats for any politico, let alone a white, gay, conservative Republican.
Barry’s planswhich he won’t reveal and may not have yet finalizedaren’t the only wild card in this year’s council races. Another is Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett.
Barry die-hards last month protested the selection of a white woman from Texas to reign over the District government built and controlled by Hizzoner. But Barnett, stealing a trick from the mayor, quickly quelled the controversy by pledging to improve the lot of rank-and-file government workers, the core of Barry’s constituency.
While Smith and Stallings are looking to Barry for help with their political plans, candidates like Graham and Ambrose could be aided by the Liddy Dole look-alike now running the government.
“Camille Barnett may succeed before Sept. 15,” says Graham, noting the date of the city’s crucial Democratic primary. “Nobody even allows for the possibility that something could actually work in this city.”
Certainly not Barry, who has built a career on chaos and discord.
THE CHAVOUS QUESTION
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous is acting like Punxsutawney Phil, the celebrity groundhog who saw his shadow in Pennsylvania last week and ducked back inside his hole for a six-week nap. After waffling for most of last year over whether he would run for mayor in 1998, the cautious Chavous rushed to Allen Chapel AME Church in Ward 8 on Sunday morning three weeks ago to announce that he would soon end his waffling and officially declare his bid for Barry’s job.
Chavous then went back into hibernation, but he suddenly re-emerged Tuesday to file as a mayoral candidate. His campaign aides expected the filing to be a low-key affair involving only family and friends. Instead, the event looked more like an accidental campaign kickoff. Reporters showed up for the declaration and pestered the candidate with questions.
Chavous promises a full-blown kickoff some time in March.
Local political consultants and activists appear to have convinced the reluctant Chavous that many of the District’s voters would feel more comfortable voting for him than for supremely white Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Chavous initially responded to these pleadings by musing publicly over whether the mayor’s office is worth having, now that most of its power has been transferred to Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams and Barnett.
What the city doesn’t need is a mayoral contender who is unsure and unconvinced about his quest. At least Evans, in spite of his unbearable whiteness of being, has been firm from the outset about his mayoral ambitions.
Instead of fretting about power outages, Evans says unequivocally that he wants to use the remaining powers of the mayor’s office to work alongside Williams, Barnett, and the control boardnot against themwith the goal of restoring local control as quickly as possible. Evans has already opened up a campaign office and hired a team, and is flirting with the campaign slogan “Take It Back, Jack!” That should work, if Evans is eager to align himself with “the Plan.”
When Chavous took the pulpit at Allen AME Jan. 25, his message sounded a lot like warmed-over Evans. But his real purpose in church that morning was to stem the tide rushing to Evans, Williams (still a possible contender at the time), Michael Brown, son of the late Ron Brown, and other mayoral wannabes already testing the waters.
Chavous, in effect, was test marketing his campaign slogan: “Wait for me.”
Waiting for Chavous requires a lot of patience. His mayoral quest has resembled his council career: Avoid tough issues until pushed.
After elbowing Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson aside in the December 1996 intracouncil shoving match for control of the education committee, Chavous went AWOL last year while school closings and roof repair fiascoes dominated the headlines. He failed to develop a strategy for addressing the public furor over last spring’s school closings, and he got around to holding hearings on roof repairs and the failure to open schools on time only after those issues had been resolved. By the time Chavous began making noise, the public outrage had subsided.
When Vermont Sen. James Jeffords held a hearing last month on the state of D.C. schools, he asked Patterson to testify instead of Chavous because Patterson has been more active and outspoken on education issues than the council’s education czar.
Despite a recent uptick in attendance, Chavous also has compiled an absentee record on the council during his first five years serving Ward 7 that would be difficult for any D.C. high-school dropout to equal.
None of this sounds like the building blocks for a successful mayoral campaign. But Chavous remains an attractive candidate to voters who believe the city’s top job should be filled by an African-American. And he continues to reap favorable media attention despite his many defects.
The wait should end some time in March, when Chavous promises to enter the fray with a rally and campaign kickoff. But Chavous supporters shouldn’t start preparing for any victory celebrations. In the tumultuous 1996 Ward 7 council campaign, upstart school board member Terry Hairston exposed Chavous’ weakness as a candidate inexperienced in the kind of mud-wrestling that is D.C. mayoral politics.
Chavous remains the best bet to be the first dropout of this year’s mayoral field, probably by June.
Barry made one of his patented entrances at D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Feb. 5 town meeting on Capitol Hill. With Norton at the mike, Barry conspicuously worked the spacious Cannon Caucus Room, shaking hands, chatting, and waving to admirers. The only person in the room failing to notice Hizzoner was Norton, who seemed determined to avoid being upstaged by Barry.
But she was not nearly as determined as the mayor. Undaunted by the snub, Barry strode to the front of the room and began shaking hands along the front row, directly in front of Norton. Finally, the feisty delegate was forced to acknowledge Hizzoner. Norton’s introduction set off chants of “Four more years!” and Barry responded with his raised-arm, Rocky-style salute.
He hung around for an hour, expecting to get his turn at the microphone. But a polite introduction was as far as Norton was willing to go with Barry that evening. After an hour, he gave up and left.
During the meeting, Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., and now head of the National Capital Planning Commission, was asked whether his state would take D.C. if Maryland continues to give a cold shoulder to the retrocession movement.
“No, absolutely not,” snapped Gantt.
The two-time Senate candidate apparently still harbors political ambitions back home and doesn’t want to see his hopes doused by becoming too cozy with D.C.
In response to another question, Norton nixed the idea of a citywide commission to rewrite the home rule charter, pointing to the colossal failure of the city’s early-1980s statehood/constitutional convention. The convention produced a pie-in-the-sky document, complete with calls for guaranteed jobs for all D.C. residents, that started the city down the road to becoming a national laughingstock. CP
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