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On a quiet street in Takoma Park, outside a cafe called Savory where rosy-cheeked, nose-ringed teens serve designer coffee and vegetarian fare, Michael McCarthy broods in the chill of an October evening. Inside all is warmth and light, but McCarthy sits in the darkness, denouncing the town where he has lived for nearly a decade. In leafy Takoma Park, Md., renowned refuge for tree huggers, reformers, and progressives of every stripe, McCarthy is a self-proclaimed rebel, a stubborn patch of crab grass in so-called Azalea City.
“We’ve got a brigade here called the lawn-mower brigade, and these people want to ban the power lawn mower,” he says, describing a pack of lunatics roaming the streets armed with push mowers. “And they’re taken seriously by the councilthey get serious play here. We’ve got a guy who’s against meat-eating who walks around town with a dead animal around him. I swear by anything that’s holy, I swear on the lives of my children, I’ve seen the manhe’s got all kinds of dead animal skins on him. But you know what? That’s his right to do that. I got no problem with it.”
It’s not neighbors like the dead-animal man who really grate on McCarthy. In fact, he sheepishly admits that he, too, is a vegetarian. Even the lawn-mower brigaderegulars in the town’s Fourth of July paradeshould be allowed their shenanigans, he says, as long as he can rev up his Toro whenever he likes. What McCarthy does have a problem with is the Takoma Park City Council. “They operate like the Politburo,” he says. “They cast unanimous votes, and there’s never any dissension, and yet they celebrate diversity. They sure as hell don’t celebrate diversity of opinion.”
McCarthy’s out to change all that. After years of bitter silence and built-up resentments, he has launched his own campaign for a seat on the council in next week’s election. He’s taking on Councilmember Reggie Chavez from Ward 6, which was part of Prince George’s County before the city’s recent unification as a Montgomery County municipality. In doing so, McCarthy has exposed Takoma Park’s nasty secret: The town known for activismit boasts of being a “nuclear-free zone,” among other P.C. credentialsalso has a tradition of unopposed elections. And this year, the harmony would have continued if not for McCarthy and another first-time candidate, Andrew Busby, a Trotskyite who’s as far to the left as McCarthy is to the right.
“They all want to run unopposed, but me and the communist aren’t gonna let ’em,” vows McCarthy, a Jersey-Shore motormouth. “And I endorse the communist, though I want to emphasize 100 times over that I agree with him on nothing. But he’s very intelligent and I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.”
As a teacher at Lorton Prison, McCarthy depends on books on tape to get him through the long commute. So he’s a frequent borrower at the Takoma Park Library, and he says he’s accustomed to the library’s liberal biasway too many Maya Angelou tapes and Bob Dylan CDs, for example. But several months ago he was enraged to find the library doesn’t carry the Washington Times. Library officials say they do what they can on a limited budget, and McCarthy was the first to request the conservative Times. “You do the community a disservice if you respond to the loudest voice,” says librarian Ellen Arnold-Robbins. “It’s an equity issue, and it’s about trying to be fair to everyone who has a stake in the library.”
For McCarthy, the absence of the Times may not be a full-fledged conspiracy, but it shows that conservative views aren’t welcome here. “It’s a reflection of Takoma Park’s quirky-Berkeley-of-the-East kind of thing,” he says. “They talk a good game, but they’re hypocritical. They’re part of that I-love-socialism-until-it-personally-hurts-me kind of crowd.”
Years of such peeves have grown into a mountain of resentment; McCarthy is still incensed that the council declared its opposition to the Persian Gulf War while his brother served in the conflict. More recently, he has been rankled by the council’s decision to set up a Free Burma committee, a boycott of companies doing business with the Asian country that accounts for 60 percent of the heroin brought in the U.S. “A local government has no business spending tax dollars on this sort of thing,” says McCarthy. “I want the potholes filled.”
In the past few months, McCarthy has waged a relentless letter-writing campaign that has included nearly a dozen published epistles. One tagged Takoma Park’s council as “Nazi-like,” and in another screed he sarcastically invited Pol Pot to move to town and get involved in the political scene. (McCarthy was making fun of the city’s law that allows noncitizens to vote in local elections.)
Takoma Park officials say that the system is working fine, and that’s why there are so few challengers like McCarthy. “Last time, I tried to get people to run against me. I really tried,” says Larry Rubin, a two-term councilmember running unopposed for the second time. “But they said they like somebody there that actually wants somebody to run against them. I take it that I’m doing a good job.”
Rubin says the upstart is miffed because the council turned down McCarthy’s offer to join the Free Burma committee. McCarthy says he wanted to be on the committee to bring a critical voice to the proceedings; according to Rubin, the council “unanimously” recommended that McCarthy instead join up with the city’s crime-fighting task force, which would be more compatible with his background as a prison worker. “We love our eccentrics in Takoma Park, and on that basis Michael McCarthy is greatly cherished,” says Rubin. “But being an eccentric doesn’t mean you’re qualified for anything.”
McCarthy doesn’t deny he took the Burma incident personally. He viewed the council’s decision as a blatant attempt to bar him from the political scene; it’s one of the main reasons he decided to run. If elected, he says he’ll donate his $3,800 stipend to the Burmese people, who he says are the real victims of the boycott.
“They expected me to go away after I got rejected from the Burma committee,” says McCarthy. “I say to my wife, ‘I can just hear them sitting around their houses saying, “That guy’s an ass.”‘”
McCarthy does actually have his supporters, although Takoma Park isn’t exactly brimming with McCarthyites. “Mike is a little around the bend,” says fellow first-time candidate Busby. “But I find it easier to talk to him than I do some of my honorable opponents. At least Mike is able to straightforwardly and honestly talk about what he thinks. It’s totally nuts, but what the hell?”
A former civil rights activist and “Trotskyist” (“‘Trotskyite’ sounds like some sort of disease”), Busby is a gray-bearded radical running against a thrice-unopposed councilmember. “I’ve been trying to build socialism in the United States and, well, I haven’t been successful yet. On the other hand, the stock market may beat me to it,” says Busby. “But I’ve been mad at the council for a long time. They don’t talk to anybody but themselves. This is bureaucratic autism. In two years, there were eight ‘no’ votes. This is government by smiley face. They’re up there chanting, ‘All is well, all is well,’ and there’s no way to tell because they haven’t dealt with anything except internally generated business.”
According to Busby, Takoma Park is at the low point of its regular cycle: Every decade or so, there’s a lot of reform and squabble, and then a period of public apathy. Outgoing Mayor Ed Sharp’s seven-year tenure came after the bitter infighting that characterized the regime of Mayor Sam Abbott in the ’80s. “I ran on a platform of being more consensus-oriented, and as mayor I’ve tried to operate that way,” says Sharp. “The thing is that we’re a very well-run government.”
Like Busby, McCarthy blasts that sort of optimism. He claims the city has many pressing needs: First, he wants to beef up its police force, because in his view Takoma Park has become as dangerous as any other urban area. “Things are not OK here,” he says. “We’re right on the cusp of northwest and northeast D.C., and there’s plenty of crime spillover. Instead of a nuclear-free zone, I propose a crime-free zone.”
Sharp and others say that McCarthy’s presence reflects Takoma Park’s diversity, even if the populace remains overwhelmingly progressive. “There are certainly people like McCarthy in the city who agree with him on his criticisms,” he says. “But they’re not a substantial group.”
As a conservative in a stronghold of liberals, McCarthy feels like an outcast in his own town. “Activism is relative in Takoma Park,” he says. “If you’re a liberal activist, you’re welcome and admired. If you’re an activist who goes against the status quo, you’re repudiated and they go after you.” For example, McCarthy says, “They say I’m an anti-semite, but my campaign manager is a 300-pound Jew from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.”
Though he has yet to spend a dime on his campaign, McCarthy says he’s poised to defeat Chavez in Ward 6, the city’s most conservative voting district. He admits that his political chances have less to with his own abilities than with Chavez’s alleged shortcomings. “He’s a mute,” says McCarthy. “He just sits there and gets manipulated. He doesn’t represent me or my family.”
Like the veteran two-termer he is, Chavez takes his challenger’s accusations in stride. “That’s part of his personal attack on me,” he says. “He’s misinformed. He just got into this political realm and he doesn’t know what’s going on in his own ward. He’s just another guy who’s discontented with the system in city hall. How can he relate to his other councilmembers if his attitude is negative?”
Chavez, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines 26 years ago, says he’s the protector of his ward, which includes many of the city’s older residents. “I know I have a good goal for this community,” he says. “They really like me. The association in my neighborhood nominated me, and that speaks for itself.” (McCarthy’s wife nominated McCarthy, and he seconded the nomination.)
“I want to serve the community, but to him it’s different,” says Chavez. “He just wants to get even with some people.”
McCarthy says he’s waging his campaign to honor the principle of “open government,” not to take revenge. Besides, he says, even if he loses his first bid for public office, there’s always his writing. He has penned a slew of unpublished works, including a novel titled The Benedictine that meticulously follows the structure of his favorite novel, Moby Dick. The Ahablike main character is a monk of a monastery inside an active volcano in the Canary Islands.
“He’s good at writing,” admits Chavez, an avid follower of McCarthy’s letters-to-the-editor. “In fact, if I win, I’ll get him to be one of my writers, if he would change his mind and be friendly.”
But McCarthy refuses to heed such offers of reconciliation. He’s got a war to fight, and next week’s election is only the first battle.
At a recent debate, a woman stood up and forcefully told McCarthy that if he didn’t like Takoma Park, he should leave. But McCarthy, husband and father of two sons and proud owner of a power lawn mower, isn’t budging. “I like it here,” he says. “I’m an Irish Catholic from New Jersey, and I ain’t going anywhere. We don’t movewe stick it out. I’m gonna stay in their face and I’m gonna stay in Takoma Park and I’m gonna stay active.”CP