“Politics makes for strange bedfellows,” renowned journalist and philosopher Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1871. But the coiner of that well-traveled aphorism would be shocked at the oddball alliances that are arising from the special election to fill the Ward 6 vacancy on the D.C. Council.
At first glance, conservative Crime Dog Sandy McCall, breakaway Catholic priest the Rev. George Stallings Jr., and AIDS activist Steve Michael wouldn’t appear to have much to talk about. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Michael and Stallings painted McCall as a public-safety tyrant for pushing “zero tolerance” in a community suspicious of police crackdowns.
Somehow, though, the three have formed an unbreakable Holy Trinity in their campaign peregrinations. They pal around together, go out for drinks together after campaign appearances, and defend one another at the increasingly heated candidate forums. Last weekend, Crime Dog, who has been accused of sewing the seeds of racial division, even played “Down by the Riverside” on his banjo during services at Stallings’ African-American Imani Temple on Capitol Hill. “It was the best day of my campaign,” McCall said later. “The place was absolutely rocking.”
But Michael and McCall are not the only strange fellows climbing into Stallings’ political bed. Former At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot initially put out the word that Stallings “can’t miss” in the Ward 6 electiona nod that steered early campaign donations to the candidate, including the $1,500 given by medical malpractice attorney Jack Olender and his wife. According to a campaign source, Olender followed Lightfoot’s advice and dug into his deep pockets for Stallings.
“I think what I said was, he’s a viable candidate,” Lightfoot confirmed last week. Not viable enough, however, to pull down contributions from the venerable ex-councilmember himself. Lightfoot has given $500 to former council staffer Sharon Ambrose and another $500 to former University of the District of Columbia professor Howard Croft but has not donated a penny to Stallings.
The flamboyant priest has picked up $1,000 from the city’s two most popular strip jointsthe 1720 H Street Club, near the White House, and Good Guys on Wisconsin Avenue NW. For most men of the cloth, joining hands with promoters of titty shows would have all the makings of a scandal. But Stallings has cover on this one: When he broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1989 to found his African-American Catholic Congregation, he said he wanted to loosen up the stuffy Catholic religion.
Nude dancers at Sunday services might help bring the flock back home.
Although Michael, McCall, and Stallings are suddenly making nice with each other, they certainly don’t extend their charity to Ambrose, who appears to be the campaign’s front-runnerif the nonstop attacks she has sustained from other candidates are any indication, that is.
Ambrose and McCall exchanged heavy verbal fire before 500 Capitol Hill residents who crowded into the basement of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which was the campaign’s largest forum to date. Ambrose accused McCall of “ginning up the crime stats” on Capitol Hill to bolster his campaign and charged that Crime Dog’s message was polarizing the fragile Ward 6 community along racial lines. She also implied that McCall was trying to reap political advantage from the brutal stabbing of McCall campaign worker Sam Dyer Easter Saturday morning while Dyer was hanging campaign posters on Park Street NE.
An emotional McCall snapped back by demanding that Ambrose “drop out of the race” for making such a callous remark. McCall was so upset by Ambrose’s offensive that he skipped his own campaign party after the forum.
But Michael and Stallings intervened on behalf of their fellow musketeer. The outspoken priest picked up on the victim theme and characterized himself as the target of a “Stop Stallings campaign,” which Michael quickly laid at Ambrose’s feet. “The Ambrose campaign should stop the behind-the-scenes racist campaign against George,” said Michael. Ambrose disavowed any complicity in the alleged campaign.
The Ambrose-McCall exchange made the 11 o’clock news on WRC-TV Channel 4the first time the Ward 6 race has registered on the local TV radar. Channel 4’s coverage reinforced the impression that Ambrose is the front-runner in the contest among 12 contenders to fill the vacancy created when former Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil moved to an at-large seat in last November’s elections.
With the campaign now in its final weeks before the April 29 balloting, the attacks on Ambrose are bound to intensify. The former council staffer has been the bull’s eye for her 11 rivals ever since she pulled off a surprise coup by winning a straw poll at the well-attended March 25 forum at Anacostia High School. Ambrose invaded the home turf of Stallings and Croft and captured one-fourth of the straw ballots cast by the 200 voters in attendance. Afterward, the Croft campaign dismissed Ambrose’s coup, claiming that newly elected Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen had “stacked” the forum with residents from her ward.
Allen attended the Anacostia forum, and some of her key staffers from last year’s successful campaign are manning the Ambrose effort in Ward 6. The straw poll victory by Ambrose, the only woman in the race, has helped dampen skepticism that the white Capitol Hill resident could not pull votes in all parts of the ward.
Ambrose hoped to duplicate her victory at the St. Peter’s straw poll forum last week, but the voting was canceled because the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, which organized the forum, failed to print up enough ballots for the larger-than-expected turnout.
The Ambrose campaign has also gotten a nice boost from former At-Large Councilmember John Ray, who has marketed Ambrose’s candidacy to his cronies in local business circles. Ray has helped Ambrose snare over $1,500 from the liquor industry, a contribution that has furnished her opponents with campaign-trail ammunition.
Michael has appeared at recent forums bearing bags full of empty beer and wine bottles that he said he picked up off the sidewalks near his campaign headquarters at 4th and H Streets NE. When he launches his attack on Ambrose for accepting liquor donations, he pulls out the bottles one by one and lines them up on the table before him.
Ambrose strikes back by placing the blame for the city’s alcohol problems on the dais of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which she insists has failed to crack down on abuses of liquor regulations.
“Let’s throw out the ABC Board and enforce the law,” she responds. But the issue hasn’t gone away.
Candidate Rob Robinson must be envious of the support Ambrose is getting from her former boss, Ray, and other current and ex-councilmembers. Robinson, former top aide to Brazil, had hoped Brazil’s backing would bring a flood of campaign cash into his coffers.
But according to one council source, the perception in the business community is that Brazil isn’t really committed to Robinson’s candidacy, and the anticipated flood has turned into a mere trickle. Campaign donors who would have given to Robinson if Brazil had asked seem to be sending their cash to other candidates.
Robinson reminded the March 25 Anacostia audience that he had worked for the past seven years as Brazil’s chief of staff, but the mention of Brazil’s name prompted a loud chorus of jeers from the crowd. Anacostia residents complain that Brazil ignored their needs during his tenure as the Ward 6 councilmember.
At the Anacostia forum, Robinson was finally asked about his 1987 conviction for using city funds to pay an overdue fur coat bill for former first lady Effi Barry.
“It’s no secret I took a fall as a young man,” Robinson replied. He said he believed in Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., his boss at the time, but his eyes have since been opened by Barry’s subsequent downfall. However, he stopped short of saying he took the fall for Barry, as many people suspect.
“I made a bad judgment,” Robinson said, adding that he had reimbursed the city from his own pocket before his crime was discovered.
Robinson, however, may have chosen the wrong campaign to admit he had committed a crimethanks to the tireless public-safety activism of McCall. But Robinson has already served his time, so Crime Dog can’t toss him in the new jail he wants to build at Blue Plains.
Initially dismissed as a one-issue candidate, McCall is making it safe for D.C. pols to openly discuss the crime issue in local campaigns. He drew the biggest applause of the night from a biracial audience at the March 27 forum at Maury Elementary School near Lincoln Park when he advocated restoring the death penalty in D.C. A recent wave of robberies and assaults in Lincoln Park may explain why McCall’s bold appeal raised the roof. The other candidates voiced their opposition or sidestepped the question.
Heretofore, the city’s crime problem has been treated like a dirty family secret no one should discuss publicly.
When 21 candidates vied for the Ward 8 council seat in the May 1995 special election to fill the vacancy created by Barry’s return to his throne, not a single contender dared to drag out the crime problem. A poll conducted by Arrington Dixon during the final few weeks of that campaign showed that crime was the No. 1 concern of Ward 8 residents.
Anacostia activist Croft, content to let Ambrose and McCall slug it out and split up the Capitol Hill vote, claims that voters in the eastern half of the ward view the problem as “much more complex than just locking up a lot more people.”
“We must deal with the despair in our community,” Croft said at the St. Peter’s forum.
Croft is more likely to pontificate about far-flung issues like economic justice, civil rights, and invocations of “ordinary people” than to stoop to the tried-and-true hot buttons pushed by candidates ever since the District started crumbling: responsive municipal services and crime prevention.
“What’s at stake in this election is who will actually be able to live in our city in the future, and what voice they’re going to have in their government,” the former zoning commissioner and D.C. parole board member routinely says in his canned closing speeches.
Croft is seeking to bring stronger representation to Ward 6 voters east of the Anacostia River, where the crime epidemic has dealt its deadliest blows. But he might not even be paying lip service to the crime problem if McCall were not in the campaign to keep the issue on the front burner.
Sometimes it takes outsiders with little chance of actually winning elections to spur the city’s crusty political class into action.
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)’s show of strength on H Street NE is winning praise from merchants who say the once-proud but recently crime-ridden corridor is becoming safe again for commerce. But residents in bordering neighborhoods wonder whether the zero-tolerance frenzy on H Street has simply pushed the riffraff into their back yards. After all, even police officials readily admit that their efforts seldom stop crime but rather merely relocate it.
“A lot of people are speculating about that,” says Jim Myers, who publishes the Beat 27 newsletter for the east end of Capitol Hill. “We know who our addicts and the people hanging around are. I keep seeing a lot of people I don’t recognize.”
But right now, Capitol Hill residents are more concerned about the department’s failure, or refusal, to share crime information with community public safety activists. When residents were putting up posters warning of the “Capitol Hill slashers” knifing pedestrians, MPD officials said they know of only two such cases. But once police nabbed suspects last week, thanks largely to a resident who foiled the attempted robbery of a pizza delivery woman, the police issued a list of eight attacks that might be linked to the suspects.
“When crimes are happening, the police say they are just random events,” said a Capitol Hill activist. “But when they catch a guy, suddenly there’s a link with everything.”CP
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