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How Ward 8’s Sandra Seegars Became Marion Barry’s Nightmare

Sandra Seegars has a special gift for making enemies. When Seegars was orchestrating her 1995 crusade to recall Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Eydie Whittington, she showed up at a meeting of the Ward 8 Democrats—which Whittington was attending—and solicited signatures for her recall petition. As she circulated the petition among Ward 8 politicos, Seegars chanted about Whittington’s substandard credentials as a councilmember. Seegars’ gall enraged Karen Jones Herbert, a Whittington ally who was then serving as chairperson of the District’s taxicab commission.

“She came up right into my face and started yelling,” recalls Seegars. “She was hooting and hollering about two, three inches from my face, saying, ‘If you don’t stop lying, I’m going to beat your ass!’ It was ‘bitch’ this and ‘bitch’ that, and I was laughing. Until she kept yelling in my face.”

In retrospect, Herbert might have been better off holding her tongue.

In just six months, Herbert’s world stopped spinning: She was expunged from the D.C. voter-registration rolls, stripped of her Maryland driver’s license, and vaulted from her $82,000-a-year taxi commission post. All Seegars needed was a simple tip. “Someone said to me, ‘That Karen don’t live in D.C.,’” she recalls.

Using gumshoe tactics she learned as a private investigator 15 years before, Seegars sniffed out documents proving that Herbert’s legal primary residence was in Maryland. It didn’t take long for the ramifications to snowball: Herbert was not eligible to vote in the District, where she cast a ballot in Whittington’s 1995 special-election victory, she was committing a misdemeanor by holding valid driver’s licenses in two jurisdictions, and she was violating a Barry administration policy requiring top-ranking officials to live in the city. A mini-media firestorm ensued, which Seegars gladly fueled, and Herbert was forced to leave the commission in March 1996.

Even since the frenzy subsided, Seegars has kept on Herbert’s tail. When Herbert re-registered as a District voter in early 1996, Seegars got her booted off the rolls. After Herbert registered yet again, Seegars challenged her vote at the polls in November. And Seegars filed a complaint with the D.C. Bar Counsel trying to get Herbert disciplined. The bar counsel declined to take action, but Seegars says the group is again reviewing her complaint.

The District is full of busybody community activists who raise hell over corruption in city government, raucous clubs in their back yards, and unfilled potholes, but few bring the firepower and visceral instincts of Seegars. In part because she is retired and has time on her hands, Seegars pursues tips on scandals and civic trickery full-time from her Savannah Street home and pumps her findings into her popular quarterly rag, One Page at a Time Newsletter. The newsletter has established Seegars as the undisputed gossip nerve center of Ward 8.

Ward 8 Democratic activist Phil Pannell calls her “the information queen of Ward 8. When it comes to Miss 411, she knows how to access it, process it, disseminate it.”

Seegars’ brand of activism, however, goes beyond civic do-goodism to something more personal. It stems in no small part from her fixation on Mayor Marion Barry, whom Seegars vigorously supported when he relaunched his political career by running for the Ward 8 council seat. Barry’s decision to step out on Ward 8 and run for mayor was met with skepticism by Seegars, and she has been underwhelmed by his performance since regaining the mayoralty. Now she spends a great deal of time throwing well-timed grenades at Barry and his Ward 8 political base.

As Barry enters the council’s Jan. 2 swearing-in ceremony at the Washington Convention Center, he acknowledges just about everyone in sight—he is all embraces, handshakes, and smiles—but he strolls right by Seegars without even a glance.

On his way out, however, he can’t avoid her. A man standing alongside Seegars shouts a loud greeting as Barry walks by, forcing the mayor to come over. Seegars sticks out her right hand—which Barry manages to shake without ever looking at her. Instead, he looks at the reporter to her right, barking, “Who you with? You writing that profile on her? Make sure you talk to Eydie. You give Eydie a call, now, y’hear?”

It’s not that Barry and Seegars go way back. Their relationship began in 1990, after Barry checked into a drug treatment program following his run-in with federal narcotics investigators. Seegars began writing him.

“They were letters of encouragement,” she says. “He looked so sad and pitiful. [I wrote] whatever I thought would boost his morale. He didn’t know me before that.”

Word got back to her—and around Barry’s inner circle—that the mayor faithfully read each letter, which Seegars signed with her initials. After the drug treatment program, he recognized her during a walk-through tour when she introduced herself as “SS.” He asked her to keep writing. “He probably knew he was going to prison,” she says.

After his release, Barry cajoled Seegars into helping his bid for the Ward 8 council seat, Seegars says. She raised funds for the campaign because she believed a man with Barry’s clout would do wonders for the city’s most marginal ward.

“He had the experience,” she says. “And he could make things happen. I figured if he came over here to this ward, he could get things done for us, that he would concentrate on Ward 8.”

Devotion like that landed Seegars a spot in Barry’s inner circle. But she bucked him at a public meeting in 1994 where he floated his intention to run for mayor, barely a year and a half into his council term. Seegars read out loud a list of reasons why he should not run.

“It was nine things,” says Seegars. “Stuff like, ‘You said you were going to make Ward 8 look like Ward 2. It doesn’t.’ He was mad. But I didn’t care. I was mad, too, because he bullshitted us. He’s only there for a year and then he runs for mayor?”

Barry subsequently managed to convince her that he could achieve more for the ward as mayor than as councilmember, but after becoming disenchanted with his campaign she drifted away well before District voters swept him into his fourth mayoral term that November.

Seegars says she would have faded into the background had Barry not tried to decide who would serve the remaining 20 months of his council term. To Seegars, Barry’s endorsement of Whittington in the May 1995 special election was a slap at the Ward 8 voters who had sparked his political resurrection.

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“You’re supposed to know what the ward needs—but Eydie didn’t know,” Seegars says. “She didn’t know what the hell she was doing. Barry came in there and didn’t do anything to help the ward. Then he’s going to put Eydie in there, who can’t do nothing. He didn’t put Eydie there to help us. He put Eydie there to help him.”

Seegars didn’t keep her feelings about Barry’s kingmaking to herself. She launched a one-woman crusade to derail Whittington’s candidacy, handing out literature and writing articles in local newspapers calling Barry’s endorsement plain old boss politics. When Whittington prevailed—in a highly contested one-vote primary victory over rival Sandy Allen—Seegars was hardly finished. Quickly mastering the arcane rules of D.C. election law, Seegars mounted her massive recall effort of Whittington which failed when the election board found many signatures that her helpers had collected to be invalid.

“She just burst on the scene,” says Pannell. “She lit up the Ward 8 sky like a comet.”

Seegars never let up, dedicating half of her newsletter to the bad news about Whittington, Barry, and their cronies. It was balanced with other community news and gossip but avoided giving favor to any other political clan in the ward.

Seegars’ pressure was no small factor in Whittington’s defeat last fall in her bid for a full term as Ward 8 councilmember. Despite Barry’s endorsement and fund-raising connections, Whittington soundly lost the Democratic primary race to the eventual winner, Sandy Allen.

Seegars’ persistence had a simple motivation, says Cora Barry: “I think she was obsessed with Eydie.”

For her part, Whittington says Seegars did have an obsession—with the mayor.

“She has a passion, a sick passion, for the mayor,” says Whittington. “Everything that was written about me was meant for Barry. It was meant to harm him. She has a fatal attraction for him. It was like a woman scorned.”

Whittington’s remark implies that Seegars was jealous when Barry married his current wife, Cora Masters Barry, in 1994. Seegars admits to not liking Cora Barry. But she says, “If it was a fatal attraction, Barry would be dead, or I’d be drowned in the bathtub.”

“He respects me,” she says. “He knows that all the stuff I’m doing is right, and he never calls me to say, ‘SS, don’t do that.’ And you know he probably can’t, because I’d curse him out.”

As for why she has targeted the mayor and his faithful, Seegars says, “Barry was a turncoat, and I didn’t like the way he’d turned on the ward. The ones who I pick on are crooked—and they happen to be Barry’s friends.” And her criticism of Whittington was to get “Eydie’s ass out of there.”

Seegars, however, doesn’t reserve all her barbs for the Barry crowd.

“Sandra is very much the iconoclast,” says Pannell. “She has no problem [disemboweling] the sacred cows in the ward. Everybody is her target. But she doesn’t personalize it. Some folks find her quite annoying, in that they think there is a certain brusqueness to her candor. But [it’s not] done in an ad hominem way. She’s just a real straight-shooter.”

Seegars has no time for ultrapopular D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, in large part because tips about problems in city government to her office generate only bland thank-you letters.

“It’s so pretty,” Seegars cracks about one of the letters. “And what’s it saying? ‘Thanks for letting me know. Good luck. Go to hell. I can’t do nothing. My hand’s tied behind my back.’ [Norton’s] position’s a waste. It’s a waste of ink to put it on the ballot. Just let her keep it. If she wants it, don’t even vote her in, just let her stay there. Who cares?”

Seegars’ fearless streak hasn’t gone unrecognized: She pretty much owns the honorary job of timekeeper of candidate speeches at Ward 8 Democratic debates—even though she is registered as an independent.

“They know that she’s not going to show any type of partiality,” says Pannell. “No one slides when Sandra’s around.”

Seegars has never been married. She has no children. She won’t tell you her age, but reveals she was born in Alexandria, moved at a young age to Southwest D.C. with her family, and moved across the Anacostia to Ward 8 in 1969 after graduating high school. She has two sisters, two deceased brothers, and a brother in prison. She has worked in the post office, as a vacuum-cleaner saleswoman, and as an accountant for the federal and District governments, the latter which she retired from in 1981. Her stint as a private eye lasted about a year until her retirement checks started coming.

Hardly the credentials of a connected political buff. Even in person, Seegars does not come across as a power player. Sitting in a living room plastered with framed photographs, and dressed in a red sweat suit, Seegars giggles through most of her stories. She has a cool, playful disposition that seems at odds with her tenacity—until you realize she’s much more action than talk.

Seegars’ nose for dirt in local politics has made her a clearinghouse for Southeast scuttlebutt. She has even fed information about possible fraud in municipal contracts to the city’s financial control board, the D.C. Inspector General’s office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And her scoops have prompted stories in Washington City Paper, the Washington Post, and the Washington Afro-American. The ultimate testament to her info-activism is her newsletter, which she writes, funds, and publishes herself.

“When it’s put in here, it basically flies off the bar,” says Pannell from inside Player’s Lounge, the main hangout for Ward 8’s politically active crowd.

But though people know she’s the person to go to for the latest scoop, it doesn’t mean they know very much about her.

“I don’t know how anybody can do a profile on Sandra Seegars,” says Don Matthews, a Ward 8 political veteran who says he speaks with Seegars every week. “I don’t know anybody who knows anything about Sandra Seegars.”

Pannell agrees that Seegars has avoided the personal scrutiny that participants in the ward’s political life usually must endure.

“There’s not too many folks who are active in the ward who know very much about her, personally,” says Pannell, himself a gifted gossiper. “They don’t know about her family. They don’t know where she’s from. I don’t even know if…has she ever been married?”

Seegars is relaxed during lunch at Player’s, laughing here and there as she recounts her history of tweaking the mayor. She cuts lunch short, however, because she says she is off to a meeting with an inspector general’s office investigator to feed him dirt about a fraudulent city contractor.

She keeps busy these days filing Freedom of Information Act requests to root out questionable city contracts. She has filed challenges to the qualifying petitions of Ward 8 council candidates. She is serving as an adviser to planned recall effort of Marion Barry being pushed by a disgruntled taxicab association. She is also assisting Georgetown activist Westy Byrd’s current challenge of Georgetown University students elected to ANC seats by classmates who are allegedly not legal District residents.

These crusades only hurt the city, complains Cora Barry.

“I don’t see anything that Sandra Seegars does is helping the city on a substantive, long-term basis,” she says. “We don’t need someone who is always looking for trouble and problems. We have police and other authorities who do that job.”

Seegars says she dabbles in positive efforts, such as her organizing a candidates forum during the 1995 council race and a youth poetry contest last summer. But she clearly enjoys even more her role calling the folks in power onto the carpet—a job she relishes more than jumping in the arena herself. Free-lance agitation may not pay well, but it has its own rewards.

“Say if I run for city council,” says Seegars. “I can’t act like this. I have to be quiet and be presentable, don’t use curse words. Right now I have no rules. I’m not a government employee; I’m not Barry’s girlfriend. I don’t have a contract. I can do what the hell I wanna do.”—Tom Stabile