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The District, at one of its most critical junctures since the advent of home rule, is faced with the sorriest bunch of contenders since the Washington Senators fled RFK 25 years ago.
Choosing among this lot to fill D.C. Council and school board seats is like having to choose between living next to the Southwest waterfront fish market or an Eastern Shore chicken-processing plant. Either way you go, the stench is going to be overwhelming.
In the race for two council at-large seats, Republican Carol Schwartz and Democrat Harold Brazil are the best candidates in the field of nine.
Schwartz is clearly the cream of this crop. Her mere presence on the political scene tends to shake things up and needle the stagnant Democratic status quo. What the city desperately needs are more political soloists like Schwartz and fewer Democratic Party choir singers. From her council roost, Schwartz should help win converts among the Republicans who now run Congress (and may retain control after next week).
Brazil, the only Democrat on the at-large ballot, benefits from the misperception among many voters and some journalists that one of the at-large seats is reserved for a Democrat. The District’s home rule charter is not in the business of reserving seats. It merely stipulates that no D.C. party may nominate more than one candidate for two open at-large seats. In practice, the charter prevents the city’s dominant partythe Democratsfrom gobbling up all the council seats.
Voters can cast ballots for any two candidates among the nine running, and neither ballot has to be for the Democrat.
Although the charter creates a window of opportunity for independent and small-party candidates, District voters should slam it shut. Statehood Party nominee Sam Jordan, Umoja Party founder Mark Thompson, and the five independents in the race have failed to make the case that they would be an improvement over Brazil or Schwartz, a former council member. In fact, the long-shot challengers sound and act as if they would make things worse than they already are.
Brazil comes across as well-informed and well-reasoned on the campaign trail, and strikes the right chords with an electorate eager for change. Regrettably, Brazil’s six-year council record doesn’t quite jibe with his rhetoric.
But he remains the best choice for the second seat.
The crowded school board races are notable not only for the paucity of competent candidates among the field of 27 competing for two at-large seats and four ward seats, but also for the contenders’ failure to confront the city’s educational crisis. Practically every candidate preaches “accountability,” “site-based management” of schools, and “partnerships” with the private sector.
These mantras are repeated so often they have atrophied into vapid political clichés. Seldom is there any recognition, or discussion, of the reality that the control board with one pen stroke may make the school board as powerless as the average Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Of the 14 candidates seeking two at-large seatswhich are being vacated by Valencia Mohammed and Karen Shookonly two stand out: the Rev. Robert Childs of Berean Baptist Church in Ward 4, and policy analyst Tonya Vidal Kinlow, daughter of former school board member Eugene Kinlow.
Childs last year convened a disparate group of parents, teachers, and activists bent on ousting Superintendent Franklin Smith, quashing his reform agenda, and imposing an Afrocentric curriculum on D.C. schools. Childs then brought his anti-Smith coalition, school board members, the superintendent, and Smith supporters under one roof in an education “summit.”
Instead of wiping out gains that had already been made, the summit proposed keeping Smith in place, hiring a competent manager to help him run the schools system, and declaring an educational emergency in the city. A year later, the summit’s proposals are gaining currency as the crisis worsens.
Childs produced credible solutions out of chaosa skill that would come in handy on the school board.
Kinlow, a past PTA president of Hearst Elementary School and a participant in Hearst’s reforms, promises “no-nonsense management” to stem the steady stream of failures by the superintendent and his administration. Kinlow’s work at Hearst affords her a distinction that few school-board contenders can claim: She has actually done something in public schools.
Romaine Thomas and Robert Artisst, two candidates with citywide name recognition, do not deserve your votes. Thomas, wife of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, is a well-regarded former school principal. But every city election seems to find a Thomas family member on the ballot, as the councilmember seeks to expand his political empire.
That is not a valid basis for electing the overseers of the city’s troubled schools. If elected, Romaine Thomas would likely end up protecting the old guard in school administration the way her husband uses his council post to protect city workers.
Perennial candidate Artisst, arch enemy of the Thomas family, has run in every Ward 5 council race for the last 22 years, and lost all of them. Last month, the D.C. Board of Elections ruled that 67 of the 71 signatures Artisst collected on his petition to run for an Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat were fraudulent or forged. He now faces another hearing before the board, as yet unscheduled, to determine whether he should be prosecuted for the alleged election crimes.
Artisst did not appear at last month’s hearing to contest the board’s findings on his petitions.
In the four ward races, LL has ruled out endorsing any incumbents on the badly divided school board, since none has shown any real leadership over the past four years.
Unlike the at-large race, the Ward 3 contest has attracted three capable contenders: former Wilson High School PTA president Howard Grimmet, teacher, author, and former D.C. official Don Reeves, and former congressional aide David Yassky.
Of the three, Reeves would make the best school board member. He is aggressive, knowledgeable, and promises he won’t let home rule concerns delay or block needed education reforms, as has often happened in the past.
“The whole issue of home rule is expendable to provide for the education of our children,” he said at a recent forum in Chevy Chase.
Newcomer Yassky has also been impressive, but he would require on-the-job training. He still seems to get most of his information about the schools from the newspaper.
Grimmet has the backing of “education insiders,” including retiring Ward 3 school board member Erika Landberg, who became invisible during her second term, and at-large school board member Jay Silberman. But Grimmet seems tired and out of touch, and actually fell asleep at one public meeting last summer.
In the Ward 1 contest, the choice is none of the above. Challenger Lenwood Johnson is as out-to-lunch as incumbent Wilma Harvey.
In Ward 5, Parents United leader Janice Denise Smith Autrey gets the nod, and in Ward 6, the choice is Wayne Curtin.