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 party—the Democrats—from 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 seats—which are being vacated by Valencia Mohammed and Karen Shook—only 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 chaos—a 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.

YES TO INITIATIVE 51

Voter and candidate apathy this year is best expressed in the little-discussed Initiative 51 measure on the ballot Tuesday. The measure would give D.C. taxpayers the power to challenge tax breaks granted to commercial property owners. It would also open appeals hearings to the public and designate a public “advocate” to keep watch on tax appeals.

Even though the Service Employees International Union Local 82 waged an expensive seven-year battle with downtown office-building owners to put this measure before D.C. voters, the average voter probably thinks Initiative 51 is just another cockamamie statehood proposal.

Tenacious property tax-appeals watchdog Marie Drissel, who has fought hard and long to bring sunshine to the system, says opening hearings will force downtown landlords to reveal income and expense information to competitors who could then lure away their tenants. “This is like revealing trade secrets, like telling Coca-Cola it has to reveal its formula,” Drissel said, adding that the measure would contribute to business flight from the District. She maintains that Initiative 51 is part of the unions’ bitter fight to organize workers in buildings owned by downtown real estate mogul Oliver Carr.

Maybe, responds Phil Mendelson, co-chair of the union-financed “Right to Know” committee which last week began sending out mailings urging voters to back Initiative 51. “But I don’t think that’s the basis on which the initiative should be judged,” he said.

“I look at it, first and foremost, as the ability to open up the process and enable a third party to challenge assessments when it appears the government isn’t doing its job,” Mendelson said. He should know. Mendelson successfully fought unwarranted tax breaks awarded to the 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW development in 1989.

LL supports Initiative 51. We have chronicled the business community’s success in manipulating the appeals process and depriving the city of millions in tax revenues. We also watched the commercial landlords fight tooth and nail to keep this proposal off the ballot. True, as Drissel says, the current appeals board is much less prone to manipulation than previous boards. But there is no guarantee the process will remain fair without Initiative 51.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Lobbyist Fred Cooke refused to return LL’s phone calls prior to last week’s column regarding plans by his client, developer T. Conrad Monts, to renovate the John A. Wilson/District Building. But the ink on that edition of Washington City Paper had barely dried before Cooke was on the phone, complaining.

“I didn’t call you before because I knew you wouldn’t get it right,” he barked into the receiver.

Now there’s a unique excuse for not returning phone calls.

So why are you calling now?

“You wrote that this could cost city taxpayers plenty. That’s wrong,” Cooke insisted. “You seem to think that these are revenues that somehow the District is entitled to. It is not. The building doesn’t generate any revenue now, so how can the District be losing money?”

Cooke’s gripe concerns the $65-100 million Monts has agreed to pay the city in return for getting control of the District Building for the next 20 years. The grand plan is to renovate the crumbling structure with private money, lease most of it to the federal government, and collect the rent from tenants, including the D.C. Council. But Monts’ deal with the council allows him to defer his payments to the city until the 20-year agreement ends.

And if he walks away from the deal without making the deferred payment, well, according to Cooke, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The city will still end up with a renovated and well-maintained city hall “at no cost,” he said.

Apprehensions about the Monts deal are “philosophical,” not financial, Cooke continued. “People just don’t want to let the federal government into the District Building. And I can respect that,” he said. “But the District can’t borrow $50 million to renovate its own town hall. That’s why Mr. Monts is there…”

At-Large school board candidate Sunday Abraham has stood out at forums because of the little red cardboard schoolhouse she has worn on her head to attract attention. “I’ve got a $250 campaign budget, and this makes people notice me, so then they’ll listen to what I say,” Abraham explained.

LL noticed her. But we can’t remember a thing she said…

Wild-eyed independent at-large council candidate Don Folden finally crossed the line of decency at a Monday-night forum in Southwest. Folden, who has been trying to pick fights with front-runners Brazil and Schwartz at these forums, cited the 1988 suicide of Schwartz’s husband as a reason she should not return to the council.

Folden was immediately booed and jeered off the dais by the crowd gathered at St. Matthews Lutheran Church to hear the candidates. When he exited the church, he was not allowed back in for the remainder of the forum.

“I’m a big girl. I’ve lived through worse, including what he so callously brought up,” the diplomatic Schwartz said afterwards.

People who don’t think Schwartz is a shoo-in might be interested to know that at a fund-raising roast of Ward 8 hyperactivist Phil Pannell last Friday night at the Day’s Inn on New York Avenue, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. went to some lengths to make nice with her.

“[Schwartz] and I have been sitting over there,” he said, pointing toward Schwartz from the dais. “Just sort of hugging and a kissing and making up…getting ready for ’98. You can’t have my job, though,” Barry said to Schwartz. “I ain’t giving it up.”

Barry went on to roast Pannell’s ability to “get on your last nerve,” a comment that drew many nods of recognition. In general, though, the event was a lovefest for Pannell, tireless champion of Ward 8. And yes, the mayor did actually plant a smacker on Schwartz’s cheek when he left for the evening.CP

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