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Sandy Allen was feeling sharp. There wasn’t a face in the entire South Capitol Street shopping strip that didn’t get a smile or a friendly “Hi, I’m Sandy Allen. Do you live in Ward 8?”
It didn’t matter if the person said no, or was only 13 years old, or was sitting on a plastic crate on the sidewalk with a bottle in a brown paper bag; Allen would flutter her flyer, pass out a heart-shaped paper fan, and tell them to tell their friends, remind their parents, to talk out loud in the streets about D.C. Council candidate Sandy Allen—No. 1 on the ballot. If the person was a Ward 8 registered voter, she would get personal.
“I need your vote. I lost by just one vote last time, so your vote’s important. I need you to come on out Sept. 10—you going to remember?”
It didn’t hurt that of every few faces one was familiar to Allen, who is well connected in the community—an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and president of the ward Democratic organization, among a slew of other unpaid activities. Many of the faces belonged to the thousands of Ward 8 residents she had helped register to vote when she ran Marion Barry’s 1992 campaign for the ward council seat—Barry used his appeal among the poor, public-housing residents, the young, and other people who had been routinely ignored by the local political power brokers to resume his stewardship over the city. And after he became mayor in 1994, he repaid Allen by endorsing her opponent, the previously unknown Eydie Whittington, for the Ward 8 council seat in the 1995 special election.
Now, Allen is banking on those thousands of Ward 8 voters Barry once charmed will return to the Democratic primary—and toss his candidate out of office.
The race in Ward 8 will not hinge on maintaining the current quality of life in the ward. The ward is home to the District’s highest rates of poverty and teen pregnancy, and lowest home ownership and per capita income. It is also home, arguably, to as much uncollected trash and wanton crime, and as many potholed streets and failing schools as any other ward in the city. Whoever wins needs to fight to clean it up, bring some jobs, fix those schools, stop the killings, fill the damn holes—there’s not much quarrel on those points. The candidates share objectives, but some of them have fairly idiosyncratic approaches: Lafayette Barnes is seeking the donation of 100 bicycles to the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District to make up for cruiser shortages, and Whittington is asking for a waiver of utilities and taxes to excite developer interest in the ward’s selection of abandoned apartment complexes.
Policy aside, the race seems to come down to what it usually comes down to in Ward 8—personalities and loyalties. The loyalty of the Barry bloc from 1992 is the big question mark.
“You don’t have to be one of Dionne Warwick’s psychic friends to say that the next Ward 8 councilperson is going to be a woman,” announced Phil Pannell, a seen-all-over Democratic activist, at the candidates’ forum the Ward 8 Democrats sponsored last month. His opinion is the most widely heard—that the winner will be Whittington or Allen. Those two definitely have the strongest organizations, although Barnes, the third-place finisher in 1995, has raised a good amount of money—in Ward 8 terms—and enough interest to have people calling him the “dark horse.” The other candidates in the primary race—Raymond Bell Jr., Winifred Freeman, Leonard “Hanif” Watson Sr., and Paul Lamont Simms—trail badly in fund-raising and name recognition on the street.
For all the challengers, nevertheless, the real strategy is to counterbalance whatever boost Whittington gets from Barry’s endorsement with the negatives that go with it. After 15 months on the job, Whittington is still viewed as a lightweight who falls into step with the mayor far too consistently.
In an effort to further blunt the advantages of incumbency, Whittington’s opponents have slagged her as out of step with the ward’s less fortunate residents. She is a stylish dresser—usually standing out in a crowd of average Ward 8 folks.
“I’m people, too,” Whittington protests in an interview. “I’m everyday. I’m very sincere and very energetic and very much hands-on in the community.” She takes the defensive when critics assail her big economic-development score—bringing an Athlete’s Foot franchise to the ward—as the kind of place where a Ward 8 resident can’t afford to shop. “I am very proud of the [Athlete’s Foot] store. We worked very hard to bring a franchise, a major franchise to our ward,” she said at the August Democrats forum.
Conscious of the hard economic realities most of the voters face, candidates are all striving for a downscale appeal in the race to represent Ward 8. The ambiguities about Whittington’s background have opened the door for the other candidates to wiggle in and prove that they are the ones who are down with the folks—the downtrodden, the left-behind—who used to identify with Barry.
Allen aggressively seeks those votes on her campaign walks. On her South Capitol Street canvass, she cornered one fellow at Spar Liquors with her pitch and a flyer.
“Remember, I’m going to go down there and talk for us.”
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A line of Allen’s campaign flyer seeks to further cement her identification with the residents of the ward: “As a fourth-generation resident of Ward 8 and a single parent, Sandy Allen’s qualifications to serve as the Ward 8 councilperson are second to none.” Allen makes note in candidate forums that she once received public assistance, and she closed her remarks at the August forum by saying, “For years there has been a dictatorship, a clanship [in Ward 8], and now it’s time for new leadership. When you vote for me, you’re voting for yourself, because I am you.”
Hanif Watson—a former District employee who was canned in July because his partisan candidacy violated the federal Hatch Act—made a loud point at the same forum about how he currently lives in public housing. When a question popped up about addressing the needs of public-housing residents, he said he was the “only candidate qualified” to answer. “I know the issues,” he said. “I know the concerns. I will do a great deal to help them.”
Barnes, the son-in-law of former Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark, also has “former welfare recipient” in his résumé—balancing his Georgetown bachelor’s degree and well-heeled position as a University of Maryland corporate fund-raiser. “I was down and out,” he said in an interview at his campaign office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “How does that relate to people in Ward 8? Because I want people to know my story. I want them to know, if I am able to do it, so are they.”
Meanwhile, Simms, a 22-year-old party-crasher in the primary race, plays up his age, pledging to address the causes of unemployment, single parenthood, and drug-related violence.
Former Ward 8 board of education representative Calvin Lockridge believes Barry voters in the ranks of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the young could actually give the edge to one of the long shots—if they show at the polls.
“I don’t think the election is exciting enough to bring them out,” Lockridge says.
That seems to be the case with voters like Diane, a longtime Ward 8 resident, who registered to vote with Barry’s campaign in 1992. Waiting for her bus on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Diane says she doesn’t know if she is still registered to vote, and doesn’t plan to go to the polls even if she is.
“We thought [Barry] was going to do things around here,” says Diane, her eyes rolling. “Nothing I expected [happened]. Everything is about the same and getting worse. I don’t even see nobody that I would vote for either way.”
Down the street at the Riverside Car Wash and Auto Detailing, a parking lot moored by a trailer and a few sets of faucets and hoses, ward resident Anthony Sherman said he, too, voted for Barry in his council and mayoral bids because he liked the talk about summer jobs and other youth programs. But as for voting in the primary this time around, he only says, “It’s a possibility.”
“You have some people who are politically motivated—the die-hard ones who voted for Ms. Rolark,” says Allen, savvy to the trend. “The others you have to motivate to the polls.”
For a long time, Ward 8 voters were the kind that didn’t need to be courted so diligently. Those voters used to be a predictable, almost boring, group. They elected Rolark to the Ward 8 council seat four straight times, elected Calvin Lockridge to the board of education three times, and shunned good old Ab Jordan on the eight or so occasions he ran for whatever Ward 8 seat was up for grabs.
But Barry’s second coming in 1992 turned Ward 8 politics on its head: He challenged Rolark, a former staunch council ally, for her seat; he pocketed the endorsement of Lockridge, a former ward nemesis; he lured those thousands of previously unregistered residents, helping him strut away with the election; and then he split not halfway into his term to storm the 1994 mayoral elections. His tenure in ward politics lingers in the form of the Whittington endorsement in 1995. In a chaotic special election that attracted 21 candidates, the nod from the mayor was good for a very conflicted one-vote victory. Nothing was settled and now, 15 months later, Whittington is still fighting for legitimacy.
In our interview, Whittington says she also realizes she must somehow regroup Barry’s 1992 voters and get them to the polls, but she acknowledged not having a natural hold on them. She emphasized that only one politician ever did: “We’re talking about Marion Barry—the most popular politician this city has ever seen.”
“I did not support Marion then, and I don’t now. He’s not the one for the position. His time has come and gone.” That pronouncement comes off 17-year Ward 8 resident Violet Minor, a robust-voiced senior citizen waiting for her bus on another corner of MLK Avenue. She said Whittington is not her “cup of tea,” noting that the Barry endorsement does not help matters. She has been a regular voter over the years, a former Rolark supporter, but has not made up her mind about which of the other candidates will get her vote.
Minor’s noncommittal mien is shared even by residents who in times past marched in lockstep with the mayor.
“This used to be a bedrock of support [for Barry],” said Pannell, as he sipped an iced tea at the Ward 8 political nerve center, Player’s Lounge. “At one time it was political suicide, if not physically foolhardy, to say anything critical of Marion Barry either in a meeting or at a place like this. Today, you can sit down and trash the mayor and people will come over here and buy you drinks.”
This time around, the challengers in the primary race see the anti-Barry vote as a constituency worth wooing. Political newcomer Bell announced at the August Democrats forum, “I would personally not have accepted Marion Barry’s endorsement, because the people I’ve talked to do not like Marion Barry. I’m interested in winning, and not necessarily making friends with the mayor.” Bell added, “I think it’s a disgrace that the mayor turned his back on this ward.”
Barnes, meanwhile, says in his interview, “We have been exploited for far too long by special interests in our ward who have taken advantage of us and made promises and have not fulfilled those promises to the community.” Assuming Barnes was not referring to mother-in-law Rolark, the dig was undoubtedly directed at Barry.
Whittington no doubt senses the prevailing winds. When asked at the Democrats forum why she accepted the Barry nod, she brushed the question off, saying, “There is not anyone in this room that would not have accepted the mayor’s endorsement.” Whittington knows enough about politics to continue to dance with the one who brought her; after all, Barry’s blessing has given her a significant fund-raising edge and an array of contacts that would have otherwise been outside her reach. The mayor’s support got it done for her the last time around…by the very slimmest of margins. But in 1996, Sandy Allen and other candidates in Ward 8 are betting that the mayor’s endorsement has become a double-edged sword that may cut in unforeseen ways.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.