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Every two years, the dregs of summer marks the start of the silly season in which D.C. political wannabes, who have as much chance of getting elected to office as Madonna has of gaining sainthood, take the plunge. These dubious candidates lack both the resources and the résumés to convince or fool the voters, but still they run.
Some, such as Dennis Sobin’s Sexcrat slate of whores and pornographers of the 1980s, run purely for the political theater. Others, such as the four male contenders in the 1994 Ward 1 council race, run to knock out a potential newcomer—in that case, activist Dorothy Brizill—rather than unseat an incumbent.
Still others run and run because they just can’t accept the judgment of the voters. Take perennial Ward 5 candidate Bob Artisst, whose would-be constituents have told him six times already that they don’t want him anywhere near the D.C. Council. And still others, like Ward 1 gadfly Bob Clifton, run because, well, there really is no rational reason why they run.
This time around the numbers may be smaller, but the candidates without money, organization, credentials, or a prayer of making the cut are still out there. LL won’t name all of them here because we’re already getting sniped at for calling the lesser-known contenders for outgoing Councilmember John Ray’s at-large seat “the dwarfs.” But as political fantasies confront hard political realities, it should become easier to separate the serious contenders from the frivolous.
This campaign season begins with an ill wind buffeting incumbents, especially in Wards 7 and 8. On the city’s eastern edge, Ward 7 school board member Terry Hairston is hoping to leave the board in the middle of his first term and step up to the council by knocking off first-term incumbent Kevin Chavous. Chavous gets good press and is often mentioned as a future mayoral prospect, but he has been criticized for missing critical council sessions, such as last week’s sessions on pension reform, and could be vulnerable to the right challenger.
But Chavous looks like a Goliath next to Hairston, who has a bigger book of political liabilities. Hairston’s short tenure on the school board has been lackluster and inconsistent, and some of his colleagues last year speculated that Hairston intended to resign, after only six months in office, to go to work for developer R. Donahue Peebles. Hairston had lobbied school board members in support of a proposal to move the board into new headquarters in a building owned by Peebles.
Hairston’s lack of interest in the school board and obvious desire to leave it after only 19 months in his first elected office may not sit well with Ward 7 voters who backed him last time around because he seemed to offer a fresh face and a fresh approach. Chavous was not among those original Hairston supporters.
Chavous endorsed a Hairston rival in the 1994 school board race out of concern that Hairston, if elected, would use the office to challenge him this year. Those concerns are in the midst of being validated.
Hairston has spent the first two weeks of his campaign trying to knock Chavous off the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot. Chavous’ campaign collected only 574 signatures on his ballot-qualifying petitions, well above the requisite 250 but a low tally for an incumbent.
Hairston has challenged the 300 signatures collected by Chavous campaign worker Calvin Hawkins by claiming that Hawkins no longer lives in D.C. Hawkins, who had worked on Chavous’s council staff the past three years, left last year to go to work for Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry and is listed as the co-owner of a recently purchased house in Upper Marlboro, Md. “Common sense tells you that if you get your lights turned off and then have them turned on somewhere else, you moved,” says Hairston. “We’re saying he doesn’t reside [at his District address], and Kevin Chavous knows that.”
But Hawkins still claims residence in the District, pays taxes here, and is registered to vote here. Hairston’s residence résumé seems to satisfy District election officials, who point out that the deadline for challenging Hawkins’ voter registration has passed. Hairston, however, was still pushing his challenge this week, and an official decision by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics is expected by Friday.
“He’s trying to get some mileage on what is otherwise a fledgling campaign,” contends incumbent Chavous. “I’m glad he’ll be on the ballot because it means I clearly don’t have to run a defensive campaign.”
“People are disgusted with using the school board as a stepping stone, and his performance on the board has been subpar,” Chavous adds. “He’s going to make my job easier in bringing the ward together, and I think we’re going to run up big numbers.”
Chavous bristles at criticism of his council attendance record. “Other [council] members have said that to you guys in the press, but if you check, mine is not at the bottom,” he said.
“There have been a couple of higher-profile sessions where I have not been there,” he concedes. “Clearly that does not look good. But my attendance is probably near the middle, or in the upper third.” Indeed, the D.C. Council is one of the few places where a councilmember with a C+ in attendance can give himself an A in conduct.
In neighboring Ward 8, incumbent Councilmember Eydie Whittington is facing charges she cheated on the race’s entrance exam. Activists Sandra Seegars, Florence Smith, and Republican Ward 8 council candidate Cardell Shelton are attempting to disqualify Whittington from the September primary ballot, alleging that someone other than Whittington signed the ballot petitions containing signatures the incumbent claimed she collected.
That allegation stems from slight discrepancies between Whittington’s signatures on the petitions and her signature of record. But the signatures would have to be as different as Chinese and Hebrew handwriting before the election board would disqualify a candidate, especially an incumbent.
The board is expected to rule on the challenge to Whittington next week.
Seegars has also challenged the candidacies of Ward 8 longshots Ray Bell Jr. and Paul Lamont Simms. The goal of Seegars, Smith, and company is to narrow the field so that the race becomes a rematch between Whittington and challenger Sandy Allen, who lost a special election to Whittington by one vote in May 1995.
Whittington won that hotly contested election to serve out the unexpired council term of Marion S. Barry Jr. She again has the backing of the Mayor-for-Life for re-election to a full four-year term. And more to the point, Whittington also has the backing of Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, the power behind the throne.
In 1994, Whittington prevailed over 20 rivals. This year, she is trying to fend off six challengers, including Allen, in the Democratic primary. Whittington, Hizzoner, and Lady MacBarry, no doubt, would like the field to stay as crowded as possible to split up the sizable anti-Whittington vote in the ward.
That may be why Leonard “Brother Hanif” Watson Sr. is in the race. Watson works for the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR) and is prohibited by the federal Hatch Act from running for office in a partisan election. Watson, who worked in the mayor’s office in prior Barry administrations, reportedly was advised that he could not run for the Ward 8 council seat in the Democratic primary. But he has refused to withdraw from the race.
Government watchdog Marie Drissel has filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, D.C. Inspector General Angela Avant, and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees enforcement of the Hatch Act. Drissel noted that Watson, in his financial disclosure statement, falsely listed his business address as his home address, even though he works full-time at DFR. She interpreted that as a “willful” attempt to hide his employment.
But, even worse news for Watson, Drissel has taken her complaint to Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, who is now in charge of DFR. Watson works in the agency’s real property section, where Williams already has given two employees the boot for incompetence and has lowered his sights on four others. Watson could soon find himself in the firing line of the no-nonsense Williams.
University of Maryland official Lafayette Barnes, who finished a distant third to Whittington last year, is also running again, despite telling some Ward 8 supporters that he would forgo the race to spend more time on community work and with his family.
“I’d like to know, what did he do, pawn his kids?” Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell said of Barnes’ change of heart.
In the not-so-crowded Ward 2 council race against incumbent Jack Evans, Raymond Avrutis has earned the distinction of being the only candidate knocked out of a race this year by a ballot challenge. Avrutis withdrew last week after rival John McLeod, a defense attorney, successfully challenged his ballot petitions.
“I am unemployed and don’t have a job, and wanted to make a political statement that people who are unemployed and don’t have jobs could run for these offices,” a crestfallen Avrutis said this week, while pledging to throw his political weight, such as it is, behind Evans.
Although unemployed since 1988, Avrutis has published a book: How to Maximize Your Unemployment Benefits: Complete Information for All 50 States, available at some area bookstores.
Now, newcomer McLeod has a clear shot, albeit a long one, at Evans. Although McLeod is short on political experience, credit him with eschewing a hot-button campaign that panders to popular, high-profile local issues. In his rambling, six-page announcement, McLeod says that he was motivated to run for office by the council’s approval of something called the “Misdemeanor Streamlining Act,” which takes away jury trials for most misdemeanor offenses. McLeod says it was passed “without a mandate from the citizens.” And he sounds surprised that “most Ward 2 residents I have spoken with” are unaware of the bill.
Elsewhere in his declaration, McLeod quotes from Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s revolutionary primer, and plugs his “recreational activities on the Potomac River in Ward 2,” which include a series of sailboat races in the fall. Looks like McLeod is really gunning for the nautical vote.
McLeod said that when he told Evans he was planning to run for the Ward 2 council seat, Evans urged him to run for an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) seat instead.
The always vulnerable Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis got a break earlier this year when Barry installed Alexis Roberson as the director of the Department of Employment Services after firing Joe Yeldell. Roberson lost to Jarvis by only 114 votes four years ago and had been considering a rematch. Now the incumbent faces three less-formidable challengers in the critical Democratic primary.
In the at-large Democratic primary, Ward 7 activist Paul Savage has put together an impressive network of supporters citywide, including Drissel, Ward 2 environmental leader Marilyn Groves, and retired Bell Atlantic official Bernie Walker, to name just a few. Now Savage has to get some decent campaign literature. His first batch of dreary brochures looks custom-made for an ANC race.
Slickness hasn’t been a problem in the at-large Democratic primary, in which Ward 6 incumbent Harold Brazil is trying to move into a citywide seat to position himself for a mayoral campaign in two years. It’s a no-risk venture for Brazil, who would not have to give up his current council seat if he loses. But Brazil, the man to beat in the primary, proved again last week that he is vulnerable. The candidate’s campaign literature states, “Brazil knows that to make your District government work for you, you must be willing to make difficult choices.” Running for an at-large seat while keeping your old ward seat in a back pocket wouldn’t seem like a difficult choice, but Brazil has never let rhetoric get in the way of expediency.
Witness last Friday, July 19, when Brazil was seen practically shoving his way out of the council chambers to avoid voting on a pension-reform plan opposed by unions—a plan that might have cost him labor’s support in the upcoming election. Making “difficult choices” apparently means knowing which exit to take when a tough vote is coming. CP
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