Welcome to this year’s classic matchup for the at-large seat on the D.C. Council. Let’s go to ringside for the introductions.

“Ladies and gentlemen. In the corner to my left, wearing silk trunks, bearing the endorsement of every developer in town and a council record lighter than air, the darling of the Washington Post, WARD 6 COUN-CIL-MEM-BER HAR-ROLD BRA-ZIL!

“And in the corner to my right, wearing trunks made from recycled plastics, flanked by manager Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., the Sage of Rage, COUN-CIL CHAIR-MAN DAAA-VID CLARKE!”

Before July 3, when Clarke hurriedly filed petitions with the Board of Elections to join the race for outgoing Councilmember John Ray’s at-large seat, the 1996 D.C. Council races were drawing interest only from die-hard District politicos. But now, Clarke vs. Brazil is shaping up like a heavyweight bout sure to pack the house. It’s got everything: two seasoned incumbents fighting for a citywide office, an undercard of bouts among feisty community types, and a whole web of political intrigue spinning around it.

The prefight buzz centers on Barry, who appears firmly planted in Clarke’s corner. Barry’s allegiance may have less to do with Clarke’s history of self-inflicted TKOs than the mayor’s desire to block Brazil from building a citywide base.

By agonizing for months over whether to run for Ray’s seat, Clarke left himself almost no time to collect the 2,000 signatures he needed to get on the at-large ballot. That’s where Barry comes in. With Hizzoner’s blessing, Barry’s ward coordinators and supporters throughout the city helped circulate Clarke’s ballot petitions. When asked by LL last week why he was aiding Clarke, Barry mumbled, “Some of my supporters came to me and asked if they could circulate petitions for Clarke. I said, sure. I’m not a boss.’’

Did any of his supporters circulate petitions for Brazil or candidate Joe Yeldell? “They didn’t ask about them,’’ Barry replied with a smile.

Barry’s motive in backing Clarke is transparent: He wants to keep Brazil from using the at-large seat as a launching pad for a 1998 run for mayor. Never one to cloak his mayoral ambitions, Brazil at the annual July 4 parade through the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest reportedly assured voters, “This is the next step toward running for mayor.’’

And Barry is skilled at manipulating other races to keep his rivals down. In 1982, for example, he backed Clarke to push Arrington Dixon out of the chairmanship. Boxing out Brazil from a mayoral bid in 1998 has clearly become Barry’s priority for the upcoming elections. Even before Clarke stepped into the ring, Barry was scanning the field of seven lesser-known candidates for someone who could stop Brazil.

Brazil is no doubt relishing the opportunity he will have to paint Clarke as a wholly owned Barry subsidiary and himself as the viable alternative.

Clarke never mentioned Barry’s backing when taking bows last week for meeting the filing deadline in such a short time. Instead, he credited the city’s legions of homeless, whom he hired with the assistance of the Community for Creative Nonviolence. He paid each petitioner 50 cents per name to get the required number of signatures. (LL wouldn’t be surprised to hear Clarke touting this practice during the upcoming campaign as proof that he can create jobs.)

But Clarke’s signature-collection methods have earned a close look from the Brazil campaign this week. The Ward 6 councilmember hopes to find enough errors before the challenge period expires next Monday to keep Clarke off the ballot. That will take some doing, since Clarke turned in nearly twice as many signatures as he needed. But according to a Brazil campaign source, some of the homeless petitioners were not registered voters, an infraction that disqualifies the petitions they circulated.

If Clarke survives the petition challenge, his candidacy still contradicts his statements earlier this year that he would not compete for the at-large seat if it would force the city to schedule a special election to fill the chairmanship vacancy. When he got into the race last week, Clarke told reporters that he would resign the chairmanship if he wins the Sept. 10 primary. He said that approach would let election officials schedule the special election—which would cost an estimated $350,000—at the same time as the November election, thereby preventing additional costs to taxpayers.

But that can’t be done, election officials said later, and now Clarke has modified his earlier condition. He indicated on WAMU (88.5 FM)’s July 5 D.C. Politics Hour that his main concern is that his successor be chosen before he takes his new seat in January so there is no vacancy in council leadership.

Never mind the expense.

His refusal to give up his chairmanship unless he wins the at-large seat is likely to become a key issue in this campaign. But don’t look for Brazil to take it up since he is also holding onto his Ward 6 seat in cases he loses the at-large race. Look for one of the seven dwarfs in the race to raise it early and often.

First dwarf Phil Mendelson worked on Clarke’s council staff until late April, when he quit his job to seek the at-large council seat. Before leaving the council, Mendelson met with his boss to inform him of his plans, and Clarke gave his encouragement without revealing his own agenda.

Mendelson first learned that he would be running against his former boss when he encountered Clarke while exiting the Cleveland Park Metro station July 1. Clarke asked for Mendelson’s signature so he could get on the ballot and ruin the best laid plans of his former aide.

Mendelson signed Clarke’s petition. “I sign everyone’s petitions,” said the mild-mannered Mendelson, who noted that Clarke signed his as well.

Mendelson thinks that Clarke and Brazil should follow his lead and quit their current jobs while campaigning for another.

“I think they both should resign,’’ he said this week. “I think this musical chairs makes the government look silly, and in so doing, jeopardizes home rule.’’

“I believe in recycling, but not in recycling councilmembers,’’ Mendelson said at the Palisades parade.

Mendelson, John Capozzi, Paul Savage, Kathryn Pearson-West, Yeldell, and two even lesser-known candidates are going to end up fighting each other much more than they will front-runners Clarke and Brazil. The only chance the dwarfs have is to unite behind one of their own, someone other than the heavily baggaged Yeldell, to avoid splitting up the anti-incumbent vote.

Clarke’s reasons for switching seats are largely personal. He wants to get out from under the pressures and demands of the chairmanship so that he can get another job. The average $70,000-a-year D.C. councilmember can work an outside job, and many do. But the chairman, who makes a paltry $80,000 per year, is barred by the D.C. home rule charter from outside employment. In hopes of building his résumé for a judgeship, Clarke wants to practice and teach law as a supplement to his duties as a regular old councilmember.

Clarke’s plan would be reasonable if he were reasonable. Clarke’s manic mien is the antithesis of judicial temperament, and his systematic alienation of the local establishment means there probably isn’t a judicial nominating committee in the District that would put his name up for a judgeship. Then again, he might be a nice fit in juvenile court, where he could unleash some of his rantings on young offenders instead of political colleagues.

Oh yes, LL almost forgot; Clarke says he wants to quit the chairmanship so he can concentrate on issues critical to D.C. residents instead of frittering away his time managing his 12 often unmanageable colleagues. That’s the reason voters will hear over and over during the upcoming campaign. Clarke’s recent performances as the council’s steward lend some credence to his claim.

At the council’s June 25 meeting, Clarke was scurrying to pass pension reform so he could wave it proudly when he testified before the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee the next day. But he mistakenly handed out an early draft of the bill, which was different from the version he was reading from the dais.

His colleagues, exasperated and confused over exactly what Clarke was pushing, postponed the issue for a week. Clarke exploded, spewing invective in every direction.

Maybe the at-large seat would take some of the pressure off Chairman Dave, but then again, a nice piece of pasture in the private sector could do wonders for his blood pressure. But because Clarke and Brazil are holding onto their current offices while seeking another, this is becoming another election that brings only a change in titles, not faces.

SOULSBY

ON ICE

Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Larry Soulsby has been in office for only one year (counting four months as acting chief), and some of his harshest critics, and even a few of his supporters, are betting—or fretting—that he won’t complete another one. MPD sources say the speculation is causing Soulsby to lose his grip—if he ever had it—on the seemingly unmanageable department.

The speculation began two months ago with a spate of bad publicity following revelations that Soulsby signed a secret agreement with former homicide chief William “Lou’’ Hennessy last year. In the agreement Soulsby, who removed Hennessy from homicide under the alleged orders of Barry, guaranteed Hennessy choice work assignments and training opportunities. In exchange, Hennessy pledged not to testify against Soulsby before the D.C. Council. And he promised to drop a threatened lawsuit against the department.

Critics within MPD, some of whom would like to be the next police chief, are hoping that the final nail in Soulsby’s coffin will be driven in, possibly this Sunday, when CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcasts its investigation into the department.

But D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lightfoot, interviewed for the broadcast, thinks 60 Minutes is having trouble figuring out what the story is. The broadcast reportedly was supposed to air June 30, and its appearance this Sunday was not certain at press time.

“Unless they have some new revelations, I don’t see why what they’re going to say is going to be damaging, although it’s going to be sensational,’’ Lightfoot said this week.

The segment’s producer, Steve McCarthy, was not tipping his hand Monday. “We’re still reporting it,” McCarthy said. But Lightfoot said he expects 60 Minutes to hit the chief over the Hennessy incident and the fact that the department now only closes one in three murder cases in the nation’s capital, where the murder rate is soaring again.

For the MPD segment, 60 Minutes also interviewed Hennessy, one of Soulsby’s departmental foes, and Carl Rowan Jr., who in February organized a meeting with U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to discuss putting MPD under federal control.

But Lightfoot thinks Soulsby’s fortunes are about to change.

“One thing that cures a lot of ills is money, and the chief is about to get a ton of it,’’ he said.

Congress has approved $15 million to be spent in the next three months on equipment and overtime, and the mayor, the council, and the financial control board gave the department a substantial raise for next year.

Given the boost he’ll get from those new dollars, news of Soulsby’s untimely demise may be premature.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

If Mayor Barry really wants to be a friend of D.C. business, as he claims, he might get his new friend, Roweshea Burruss, to pay a $685 liquor bill he has owed Georgetown’s Eagle Wine and Liquor store since Feb. 10, 1995. Burruss bounced a check for 84 bottles of wine, cups, and ice. A collection agency told Eagle bookkeeper Shell Benson this week that it had been unable to locate the deadbeat.

The agency might want to start reading the newspapers. Burruss became practically a household name after his residence at 1402 12th St. NW was raided by federal agents recently as part of a fraud investigation, and it was discovered that Barry had been hanging out there. Hizzoner said he only dropped by the place to change clothes and have a sandwich.

No wine, apparently.

According to Benson, Burruss said the wine was for a reception honoring actor Billy Dee Williams at the nearby Graveley Gallery.

The gallery went out of business sometime after this purchase. Perhaps Burruss didn’t pay his bill there, either. CP

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