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It’s a Thursday night in early February, and the 30-odd members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee are listening to a speech—or, perhaps, a rant—by Lawrence Guyot, longtime city activist and Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Guyot (pronounced ghee-ott) pounds repeatedly at his central point: The control board assaults the democratic rights of Washingtonians. “There were only 30 people in the Congress when the ‘slave bill’ was passed,” says Guyot.
“This body of five people have the right to do away with rent control and they need only two things—a public announcement and three of the five votes,” he continues. “These five people have absolute power over all services provided to the city….This committee has the right to determine the federal/city relationship on any issue.” He delivers his message with a preacher’s cadence; his audience responds with nods and approving grunts.
Guyot thunders on, asking the state committee—D.C.’s
Democratic Party leaders—to pass a resolution advocating the board’s abolition. He closes with a historical appeal: “In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England….
In 1875, it was one vote that changed France from a monarchy to a re-
public….In 1923, Adolf Hitler obtained leadership of the Nazi Party by, guess what? One vote.” He gropes for a modern example: “In 1987, it was one vote that overrode President Reagan’s veto of the highway bill.”
His speech concluded, the 56-year-old Guyot takes a seat and nods to various committee members. They appear familiar with him and his message, as well they should be: Since he moved to Washington in the mid-’70s, Guyot has been as permanent a fixture in District politics as finger-pointing and buck-passing. Like Marion Barry, Frank Smith, Ivanhoe Donaldson, and the late John Wilson, Guyot cut his political teeth on the Deep South civil rights movement of the 1960s, then brought the movement north to help the disenfranchised blacks of the District.
But Guyot is the one who never quite made it. Unlike his civil rights colleagues, Guyot never rose to prominence in District politics. Instead, he has carved out a two-decade career as an ankle-biting community activist, toting his sturdy soapbox from issue to issue, hearing to hearing, street corner to street corner.
The list of causes that have failed to catapult Guyot to local fame is as long as it is unspectacular: He has fought for community policing, small businesses, aid to the homeless, a city commission on racial polarization, and a plethora of city services and programs. And he has forcefully opposed term limits, which are virtual treason for those who, like Guyot, support Mayor Barry.
But Guyot’s cause of the moment—the abolition of the control board—may be the political launching pad he’s been seeking for so long. Week in and week out, the board’s actions—most notably demanding budget cuts and chastising the mayor—top the news. Week in and week out, reporters turn to Guyot to hear the opposition view. And at every turn, Guyot has exhibited the flair for fiery rhetoric, racial politics, and ad hominem attacks that have made him a minor legend among District politicos.
Guyot fired the opening salvo in his crusade last July, at the control board’s first public hearing. After denouncing the board as a violation of Washingtonians’ voting rights, Guyot addressed the audience: “Either you will collaborate or you will resist. I urge resistance,” he said. “I urge you not to have to explain to your children and your grandchildren that slavery was brought to the District of Columbia and you did not fight.”
Thus far, however, Guyot has little to show for his efforts except soundbites. He founded the Coalition for Political and Financial Accountability, an ad hoc group of control board opponents, but when pressed about the coalition’s accomplishments, Guyot cites goals: an educational campaign to distribute copies of the control board legislation, an impending constitutional challenge to the law, and diffusion of the coalition’s message through television, radio, and community groups. The coalition offers no serious alternative plan for delivering the city from fiscal crisis. Guyot simply insists that putting the city’s finances in order is a job for its elected leaders—no matter that they have shown no inclination whatsoever to do it. (Guyot says proudly, “I was the only one in the city who testified in favor of borrowing another $260 million” to stave off insolvency.)
But if playing the race card and smearing elected officials qualify as progress, Guyot’s movement is chugging right along. Racially loaded invective is a staple of Guyot’s anti–control board message. He has labeled the board’s authorizing legislation as “the slave bill,” called the board “the slave board,” and dubbed its five members the “masters of the plantation.” Guyot’s detractors charge that he widens the District’s racial divide by preying on the emotions of blacks and the guilt of whites. Not so, counters Guyot: The control board has enslaved black and white Washingtonians equally.
He has denounced Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, co-sponsor of the control board bill, with special fury. At the July 1995 hearing, Guyot, after vowing that his movement had been “careful not to malign or attack any individual,” lit into Norton like a blowtorch.
“Eleanor Holmes Norton tells us lies,” he said. “She says that this legislation does not take away the power of the city council, that this legislation broadens the powers of the mayor. Those are lies, and I cannot justify them in a democracy.”
Harsh words, especially from a man who had counted himself one of Norton’s most devoted supporters. Their erstwhile alliance dates back to the civil rights days, when Norton represented Guyot’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its fight to get seated at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sometime between then and 1995, charges Guyot, Norton lost her zeal for liberty.
“She apparently feels she’s done so much to empower us that she can take some of it back,” says Guyot, who has also called Norton “worse than an Uncle Tom.” Guyot adds that Washingtonians have fallen victim to what he terms “Potomac syndrome,” the propensity of voters to support the misguided proposals of popular officials—“Eleanor Holmes Norton created this legislation. Eleanor Holmes Norton is good, therefore the legislation is good,” says Guyot.
Guyot denies rumors that he plans to run against Norton this fall, but he vows to back anyone who opposes the delegate, “regardless of their ideological complexion.”
Norton declined to comment on Guyot.
Guyot’s stance on Norton is typical of his extremist politics. “I don’t support or oppose someone 25, 50, or 75 percent,” he says. “I either support them or oppose them with everything I have.”
True to that credo, Guyot backs the mayor as doggedly as he opposes the delegate. Ward 1 activists say that Guyot serves as a one-man mayoral advance team, scouting community events and phoning ahead to brief the mayor and his staff on what awaits them. “No doubt about it—he carries the mayor’s water all over town,” says an unnamed source.
In whipping up public resentment against the control board, however, Guyot has graduated from a logistical scout to a major political operative for the mayor. Despite occasional pronouncements to the contrary, Barry clearly despises the control board and all of its baggage—fiscal scrutiny, budget cuts, a strong chief financial officer, and, most of all, Barry’s own disappearing power. Although Guyot says that his contact with Barry is “infrequent,” Guyot knows that the mayor would like nothing more than to watch his movement oust the board.
That won’t happen soon. By all measures, the Coalition for Political and Financial Accountability remains a fringe movement unknown to all but political junkies. Guyot claims that the coalition’s organizing meeting attracted 13 people; a coalition meeting last week drew 28 supporters. Public skepticism toward Guyot’s campaign shows up starkly in approval ratings for Norton, who remains the city’s most popular elected official.
Guyot has been trying to draw attention to himself and his causes for three decades. “There are a whole lot of people who are content to work behind the scenes for change,” says Bob Boyd, a former member of the city’s board of education and fellow Mississippi civil rights activist. “Larry sure wanted change, but he also wanted the limelight.”
Born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf coast, Guyot attended Tougaloo College and joined the state’s nascent civil rights movement. In 1964, he helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which organized voter registration drives. The media flocked to other party luminaries such as Fanny Lou Hamer, the farm worker who defied her employer’s attempts to keep her from registering, but Boyd credits Guyot with “very effective” leadership.
(Guyot is not shy about informing District residents about his civil rights achievements; he peppers his addresses with references to his Mississippi experiences. Conversely, when Guyot visits Mississippi, he plugs his struggle for D.C.’s democratic rights. At an event last year to honor Hamer, Boyd says Guyot launched into a prolonged harangue against the control board. “I looked around and saw everyone scratching their heads, saying, ‘What is this guy talking about?’ ” recalls Boyd.)
Guyot made a failed run for Congress in 1966, and earned a law degree from Rutgers University. He worked with constitutional rights groups in Mississippi and Washington during the early ’70s, then moved to D.C. for good in 1976 after landing a job with Pride Inc., the nonprofit founded by Barry. Since 1981, Guyot has worked at the Department of Human Services, though his heart has remained in community organizing.
While Barry rose to the top of D.C. politics, Guyot worked the hustings. He lobbied for rent control, battled to increase aid to the homeless, and helped establish orange-hat patrols. He’s never been afraid to use race when he needed to. For instance, Guyot has told audiences that Alice Kelly, a white Ward 1 activist, bears some responsibility for the racial tensions that produced the May 1991 Mount Pleasant riots. By Guyot’s account, Kelly angered Latinos by pushing for a Mount Pleasant liquor license moratorium. The resulting unease, Guyot claims, accounted for the community’s violent reaction to the shooting of a Latino man by a black police officer. “She used racial polarization in the city for her own purposes,” says Guyot. “And she is very condescending toward blacks.”
Over time, Guyot has built himself a core of loyal partisans. “I know a lot of group leaders who would react more quickly to Guyot than to Mayor Barry,” says James Foreman, who worked with Guyot to start orange-hat patrols in Ward 1.
These alliances, coupled with the control board fight, may finally bring Guyot the citywide influence he seeks. Although many District residents view the control board as their savior from an incompetent city hall, it has yet to sink its sharp incisors deeply into the city budget. Once the board starts eliminating programs with large and well-organized constituencies, the era of good feeling will end abruptly. Disaffected voters may then seek someone to lead them in battle against the board. You can bet that Lawrence Guyot will be ready for the job. CP