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On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the latest failure of this experi ment in govern ance known as the District of Columbia came into full view. Along with schools that don’t educate, an unresponsive government that provides jobs but not services, and home rule that doesn’t carry enough political power and resources to succeed, add to the list a political system that discourages discourse and fosters totalitarianism.
Rather than being a vehicle to empower and enlighten the electorate, the Democratic Party in this one-party town is like a cancer eating away at the brain and soul of the body politic. During the primary process, the party refuses to get involved in intraparty squabbles, and therefore is of no use to the electorate. After the primary, the party machinery acts like the KGB in the old Soviet Union and seeks to impose blind loyalty, restrict choice, and punish those who would want to stray.
But D.C. voters this fall got a rare taste of the fruits of a political system that offers debate and choice, thanks to Carol Schwartz. And now the city is better prepared for what lies ahead, or at least better prepared than it was after the Democratic primary. LL is not disputing the election’s outcome, nor arguing that the return of the Mayor-for-Life doesn’t reflect the will of a majority of voters, given the choices they had. But just imagine if the mayoral campaign had ended with the Democratic primary Sept. 13? That’s certainly when Marion Barry and the Democrats had wanted it to end, and the point that most political campaigns do end in the District. This time, thankfully, it didn’t. There had been almost no discussion of issues, past or present, during the primary season.
Barry would have guffawed loud and long if anyone had suggested to him on primary night that a white Republican woman would win 42 percent of the vote in the general election and hold his tally to less than 60 percent. Hizzoner would have thought that person must be smoking crack. After all, Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-to-1 here. If Schwartz had been a Democrat, the race would have been much tighter. And if she had been a black Democrat, a Barry comeback might have remained a pipe dream.
But the Democratic Party seems incapable of producing candidates to challenge Barry rule. Remember the ineffectual John Ray and Sharon Pratt Kelly from the primary? The party can claim ownership of the overwhelming number of elected officials who have guided this city since home rule 20 years ago, but that’s hardly worth bragging about.
On the way to his comeback, Barry got “Schwartzed,” a term coined by her supporters. The primary ended with most voters knowing little, if anything, about what Barry planned to do once he got back into power. Schwartz stripped Barry naked, exposed the emptiness of his rhetoric, and held him accountable. And she sent the warning that a sizable portion of the electorate will continue to demand performance, not excuses. No more running off to California when the city is in need of on-the-job leadership.
That’s when Barry is at his best, when someone gets in his face and challenges him. Then he responds. But when he thinks he can take his constituency for granted—as he took the city for granted last time, and as he knows he can always take the Democratic Party for granted—then he falters.
When Schwartz and her band of followers celebrated election night, they were celebrating the arrival of a political system in D.C. that would begin to hold its elected officials accountable. “No mandate!” they cheered, as Schwartz won the expectations game by breaking the 40-percent barrier. And their celebration had much more life and spirit—a feeling of having overcome insurmountable odds—than the Barry victory party going on at the Washington Convention Center.
Independent mayoral candidate Curtis Pree gets the chutzpah award of this campaign season. Less than three weeks before the election, Pree requested—and got—a meeting with Carol Schwartz to propose that she drop her Republican candidacy for mayor and join forces with him as his running-mate. As Pree outlined his plan to Schwartz at their Oct. 22 meeting at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, he would stay in the race for mayor, and she would campaign with him as his choice for city administrator. Pree planned to elevate the city administrator’s job almost to the level of a co-mayor. “Sort of a Mondale/Ferraro thing,” he explained after the meeting.
Pree argued that the move would resolve the white Republican’s image problem by pairing her with an African-American independent. The move would have raised his name recognition in a race where the media coverage focused almost exclusively on the Big Two—Schwartz and Marion Barry.
Pree made his proposal just as Schwartz’s campaign was beginning to surge, and she, naturally, would have nothing to do with his plan. But LL has to give him credit for trying….
D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke proved in this campaign that a candidate can preach doom and gloom—and not run away from taxes—and still be re-elected, particularly if he is challenged by weak opponents. On the stump, Clarke dodged questions, and accusations from his two challengers, about his position on a scheduled residential property tax hike that the council will take up next month. That hike would raise taxes by $10 on a $100,000 home, and $20 on a $200,000 home.
While Clarke would not come right out and say he favors raising taxes on homeowners, he did admit he wants to raise taxes on commercial properties. The council chairman said that downtown commercial landlords haven’t been paying their fair share, a feeling not shared by many in the business community. The pending tax hike would raise the tax bill on commercial properties by $160 per every $100,000 of assessed value.
Challengers JePhunneh Lawrence, an independent, and Mark Thompson of the newly formed Umoja (“Unity”) Party tried hard to rally homeowners with the possibility of the Clarke-backed property tax hike. They hammered away at Clarke for wanting to increase the tax burden on D.C. residents at a time when he is also trying to amend the home rule charter so that he can practice law or teach on the side with the hope of one day securing a judgeship. But they were unable to make the tax issue a political liability for Clarke, even though there appears to be sentiment within the populace that any tax increase at this time, even a slight one, sends the wrong signal about the city’s plans for managing its fiscal affairs.
Voters in Precinct 51 at Lafayette School near Chevy Chase Circle were asked Tuesday to sign petitions opposing the tax hike. On the stump, Clarke has insisted that no homeowner had complained to him about the proposed tax increase, although he admitted that commercial property owners are screaming about it. And At-Large Independ ent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, who exited the mayor’s race after Barry won the primary, has been trying to arouse opposition to the pending tax increase. But Lightfoot concedes he does not yet have the votes on the council to block the tax hike when it comes up next month.
Lightfoot made no endorsements in Tuesday’s mayor’s race. But he actively supported Jerry Moore III for the at-large council seat now held by Hilda Mason of the Statehood Party….
Meanwhile, Clarke was a real downer at the Barry previctory rally at the Washington Convention Center this past Sunday evening. The somber chairman, who spoke before Barry arrived, told the crowd of about 600 not to expect much in the way of jobs and expanded city services from the next administration. “Happy days are not here again,” Clarke said. “Don’t expect the boom period of the ’80s to return.” This was not exactly what this crowd had come to hear. But not even the pulsating beat of the Ballou High School marching band could pump much life into the listless audience, which filled only half of the cavernous hall.
Among those not thrilled with the turn of events that evening was Rock Newman, manager of former heavyweight boxing champ Riddick Bowe and a valued contributor of cash and resources to the Barry campaign. Newman had been scheduled to introduce Barry at the rally, but was knocked out of that position at the last minute by the Rev. J. Terry Wingate, the long-winded pastor of Purity Baptist Church on Capitol Hill. Newman was visibly angry at having been upstaged by Wingate, and it took both Barry and Cora Masters Lady MacBarry to calm him down.
Also present onstage with Barry at the rally were Ward 4 school board members Sandra Butler-Truesdale and at-large school board member Valencia Mohammed. These two argued most passionately at last week’s board meeting for increasing the salaries of the already highest-paid school board in the nation. LL cannot pass up the opportunity to note their alliance with the man who energized the electorate in the primary by campaigning against status quo politicians who get so wrapped up in the perks of office that they forget to serve the people who elected them. That certainly seems to fit the two board members standing by his side in this election.
Butler-Truesdale and Mohammed moaned loudly and bitterly last week that the public outcry against cost-of-living increases for school board members was a sinister plot led by whites to replace the currently elected board with an appointed one. Since she only got 1,000 votes in white Ward 3 during her 1992 citywide election, Mohammed, elected citywide, said “I don’t have to answer to people there.”
Ironically, Barry is the only politician who recently has suggested that D.C. school board members be appointed rather than elected. Barry would love to get control of the school board—and the patronage jobs and votes that control conveys—the way he did during his second term, when his political machine helped elect a group of school board members who took their cue from Hizzoner. That group became known as “The Marionettes.”
Mohammed and Butler-Truesdale were the only school board members standing with Barry at the Sunday rally….
Barry, who campaigned this year as the defender of rent control, has angered tenant activists by appointing opponents of the current rent control law to his task force to study the issue, while excluding tenants. After Barry named representativesof the Apartment and Office Building Association to the task force, tenant activist Valerie Costelloe fired off a letter demanding an explanation. During his second term as mayor, Barry backed efforts to weaken the rent control law he now claims to support. He also opposed a 1985 tenant-backed referendum overturning changes in the law made by the council….
After remaining quiet throughout the fall campaign, independent Ward 1 council candidate Bob Clifton, a provocateur at the summer candidate forums, burst back on the scene last week with his impressive pre-election campaign leaflet. On one side of the multicolored flier, Clifton listed five reasons why voters should elect him. The other side contained a long list of the incumbent’s shortcomings under the heading, “Frank Smith‘s Shame Sheet.”