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Elections sometimes serve asa reality check, a slap in the face to politicians—and to journalists who let themselves become distracted by the minutiae of governance. That’s what happened in the race for D.C. Council chair on Tuesday, when voters in nearly every precinct of the city said, through their support for Dave Clarke, that they value honesty and integrity above all. Whatever other defects the past and soon-to-be-present council chairman might have, his ethical fiber has never been in question. Clarke also proved that he can cut across racial lines and win the support of voters in all parts of D.C. For a city that often sees politicians attempt to exploit racial divisions for political gain, that’s welcome news.
In winning seven of the city’s eight wards and 122 of its 140 precincts, Clarke showed once again—as Sharon Pratt Kelly did in the 1990 mayor’s race—that money, organization, and political endorsements mean little to the voters. In fact, such endorsements can be a liability, conveying an image of back-room politics that D.C. voters will no longer tolerate. Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis landed most of the major endorsements, including a coveted one from interim Council Chair John Ray, yet Clarke soundly beat Jarvis in Ward 5, Ray’s home ward. Jarvis won early support from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and the downtown business community, yet Clarke easily carried that section of the city.
Jarvis steadfastly courted the support of former Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr./Anwar Amal and his followers in Ward 8, and spent an inordinate amount of time campaigning there. Clarke lost that ward by just five votes, his only apparent loss. (Absentee ballots have yet to be counted.) Barry, who left the country for several weeks prior to the election, receives the Windbag Award of this campaign. His boasts, after his Ward 8 council victory last year, of having created a political machine that could deliver an unprecedented large vote to other candidates proved to be nothing more than hot air.
“I said “no’ to the big guys so that I could say “yes’ to you,” Clarke told his audiences in the final week of the campaign. Despite having served 16 years on the council, eight of them as chairman, Clarke, since stepping down to wage an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 1990, has become the experienced outsider whom voters hope will clean up their government. During this campaign, Clarke grumbled that he had had to give up his council seat to run for mayor in 1990, while Jarvis didn’t risk anything because the race fell during her third council term. But in this race, being off the council was a blessing for Clarke. “Dave may be a lousy chairman,” said local labor official Rick Powell, “but at least he won’t sell us out.” That comment summed up the feelings of many voters about Clarke—and about his chief rival, Jarvis. Clarke, in effect, has become the moral compass of D.C. And no one needs that compass more than LL, especially after we shocked our readers last week by endorsing the heavily baggaged Jarvis.
The election result held mixed blessings for Kelly, who was standing at Clarke’s side when he declared victory Tuesday night. Ray, currently her chief rival for re-election next year, suffers from an image problem similar to the one Jarvis carried into this election. Tuesday’s outcome showed that image-reshaping is tough, if not impossible, to pull off during a campaign. But the results also sent Kelly a warning that the electorate is angry at the status quo and ready to toss her out of office next year if the right candidate comes along—someone experienced but not perceived as part of the current mess.
So far, no such creature has appeared. But the voters indicated Tuesday that they still hope he or she will.
THE MAYOR’S RACE BEGINS
Jarvis was dogged throughout the short campaign by questions of whether she had promised Ward 8 Councilmember Barry the chairmanship of the council’s Human Services Committee in return for his support. Barry has made no secret of his desire to trade in his chairmanship of the council’s Labor Committee for Human Services, which would give him a citywide base. Jarvis denied she had done any deals with Barry, but few believed her. At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp revealed during a candidate forum last week that Barry told her he wanted the committee chairmanship as a condition of his support. Jarvis also insisted she didn’t dangle the chairmanship of the Finance and Revenue Committee in front of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. But Evans never tried too hard to mask his belief that he would get that post under a Jarvis council chairmanship.
But the campaign’s biggest non-deal deal belongs to Jarvis and Ray. Ray denies he endorsed Jarvis to keep her out of next year’s mayoral contest, but Jarvis conceded that the subject came up during her pre-endorsement discussions with Ray. And Jarvis ruled out a 1994 mayoral bid during the Sept. 9 news conference in which she received Ray’s endorsement. The council chair race moved Ray a big step closer to what he longs for—a head-to-head rematch next year with Kelly, who unexpectedly snatched the mayoral crown from his grasp in 1990. In endorsing Jarvis, Ray sounded like a candidate positioning himself to be the spokesman for both Ward 3—where he has gained popularity because of his rooming-house licensing bill and his opposition to the Georgetown University cogenerator—and Ward 8, now known as Barryland.
“Let me just make a point about the whole Marion Barry thing, which I’m concerned about,” Ray said, stepping in when Jarvis was asked why she never called a news conference to play up Barry’s endorsement. “Listen, all of you need to focus on Ward 8. What a lot of folks need to understand is when they put down Marion Barry, they’re also putting down the folks who voted for him. And they deserve the same respect as any other voters in the city. And when we continue to do this, we continue to divide the city.” Acknowledging that he supported the then-incumbent, Wilhelmina Rolark, in last year’s Ward 8 council race, Ray said that Barry “deserves the same respect as any other member of the city council. And if you disrespect him, you disrespect the voters of Ward 8.”
Ray’s emotional response drew a big cheer from the Jarvis campaign headquarters crowd.
INITIATIVE 41 SUCCEEDS
Jarvis campaign manager Ted Gay didn’t like the strict campaign fund-raising limits imposed on the council chair race by Initiative 41 because his candidate was unable to raise enough money to do polling. And without polls, Gay’s candidate could get hit with unanticipated issues in public forums—issues that a poll would have picked up in time to program Jarvis with the right message.
Dave Clarke didn’t like the limits, either. When Clarke learned early in the campaign that the Greater Washington Board of Trade‘s political action committee (PAC) was raising money to spend on behalf of Jarvis, he threatened to team up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to wage a court challenge against Initiative 41. The ACLU has been searching for a D.C. resident to represent in such a lawsuit since before the campaign finance law went into effect in March. Clarke was nervous about what the never-friendly business community would say about him in their mailings and ads for Jarvis. These independent PACs, he pointed out, didn’t have to abide by the same fund-raising limits as the candidates, who could collect no more than $100 per donor. Never mind that Clarke was probably the biggest beneficiary of independent PAC spending in the race. D.C. Legal, the PAC of the area’s powerful trial lawyers profession, and a coalition of labor unions spent tens of thousands of dollars on mailings and phone banks to turn out Clarke’s supporters.
Linda Cropp also deplored the new campaign finance law, which kept her campaign from using political posters until late in the campaign because she lacked enough dough to replace them when they were torn down. The incumbents and the professional politicians complain that the law can’t be scrapped soon enough to suit them. Marie Drissel is the only candidate from the council chair race not calling for immediate changes in the new law. She raised and spent much less than Jarvis, Clarke, and Cropp, and had no PACs spending independently on behalf of her candidacy.
The new law leveled the playing field and permitted a newcomer like Drissel to be competitive for votes, even though she wasn’t competitive for campaign dollars. Drissel did more with her four-color posters to get her message to the voters than her better-financed rivals accomplished with their mailings and ads. In the pre-Initiative 41 era, Drissel’s message would have been buried under an avalanche of rhetoric bought and paid for by the special-interest money flowing into the campaign coffers of incumbents and professional politicians.
“I think it proved itself in this race, despite what the politicians are saying,” said Terry Lynch, a leader of last year’s successful campaign to win voter approval of the initiative. “Initiative 41 has worked. I don’t think the PACs made a difference in this race at all. If anything, PAC endorsements were a ball and chain. The monied interests had less influence than before.”
And this was a race in which the monied interests lusted to buy influence, because the council chair can be a valuable ally. Maybe that explains all of the grousing. The limits bring well-heeled developers down to the same level as ordinary citizens, most of whom can afford the $100 maximum donation. Politicians are much more comfortable in the corporate boardrooms than in the living rooms. In the boardrooms, when a candidate makes a commitment in return for donations, that commitment seldom becomes public until after the election. But when a candidate gives a commitment to a bunch of citizens assembled in a neighbor’s home or at a picnic in the park, it’s broadcast around the neighborhood immediately, as this campaign showed. That makes it much more difficult to renege on a promise after the election.
The politicians are envious of all that money they saw the doctors, lawyers, labor unions, and business owners spending to influence the contest outcome. The candidates want that money in their hands, in large amounts, which they then can dump into their official campaign war-chests, disguising the source by failing to list the donor’s profession or employer. It was this kind of dishonesty that led to passage of Initiative 41 in the first place. The initiative has made it much easier to track the special interest money.
True, candidates in the council chair race lacked the funds to do citywide mailings, limiting the amount of information available to voters. But the unusually short campaign did not provide a good test of the law, and any changes should be put off until after next year’s mayoral and council races. “These candidates had to work a lot harder at meeting voters,” Lynch noted. “They had to go to the forums, and they couldn’t hide like they could before.”
Now how can that be bad?