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Selecting the next council chairman from the crop currently competing for the job is like trying to decide whether you’d rather have your car stolen or your home burglarized. Preferable alternatives—like not becoming a crime victim at all—don’t seem to be available. So the best way to proceed, under LL’s method for evaluating the five candidates and one near-candidate in the race, is to decide which of the contenders you absolutely don’t want running the council, and see who is left.
Here, then, is LL’s evaluation by elimination, starting from the bottom up.
Write-in candidate Vincent Orange, the near-candidate in the running, whom LL shall dub “candidate lite”: Although Orange has offered some good ideas about taming the city’s fiscal crisis, he couldn’t collect the 3,000 valid signatures required to get his name on next Tuesday’s ballot. And that’s a telling indictment for a certified public accountant who brags about his financial management skills. Nearly one-third of the 4,000-plus voter signatures the Orange campaign collected on ballot petitions were ruled invalid by the D.C. Board of Elections after the Jarvis campaign challenged those petitions. Orange has sought to turn his ineffectiveness at managing his campaign and inability to comply with election procedures into campaign assets by attacking Jarvis for keeping him off the ballot. He has even used his meager resources to buy campaign ads on local cable-TV stations to carry on this attack.
If Orange were chair, D.C. Council meetings would more closely resemble frat-house food fights than the workings of a deliberative legislative body. Orange has sought to rally support within the city’s religious community by taking a hard stand against gay marriages and other lifestyle issues important to the city’s influential gay community. At a Sept. 2 forum in Ward 8, Orange also played the race and gender cards by reminding voters, “I’m the only black man in the race.” Middle-age and older black men harbor reservations about putting a woman in as council chair, polls show, because women already occupy the mayor’s office and the D.C. congressional delegate’s post. But many of these voters appear to be backing Dave Clarke instead of Orange.
Socialist Workers Party candidate Emily Fitzsimmons: If you haven’t gotten a bead on the Fitzsimmons campaign, it’s probably because the candidate has failed to get time off from her job cleaning airplanes for United Airlines to attend campaign events. But LL finally caught up with her at a forum last week in Ward 4’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. On the stump, Fitzsimmons advocates massive public-works spending by the financially strapped D.C. government (including building a new convention center) to create jobs for District residents; a shorter workweek to alleviate unemployment; a cap on rents at no more than 10 percent of tenants’ income; and a guaranteed right to a house for everyone in the city. “I’m fighting for a government that combines workers and farmers,” Fitzsimmons assured the 100 or so Ward 4 residents in attendance at the Aug. 30 forum. LL hasn’t seen any D.C. farmers lately. Fitzsimmons’ presence in the race reminds voters that there are other political points of view besides those of incumbent councilmembers, who tend to sound alike. But with Fitzsimmons at the helm, council meetings would turn into weekly teach-ins on the international exploitation of workers, the “super profiteering” of landlords, and the betrayal of working people by the Clinton administration.
At-large Councilmember Linda Cropp: When this race began three months ago, Cropp had a clear message (“This government is about providing services and not about being an employment agency”) and a clear opportunity to emerge as the viable alternative to business as usual on the council. Now, however, voters have no clear idea what she stands for. Her message has become diffused, diluted, and diverted by her inability to define her candidacy. And her campaign has left few voters with the confidence that Cropp has what it takes to seize the reins of the council relinquished by the late John Wilson. On the stump, she turns to mush, advocating yet another commission to solve the city’s long-term fiscal problems and unfunded pension crisis, calling on citizens to assemble in town meetings and identify the D.C. government programs they want to eliminate rather than suggesting her own cuts, and proposing council retreats to build consensus within the often-divisive body.
The cash-poor Cropp campaign is hoping for an endorsement from the Washington Post to propel the candidate back into the race. But even a Post endorsement at this late date is not likely to bring Cropp into contention. Instead of hoping to win, Cropp now merely hopes to make a strong-enough showing to drive away the political vultures that are already circling, awaiting the opportunity to pounce upon the weakened incumbent when she seeks re-election to the council next year.
Anti-tax activist Marie Drissel: Newcomer Drissel, rather than Cropp, has emerged as the alternative to the political status quo. She has run largely on her record of fighting city hall and the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue over property taxes, and stresses her working knowledge of the city’s financial mismanagement. But Drissel also has outlined substantive positions on an array of issues. She advocates allowing police officers to live rent-free in public housing units to combat crime in the projects. She calls for increased education for prison inmates to reduce the recidivism rate. She would require downtown developers to build housing there for middle- and upper-income people. She champions the concerns of small-business owners, and sides with neighborhoods in disputes over development and parking. Drissel has earned a reputation as a quick learner in this short campaign.
But it is her strong stand against taxes and her pledge to “fix D.C.” finances by cutting entire programs that have caught the attention of the voters. While she lacks the experience to step directly into the city’s second most important political office, Drissel has emerged as the viable vehicle for voters who want to register their disapproval of thepresent state of D.C. affairs. A strong Drissel showing on Tuesday would shake the District’s political foundation; a win would bring it to the ground. If you are looking for a way to send a strong message to the mayor and the D.C. Council, Drissel is your candidate.
Former two-term Council Chair Dave Clarke: If LL could combine Clarke’s experience, honesty, and integrity with the intellect, personality, and political skills of Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, we would have constructed the perfect candidate in this race. The contest, after all, is really between these two. But Dr. Frankenstein we’re not. Clarke clearly is the most qualified candidate in terms of experience in city government, having served 16 years on the council, including eight as its chairman. And in those 16 years, he was never soiled with even a hint of scandal. Voters, however, have indicated that they want strong leadership and direction from the council, especially with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly appearing so weak and indecisive.
Despite the avalanche of statistics, anecdotal evidence, and protests that Clarke rains down on his audiences in an effort to prove otherwise, the council only emerged as a strong voice in government with the ascendancy of Wilson to the chairmanship in 1991, following Clarke’s two terms. While Clarke was chairman, many voters recall that then-Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. pretty much had things his way, especially on the important issues. And the Clarke-led council appeared impotent in the face of the corruption, incompetence, waste, and indifference rampant in city government during the ’80s. In fact, when citizens complained to Clarke and other councilmembers about the out-of-control Barry administration, they were usually treated to a lecture on how the Home Rule Charter had vested all the power in the mayor’s office and left the council weak. LL doesn’t hear that kind of talk anymore, not after Wilson showed that the council could flex some muscle, too.
Jarvis: While not plagued with Clarke’s personality and leadership defects, Jarvis doesn’t possess his record of ethical behavior, either. Her first two terms on the council were tainted by campaign-finance violations; loans to Jarvis and her then companion, Woody Boggs, from banks regulated by the council committee Jarvis chaired; gifts and favors from businesses with matters before her committee; and a general coziness with developers and the business community. But Boggs hasn’t been seen in these parts for several years. And Jarvis attributes past indiscretions to mistakes that resulted from her inexperience in politics and her insecurity about Barry and his machinations. That was the old Jarvis, she asserts. The 1993 model is the new, improved Jarvis—much more attentive to the ethics of public service, and much more attuned to the concerns of neighborhoods and communities.
The coalition of supporters Jarvis has pieced together partly attests to that. She has won endorsements from such adversaries as gays and ministers, business leaders and neighborhood activists, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and some labor unions (although Clarke won the bulk of organized labor’s endorsements), the real estate industry and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a group campaigning for affordable housing.
Ironically, one of the strongest arguments for Jarvis has come from Clarke himself. Clarke complains that councilmembers have been reluctant to back him publicly because they view Jarvis as “vindictive” and fear that, if she wins, she would retaliate and remove some of their power. That’s exactly how Wilson ruled, through terror rather than through dispensing power to council-committee heads and creating numerous minichairs, as Clarke did during his tenure. The Wilson method seemed to work better. And other councilmembers seem to prefer Jarvis to Clarke, although Clarke picked up last-minute endorsments f rom Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith and At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason.
So, in the spirit of the David Letterman craze, here are the top 10 reasons to vote for Jarvis on Tuesday:
10.) She’s not Dave Clarke.
9.) She knows Bill and Hillary. (Jarvis was a national co-chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign.)
8.) Ward 4 voters will get to elect a new councilmember after 14 years of having Jarvis in their faces.
7.) John Ray endorsed her. (That’s a big plus with the Ward 3 crowd.)
6.) Mayor Kelly didn’t endorse her, and didn’t want Jarvis to become chair after Wilson died.
5.) She recoiled from Barry’s endorsement, depriving him of a chance to proclaim himself kingmaker in this election.
4.) She has prompted Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and his harshest critic, downtown housing activist Terry Lynch, to take the same side for a change.
3.) Community activists have shed their earlier suspicions and now profess faith in her commitment to their causes.
2.) Jarvis is happiest when she’s campaigning, and she’ll get to run again next year for a full four-year term as council chair.
And, the No. 1 reason to vote for Jarvis on Tuesday: This election entitles her only to serve out the remaining 15 months of Wilson’s unexpired term. If all of this stuff has been just more campaign rhetoric—and there really is no new, improved Jarvis—then we can throw her out next year.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.