Sign up for our free newsletter
On Friday the 13th, a hapless District government finally got lucky.
A week earlier, the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics had mailed District residents postcards announcing the upcoming special election to complete the term of Council Chairman John Wilson. But a lawsuit in U.S. District Court now threatened to postpone the contest, which would mean another $50,000 mailing, a longer and costlier campaign, and voter confusion. More importantly, though, it would mean that a devastated legislative branch would be without a real leader for an indefinite period of time.
So it was with great relief that the board greeted the judge’s decision that Friday evening: The election would go forth as scheduled. Oddly enough, however, no one else seemed to notice.
“Not that many people are paying attention to this race,” D.C. Republican Committee Chairman Julie Finley said not long ago, echoing the opinion of many. “You’d probably have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger or Barbra Streisand to get attention.”
That’s about to change, however, as the candidates blitz their way through the city’s eight wards—on some days participating in as many as four community forums—and the media pays increasing attention. But two weeks of intense campaigning will not be enough to bring large numbers of people to the polls. In fact, by most estimates, the turn out won’t exceed 70,000. Some believe it could be as low as 50,000.
Don’t blame it all on apathy, though. Only 114 days will have elapsed between Wilson’s death and the Sept. 14 election, meaning far less time than usual to define the issues, conduct debates, and mobilize community groups. Many voters simply won’t be prepared.
Second, this is a temporary assignment—a 15-month mission that will afford the winner little hope of significantly altering the nature of the council’s business. As a result, some District residents are looking at this as an election for a caretaker’s position, with the vote for a full, four-year term to come in a year’s time.
Despite predictions of low voter turnout, Dave Clarke insists that the community is very much interested in this election; that this summer’s candidate forums have been as well-attended as forums of years past; that the press, by its refusal to give the contest serious coverage until late in the campaign, has encouraged people to not pay close attention.
“Our voter populace is underestimated by the press,” Clarke says. “To the extent the press focuses on analyzing turnout, they create the conditions for [low turnout] to occur. If people can get information, they’ll digest it and handle it.”
Clarke’s opinion is not widely shared, however. Campaign strategists, ANC commissioners, and party officials reiterate the forces that will keep people from the polls: a short campaign, tiny treasuries, no other races on the ballot. Then there are the imponderables.
“One thing that gets people out is strong campaigns,” says Cropp strategist Conrad Smith. “Another thing is the quality of the candidates. But intervening things can happen. If the weatherman says we’ll have a hailstorm on election day and it’s hailing when people wake up, voter turnout will be light.”
All that may be true, but there’s something else to consider: The voters may shun the polls because they don’t believe that this race is as critical as it’s being billed.
And they’d be partly right.
It has become a common refrain that the council chairman is now the mayor’s equal, and that this race therefore takes on a special significance. In truth, John Wilson may have established himself as the mayor’s legislative counterpart by the end of his tenure, but no such power is inherently vested in the position he held.
During his eight years at the helm of the council, Dave Clarke was hardly the political equal of Marion Barry and there’s no reason to assume that Clarke or any of his opponents will emerge as an omnipotent legislative-branch force this time around. The economy here may be going to hell, but what evidence is there that anyone on the ballot will be able to engineer a turnaround—at least in the short run?
In that sense, this election really has less urgency than is being portrayed.
But over the long haul, what happens on Sept. 14 will go a long way toward shaping the city’s political future.
By not fielding a candidate, and announcing instead that it will concentrate its limited resources on next year’s mayoral and city council races, the local Republican Party banished itself from the political radar. In this Democratic city, fighting its way back onto the screen won’t be easy.
Democratic challengers will be scrambling to line up their support for next year’s election, but the winner of this race will gain an immediate—and perhaps insurmountable—edge. This, after all, is a contest to choose Wilson’s successor, and the new chairman will inherit an urgent financial mess made even more prominent by the campaign. As a result, the media spotlight will not soon fade. Voter recognition will increase. Interest groups will come courting. Money will find its way to the re-election effort. So the winner next month may actually be earning a five-year post.
The chairman race will also affect next year’s mayoral contest, and the possible scenarios are endless. Already the players are gearing up for their never-ending game of musical chairs.
If Clarke wins, Jarvis’ future becomes uncertain: She may make her third attempt for the mayor’s seat, or her stock may plummet enough so that such a bid is pointless. This could be her last hurrah for a leadership position, the would-be powerhouse doomed to finish out her days as just another councilmember.
But if Jarvis wins, Clarke may be the historical asterisk, and inveterate mayoral hopeful John Ray may get his wish: a one-on-one shot at Kelly, who appears vulnerable to a challenge. Of course, Cropp might surprise everyone and steal the chairman’s race; if that happens, her ally, Kelly, may be the beneficiary of valuable support.
Maybe the election will be decided with no clear mandate, opening the door for a challenge from At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot or Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous—two neophytes that some believe are the real future of the city’s political landscape. Or maybe Marion Barry will interpret a negligible vote by a dispirited electorate as a sign that it’s time for his second coronation.
So while this race may only be the undercard for next year’s election, more than the interim title is at stake.
There is also the matter of money: Initiative 41, passed by D.C. voters last November, has severely restricted the amount of campaign funds candidates are able to raise. The new law was designed to limit the influence of generous special interests, but the short election cycle has also made it impossible for candidates to raise enough cash to effectively reach the voters. Without sufficient information to make a knowledgeable decision, many will avoid the polls.
Finally, there’s only one other item on the ballot—a symbolic peace initiative that calls for nuclear disarmament—and that’s unlikely to be a big draw.
But there’s something else to consider: The city’s political landscape, once ruled by Marion Barry and bolstered by the likes of Wilson, is now without a political machine or a true potentate.
This vacuum has set the stage for the emergence of a new force in District politics, but in this election at least, no one has stepped forward who appears capable of making a real difference by setting the city’s finances straight or reversing the exodus by the middle class and small business. Instead, the field is cluttered with untested political neophytes and uncharismatic veterans who seem to want the chairman’s seat not because they truly aspire to it but because it’s the office that’s now up for grabs.
For all those reasons, this race will receive a flurry of intense hype and scrutiny, then probably pass with few having cast their votes. That indifference will appear inconsequential in the short run, as Wilson’s replacement casts about for consensus before gearing up for next summer’s rerun of the campaign. But the long-term consequences of this election will nevertheless reverberate around the District Building—not to mention the mayor’s Judiciary Square headquarters—for years to come.
John Wilson’s suicide on May 19 put an abrupt end to a seminal era in Washington politics: Wilson had served the D.C. Council continuously since 1975, the last of the original 13 members of the first home rule council to have done so.
Wilson was, of course, the consummate politician—an arm-twisting, deal-making trench fighter who through muscle and savvy elevated the council chairmanship to a position of power which rivaled that of the mayor. But that era, say political observers, is over: None of the five candidates seeking to fill the term, which will expire in January 1995, is the politician Wilson was.
Dave Clarke didn’t flex Wilsonian muscle during his 1983-91 tenure as council chairman. Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis does not command the sort of respect Wilson did from his colleagues. Freshman Councilmember Linda Cropp hardly has Wilson’s legislative experience and expertise, and the two other candidates on the ballot—community activist Marie Drissel and Socialist Workers Party candidate Emily Fitzsimmons—can only hope to forge alliances as council boss, not wield a big stick.
Another cudgel-wielding chairman, rather than a consensus-building diplomat, is probably what this deteriorating city needs, however. The population here has dropped by 50,000 over the last decade to 589,000—the lowest level since the Depression—and it’s no wonder: The murder rate has soared right along with tax bills, recreation centers and schools have been closed, and other services have been curtailed. In 1967, public school enrollment exceeded 151,000; by ’83, it had dropped to 89,000, and last year’s enrollment was 81,000—a sure sign that parents are leaving, that the tales of middle-class flight are not just hyperbole.
Businesses are also fleeing, pushed out by high payroll taxes, soaring corporate income tax rates, and a perception that the administration of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly is no ally. Gone are jobs, and with them a chunk of the city’s tax base.
But if Washington has been in a fiscal mess during the past few years, Wilson’s presence at least had a pacifying effect.
“The thinking was, Wilson was there, and he really understood the finances of the city,” says Jarvis campaign strategist Ted Gay. “The perception is, without Wilson, there’s nobody who has a grasp on the city’s finances. My guess is that there are a number of people who were and are on top of the fiscal situation. Now we have to calm [residents’] fear, which is: Let’s abandon the city before we get zapped with more taxes.”
Given such apprehension, the election of Washington’s second-most-important political leader should attract widespread voter interest. But citywide special elections—three of which have been held here in the last 16 years—are traditionally a bust. In the 1977 contest for an at-large council seat, won by Hilda Mason, fewer than 35,000 people voted. Two years later, when John Ray was elected to fill the council seat vacated by Marion Barry, who won the previous year’s mayoral contest, 51,091 voters (20.3 percent of those registered) went to the polls. A November ’91 referendum on whether to hold the manufacturers and dealers of assault weapons liable for injuries and deaths drew just 16.8 percent of the voters.
Interest in this upcoming special election—a winner-take-all contest with no qualifying primaries—was dampened from the get-go: The despondency that greeted Wilson’s suicide lingered well into June, and it wasn’t until July that the candidates really put their campaigns in motion. The annual August exodus to vacationland then deprived political activists of the opportunity to organize, and it often left candidates searching the stump for would-be voters.
Earlier this month, for example, on a steamy Thursday, Cropp planned to press the flesh at the Navy Yard Metro stop. She and campaign volunteers showed up at 7 a.m. with the intent to stay until 9. But after 45 minutes, the strategy went out the window: Virtually no one was coming through the turnstiles, forcing Cropp to head for the Waterfront stop in search of voters—a spot that had already been claimed by Clarke volunteers.
That same afternoon, Cropp and her son were at it again—this time at the Brookland-Catholic University of America station. With leaflets in hand, the two positioned themselves at the top of the escalator and sang their refrain: “D.C. voter?” Most commuters either shook their heads or kept walking. One woman asked about Cropp’s position on abortion (she’s pro-choice), then handed back the campaign leaflet. The Board of Elections had recently mailed the postcards announcing the election, and the Washington Post had been paying at least some early attention, but passers-by seemed to have no knowledge of the race.
Still, an undaunted Cropp kept at it. “Hope I can get your vote,” she called. “I’m Linda Cropp….Hope I can get your vote….Hope I can get your vote….Hope I can get your vote.”
Ten minutes of this finally yielded Cropp a dividend, if only a small one. “Don’t worry,” an elderly woman told her, “you got my vote.” After a thank you and a brief exchange, it was back to the leafleteering.
Another factor tempering voter enthusiasm is the perception that this election is not about changing the direction of the city government, but is only a race to fill the last 15 months of Wilson’s four-year term. Why vote this year, the logic goes, when the battle for the same position will be waged again in ’94?
But that reasoning is flawed.
“I think that 15 months probably allows you to put together a kind of political agenda and maybe begin to implement some of it,” says Howard Croft, professor of urban studies at the University of the District of Columbia. “But more so, it probably allows the person to get the edge for the next race.”
It is a big edge, and therein lies the real significance of this contest.
Clarke agrees that 15 months is not nearly enough time to turn the city’s financial mess around. “The challenge to the new chairman,” he says, “is to get a grip on things, get things under control, and work with the mayor, to the extent that’s possible.”
But as Clarke and his competitors know, Wilson’s successor will also have the where withal to establish a beachhead from which coalitions can be forged, deals can be cut, and campaign finances can be raised. Even though this is only a temporary position, council rules give the new chairman the same rights and privileges that were available to Wilson. As chairman of the Committee of the Whole, Wilson’s replacement will take the lead in all legislation related to the budget, taxes, and other financial matters—high-profile issues that many voters are following closely. In addition, Wilson’s replacement will have the prerogative of selecting new committee chairmen.
It’s unlikely, however, that the new chairman will initiate a wholesale restructuring of the committee framework. Assignments were carefully worked out by Wilson in private last December, with half the councilmembers holding onto their existing committee chairmanships and the others taking on new leadership roles.
Veteran At-Large Councilmember John Ray, for example, stayed on as chairman of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Frank Smith Jr. remained in charge of Housing, and Harry Thomas Sr. kept his leadership spot with Public Works and the Environment. Among those changing places were Jim Nathanson, who went from Government Operations to Judiciary after incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark was defeated; and Jack Evans, who moved from Self-Determination to Regional Authorities. In that reshuffling, Marion Barry was given leadership of the powerful Labor Committee.
If Cropp wins the election, her Human Services Committee will be there for the taking, and if Jarvis wins, the key Economic Development Committee will be available; in either case, at least some changes are therefore inevitable. But barging in and stripping councilmembers of their choice District Building fiefdoms willy-nilly would hardly go a long way toward endearing the new chairman to his or her colleagues. And if voting is light, as nearly everyone is predicting, the new chairman will lack the mandate to initiate a major legislative branch overhaul.
More important, though, none of the candidates has enough muscle or allies to dramatically reshape the council at this time. Jarvis and Ray have long been bitter rivals, and with the latter eyeing next year’s mayoral race, he’s not likely to give Jarvis or anyone else legislative carte blanche. The council would not roll out a red carpet for a returning Clarke, disliked as he was during his previous tenure as chairman. Cropp sought the post of interim chairman after Wilson’s death, but even a mighty lobbying effort on her behalf by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly was not enough to earn Cropp the support of more than half her colleagues. In the end, the council compromised and selected Ray for what’s really only a provisional job.
But if the new council chairman is not able to immediately retool the legislative agenda, he or she may have another four years to do so. Incumbency not only has its privileges, it also has its rewards. Chief among them may be the ease with which campaign coffers are filled.
There are some 323,000 registered voters in the District, about 25,000 of whom never miss an election. These die-hards of democracy, who may collectively account for one-third—possibly even one-half—of September’s vote total, are concentrated in Wards 3, 4, and 5, so devoting most of a campaign’s resources there would seem to make good sense. But the 25 precincts with the highest voting records are scattered throughout all eight wards, which makes placing your entire bankroll on 3, 4, and 5 risky business: Wallop your opponents in those parts of town, and the election is yours; eke out a plurality there, and you’re just another also-ran.
In years past, campaign strategists could examine city maps and know where to target their resources. They knew what issues played well in what precincts; with polling data to help guide them, they knew where their candidate had unwavering support, where the candidate was likely to be vulnerable and why. Get-out-the-vote efforts were not wasted on areas where the candidate was weak; personal appearances were arranged to shore up support or try to cut into an opponent’s vulnerable turf.
But in this election, traditional campaign strategy is the stuff of memories. The maps are on the wall, but there’s not a pushpin in them.
Race won’t be an issue; neither will gender. Endorsements that in years past delivered the rank-and-file vote won’t carry much weight this time around; there simply isn’t sufficient cohesion within any group to make an endorsement a decisive factor. None of the candidates has anything that resembles a political machine, and even if Mayor Kelly could mobilize large numbers of voters—which she probably can’t—she’s not expected to make an endorsement anyway. Marion Barry is doggedly resuscitating his machine in his adopted Ward 8, but there are far fewer registered voters there than anywhere else in the city, and they’ve traditionally voted in much smaller numbers than their counterparts across the river. Barry’s recent endorsement of Jarvis may deliver her a large bloc of Ward 8 votes, but his detractors in other parts of the city may, on principle, gravitate to another candidate. In the end, his endorsement might be a wash—or perhaps a negative.
Try as they might, the less-well-known candidates in this race—with one possible exception, Marie Drissel—will not have a major impact on the vote total.
In a race being waged to address urgent local issues, Socialist Workers Party candidate Fitzsimmons talks about national, even international, matters. Her platform includes a plank to forbid U.S. intervention in Somalia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, and in forums she tells of how she brought her campaign to the Pennsylvania coal mines to demonstrate solidarity with the workers there. In candidate forums, she offers virtually no concrete solutions to the city’s problems, but instead spews the same tired rhetoric about worker unity and empowerment of the people. Compared with politicians like Clarke and Jarvis, whose experience and grasp of the facts make their remarks seem almost extemporaneous, Fitzsimmons’ performance has the feel of a minor-league pitcher being called up late in the season to face a pennant contender.
Despite every attempt to be taken seriously, write-in candidate Vincent Orange will not affect the election’s outcome.
Orange was the only candidate to oppose Wilson in the ’90 election for council chairman, and he received some 20,000 Democratic primary votes to Wilson’s 92,000. Orange decided to try again, but he was stricken from the ballot in July after the Board of Elections ruled that nearly 1,300 of the signatures on his nominating petitions were invalid, leaving him 164 signatures short of the required 3,000. For the four weeks that followed, Orange spent most of his time in court challenging the constitutionality of the signature-gathering procedure. His appeals ran out on Aug. 20, and on the following day, he formally announced his write-in candidacy.
Before the courts finally dismissed him, Orange somehow managed to insinuate himself into the race, and it appeared that he might be a factor. When the University of the District of Columbia’s cable channel taped interviews with the candidates, Orange was invited to participate, even though Drissel and Fitzsimmons were not. Early on, the Post referred to this race as having a six-person field; on Aug. 15, when the “Close to Home” page of the paper’s Outlook section posed the first of its weekly questions to the candidates, Orange was among the gang of six.
That’s all changed, however. Outlook banished Orange last Sunday, and his name has disappeared from news reports about the race. Orange’s only real hope of being given high visibility—a D.C. Republican Committee (DCRC) endorsement, which some in the party deemed a possibility after the organization’s late-July candidate forum—crashed and burned on Aug. 17 when the committee decided to withhold an endorsement altogether. In an interview, Orange said he had picked up the endorsements of three organizations of Baptist ministers, and plans were afoot to conduct practice write-in sessions at local churches the Sunday before the election. That, he claimed, would make him a major player.
But mustering large numbers of people for a write-in campaign is difficult under the best circumstances. In this instance, two factors make that happening all the more unlikely. During August, when the candidates were defining their platforms for the voters, Orange was spending all his time in court rather than on the stump; as a result, no one knows much about him. More crucially, though: Why would the voters take seriously an attorney and certified public accountant who spent so much money and effort on lawsuits to salvage his campaign, when he could have verified the petition signatures beforehand—in accordance with existing law—and insured himself a place on the ballot?
That leaves only Marie Drissel, who might prove to be a wild card.
Drissel is a veteran community activist who speaks her mind with atypical political frankness. “I’m fed up with everything,” is her typical refrain, and she articulates in candid detail those city problems that other candidates are happy to include in vague generalizations about urban decay.
When the subject was the city’s tax base, she told a Republican forum in July: “This city is lousy. All of my neighbors are putting up “for sale’ signs.”
When the subject was the police department, she told those attending a Latino Civil Rights Task Force forum: “We’re treated as if we’re third- and fourth-class citizens, and I’m really sick of it.”
“The statement that we’ll only be a city of rich and poor isn’t true,” she said in an interview. “The rich won’t be here either.”
Drissel holds an MBA in finance and is intimate with the city’s fiscal workings, a credential that has won her points—although not endorsements—from Republicans.
“Marie is articulating a very clear-cut message—one that all voters should look to carefully,” says Mel Burton, a member of the DCRC’s executive committee. “The party knows Marie, and my thought is that it will not be at all difficult for her to garner a number of votes.”
Although Drissel conveys a kind of welcome, naive enthusiasm in person, her message is often difficult to decipher. She slips into non sequiturs; her patter at times seems entirely off-the-cuff and not particularly well thought out; she wrongly assumes that listeners have the background to understand points she’s trying to make, and what might be zingers float overhead like wild knuckleballs.
So Drissel’s candidacy remains something of a question mark, but at least one thing is certain: Money—or, more accurately, the lack of it—will make the real difference in this election.
Initiative 41, approved by District residents last November, was supposed to dilute the influence of special interests by limiting campaign contributions to $100 rather than the previously allowed $1,500. The correspondingly small campaign treasuries have necessitated a change in strategy: Voter polls are now unaffordable for all the candidates, as are television spots. As a result, say candidates and their strategists, the voters have less information than they are accustomed to having.
“You can’t have a robust campaign if you can’t reach the voters,” says veteran campaign strategist Conrad Smith, who’s running the Cropp crusade. Smith complains, for example, that Cropp can’t raise the $15,000 required for a citywide mailing. The other campaigns have lodged the same complaint.
As of mid-August, the latest figures available, campaign finance records show that Jarvis was leading the fund-raising race with $35,000 in contributions. Clarke was second with more than $26,000 in campaign donations, while Cropp’s campaign received $4,500 and Drissel’s only $1,800.
By contrast, Wilson raised $566,000 for his ’90 campaign, and spent about $500,000 of it. At the time of his death, Wilson had amassed about $450,000 in contributions for his re-election. There’s one loophole in the new law, however, that may change the equation: While candidates can’t accept more than $100 from an individual or a business, independent groups and individuals are free to spend as much as they want in support of a campaign. The only caveat is that those spending such funds are barred from coordinating their activities with the candidates or the candidates’ campaign committees. Clearly, this provision of the law is difficult—if not impossible—to police.
The Clarke camp hopes for political action committee support from labor unions exploiting this loophole, but Jarvis, the out-and-out favorite of Washington’s doctors, hotel owners, and other business groups, will probably benefit more than anyone else from the policy. Late last month, for example, the PAC of the Greater Washington Board of Trade faxed members a one-page dispatch trumpeting their endorsement of Jarvis and asking for financial support on her behalf.
“This is a critical election,” the fax proclaimed. “In several past elections the D.C. Board of Trade PAC has raised additional funds for endorsed candidates to carry out special independent efforts….Please join with us and make a SPECIAL CONTRIBUTION of at least $250 (there is no limit on the amount) to the D.C. Board of Trade PAC.”
With this kind of independent support, Jarvis could be the beneficiary of print and broadcast advertising, phone banks, more and slicker campaign literature—in short, the means to get her more widely recognized, and, perhaps, the means to get her elected.
The first two months of this campaign were run at a moderate pace, with Clarke and Jarvis elbowing their way out front, and the rest of the candidates bunched behind them in a pack. Now comes a two-week sprint to the end.
Although the Washington Post has paid attention to the race, TV news departments have almost entirely looked the other way. In fact, the only regular broadcast coverage has been less than compelling: Throughout August, the city’s public-access cable channel aired excerpts from the DCRC forum, and the University of the District of Columbia’s cable channel broadcast one-on-one interviews with Clarke, Jarvis, and Cropp. In every case, these half-hour segments offered a painful revelation about representative democracy: It’s a grand idea, but it lacks the drama of an Orioles game.
This is a band of candidates in search of charisma. Dave Clarke is known for hisabrasiveness, but he’s engaging before crowds, and he knows how to push the right buttons. When the Latino Civil Rights Task Force staged its candidate forum last week, Clarke drew the loudest applause when he dismissed Jarvis’ call for a new convention center: “I think a parking garage in Adams Morgan is more important,” he proclaimed. Strangely, Clarke’s ability to crystallize issues usually gives way to stodginess and policy-heavy gobbledygook, and the attention of his audience seems to just drift off.
Jarvis has the polished delivery of a career politician, but her rhetoric has a hollow ring: She seems to be in favor of every policy and proposal that might benefit the group she’s addressing. There’s simply no spontaneity, no fervor; rather than elucidating a plan she’s committed to, Jarvis comes across like someone programmed to deliver an appealing campaign message. She clearly has a following in the business community, but it’s a wonder she can elicit any enthusiasm from the grass-roots organizations. Or maybe she can’t.
The fact that Cropp is a former schoolteacher would surprise no one: One on one, she’s warm and charming and able to communicate her ideas; in front of a group, however, any salient proposals she may have are lost in a numbing monotone that sounds like it might go on until the 3:00 bell. Cropp may one day be a real force in District politics, but right now it sounds like her message—whatever exactly that is—hasn’t congealed.
Early in the campaign, forums were poorly attended, and these dialogues did not give candidates much opportunity to distinguish themselves from their opponents. The contestants were rarely, if ever, together for an event, and the formats typically gave them inadequate time to spell out their ideas in any depth.
The Aug. 4 forum hosted by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 20 was typical. The event was scheduled for 6:30, but when it finally started at 6:50, only a dozen people were on hand to hear Drissel, Fitzsimmons, and Jarvis. Clarke showed up moments later, during Jarvis’ opening statement which, unfortunately, would also be her closing statement: She had another commitment, and after offering to field questions in the three minutes before her scheduled departure, the organization’s leadership decided to stay with the original format. So Jarvis soon left, and the three remaining candidates were left to offer their one-minute answers to the meager crowd. In the end, Jarvis somehow won the group’s endorsement.
With little time to spell out their platforms, candidates have been forced to make the same abbreviated points, routinely substituting catchall slogans for the meat and potatoes of their platforms. Clarke’s opponents have experience with individual trees in the fiscal forest, but he’s always ready to point out that he’s the one with experience of the forest as a whole. Jarvis wants to build a new convention center because Washington is, as she says, the world’s capital, and there needs to be primacy on tourism and business. “We’re in a crisis situation,” Cropp says, referring to the city’s financial position. “I’m here because enough is enough,” intones Drissel, referring, it seems, to just about everything.
As the weeks passed, the frequency of the forums increased, and they were better attended; in some cases, they drew 100 or more spectators, and interest in the race seemed to be taking hold.
With questions about their platforms coming from a variety of constituencies, the candidates’ true colors have finally emerged. Clarke positions himself as the field’s only unabashed liberal. He trumpets his accomplishments in gun control, drug control, and rent control; the gangly control-freak now wants to dominate all matters financial: unfunded pension liabilities, bloated debt service, the size of the city’s work force. His experience, he says, distinguishes him from his opponents.
Jarvis is the unabashed pro-business candidate. She wants lower taxes for business, she wants a bigger convention center, she wants to make city agencies the friend of the city’s business community. She says the city’s fiscal problems need to be solved, and her experience makes her the natural choice to solve them.
Cropp is the choice of no clearly defined group, and her freshman status would seem to make her less qualified to tackle what she sees as critical areas—the District’s budget and accounting system, its pension and retirement systems, and its economic development. But campaign manager Smith thinks long experience is not necessarily an asset, and it’s one of the hopes on which a Cropp victory is pinned. “If the two opponents of Linda say experience is relevant,” says Smith, “then they should say why the city is in such a mess.”
Financial blight is the issue that the candidates believe the city’s residents—or at least its likely voters—are most concerned about, and they keep hammering away at it. But the details of their fix-it plans are hard to decipher, leaving many to speculate that the race will instead be decided by something obscure or unpredictable—a misstep in a debate; homeowner outrage over the size of tax bills; a scandal of some sort; the movement of a key bloc toward one camp or another.
For example: “There are among Democrats 4,000 people who can be called on to participate in an election as a worker, paid or unpaid,” says Allen Beach, an ANC commissioner in upper Northwest. “If they move to one candidate or another, it will make the difference.”
So far, however, they haven’t moved en masse, and reconnaissance shows no large group amassing on any border. So maybe something else will make the difference.
The city’s 26,000 registered Republicans, who tend to vote in large numbers, could make a difference if they gravitate in a bloc to a particular candidate. But with the GOP having ceded this election to the Democrats by not fielding a candidate or endorsing a candidate they believe they can best work with, the Republican vote seems less likely to be large or unified.
There’s also the Post‘s endorsement, which is still anybody’s to steal. The prevailing wisdom goes like this: Clarke has the necessary experience, but he’s too liberal and too eccentric for the paper’s editorial board. Jarvis will work well with the beleaguered business community, but her history of campaign-ethics violations taints her. Cropp is unencumbered by poisoned relationships with council colleagues, but her lack of budgetary experience makes her a questionable choice. Drissel and Orange may be able to shake things up by virtue of their being political neophytes with strong backgrounds in finance, but the Post endorsed a newcomer in the last mayoral race, and the city has suffered the consequences ever since. That only leaves Fitzsimmons, but a paper whose owner is a Fortune 500 bastion of capitalism might be reluctant to endorse a Socialist Workers Party candidate who’s calling for an abbreviated workweek with no cut in pay.
Maybe something about the candidates themselves—rather than their platforms or legislative experience—will be the deciding factor. Jarvis isn’t going to let anyone forget about Clarke’s reputation for being difficult to work with. At campaign appearances, she invariably reminds voters that she has the capacity to bring consensus on the council, that she’s “temperamentally suited” to be the chair of the city council—the inference being, of course, that Clarke can make no such claims.
This is certainly a liability for Clarke. Across a table, he avoids eye contact and is unable to conceal his annoyance with what he considers inappropriate questions or statements. His reputation for being combative clearly rankles him. When asked what it is about him that the voters aren’t aware of, Clarke can no find no positives to enunciate; there are no stories about friends or family, no anecdotes that might let the public see a side of Clarke he believes has been ignored. Instead, Clarke wants only to quash the rumors that have dogged him.
“The only thing people have been able to come up with about me is that I’m temperamental,” he says disgustedly. Suddenly, the person who can warm up a campaign crowd with humor is fuming—and for no apparent reason.
Jarvis has her own problems. In addition to her history of campaign-finance violations, there is the mystery of why she was unable to land a job in the Clinton administration.
Jarvis was a national co-chair for the Clinton/Gore campaign and was on the fast track to a major presidential appointment. When the dust settled, however, she had been named to the National Advisory Mental Health Council of the National Institute of Mental Health—hardly a cabinet-level position.
On June 7, three weeks after Wilson’s death, Jarvis wrote Clinton that, because she wanted to continue her public service in the District, she was withdrawing from consideration for an administration position. Jarvis’ council office released a copy of Clinton’s June 18 reply, which states: “While I am excited about your new opportunity, I am truly sorry that you will be unable to accept a position in my Administration.” Curiously, the letter is not written on White House stationery, it’s labeled “Draft,” and it’s not signed by Clinton.
What positions was Jarvis being considered for, and why would the White House release a draft of a letter rather than an official correspondence?
According to Cynthia Harris, Jarvis’ council spokesperson, Jarvis was having “casual discussions” about a job in the White House, but she was not actually under consideration for anything. As for the draft letter bearing Clinton’s name, Harris wasn’t sure if it originated in the White House transition office or in Jarvis’ own office. In either case, it’s been two months since the letter was drafted, and Jarvis still has not received any official correspondence from the president.
Clarke believes that Jarvis’ honesty is a potentially vulnerable spot for Jarvis, and he’s happy to make it an issue. In an interview, Clarke castigates Jarvis for a series of legislative flip-flops; he also says that during the fiscal year ’86 budget negotiations, Jarvis suggested that councilmembers receive $5,000 each per year to host convention center events—money, he claims, that she wanted to use for “turf building and slush-fund building.” As for councilmembers not publicly endorsing Clarke, there’s an easy explanation: “Maybe it’s because Jarvis is vindictive,” he says. “She’s built that reputation.”
“I’d confess to my problems with intensity,” he adds, “if she’d confess to her problems with integrity.”
In the end, this sniping may be a preview of what the race finally becomes: a bloody street fight between two bitter adversaries.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.