Safe Seat? Activist takes aim at provision that protects Schwartz?s minority-party sinecure.
Safe Seat? Activist takes aim at provision that protects Schwartz?s minority-party sinecure. Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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Every now and then LL delivers a sharp elbow to one of his favorite characters on the D.C. politics scene. Last week, the recipient was ubiquitous Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.

The context was the following: LL was explaining how those who wished to curry favor with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray could simply help out Yvette Alexander, Gray’s endorsee for the open Ward 7 seat. Here’s the key sentence. “Legendary suck-up and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham recently attended a fundraiser for Gray’s candidate at Creme Cafe on U Street NW.”

Graham was outraged. So outraged, in fact, that he wouldn’t deign to speak with LL. To plead his case, Graham went straight to LL’s boss, Washington City Paper Editor Erik Wemple. In a short conversation, Graham argued that the slight was off-base, irresponsible, and nasty. He pointed out that during his council tenure, he has tilted against vested interests such as bad landlords and big developers. That’s not the career of a suck-up.

Graham demanded that the paper either apologize or document its contention. LL hereby takes a stab at the latter approach.

Incident No. 1: Back in 2002, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams appeared before the council to testify about a nonprofit fundraising scandal roiling the executive suite, most lawmakers hammered the mayor from the dais. Some questioned his truthfulness, others hinted at a cover up. Graham—who was then a big backer of a mayor with soaring approval ratings—offered this statement: “Mr. Mayor, you’re a great leader in this city.”

Incident No. 2: Despite polls circulated by Graham showing he could win the 2004 at-large city council race, Graham decided against a run in order to please then-Chairman Linda Cropp. According to Graham, she asked him not to bolt from his Ward 1 seat in order to stave off a racially divisive contest against already fading At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who is an African-American. Graham is white. Not only did Graham get a chance to please the council’s top power broker, he talked incessantly about what an honorable deed he had done—even though it wasn’t his idea.

Incident No. 3: During the early stages of the stadium debate in 2004, Graham made it clear that he could be convinced to vote for the Nationals’ new ballpark in Southeast, provided the mayor threw in some cash for recreation centers and libraries. The basic question of whether the city should use its financial might to help a bunch of super rich guys build a stadium did not seem paramount in the Graham equation. When Graham’s demands were not met—and voter unrest about the stadium deal grew—he quickly jumped into the haters camp and became a strident critic of the proposal. He recently joked about how many times he had voted against the awful stadium deal—at a groundbreaking for a Metro stop that will serve the ballpark.

Incident No. 4: Graham knows a rising political star when he sees one. He glommed on to Mayor Adrian Fenty from the first day of the young phenom’s mayoral exploratory effort. In fact, Graham introduced his young colleague at the first official Fenty exploratory bash at the home of Bill Lightfoot in January 2005. He heaped on the praise again during a Mount Pleasant fundraiser a few weeks later, bringing up…

Incident No. 5: Not long after Graham was hyperventilating about Fenty, Cropp began making noises about running for mayor. The shift in the landscape forced Graham to figure out whether endorsing the council’s grand poo-bah made more sense than taking a chance on Fenty, who could have turned out to be the flavor of the month. He stopped showing up at Fenty events and declared himself neutral in the race. Graham even refused to put on a Fenty campaign sticker that was handed to him by a volunteer. Graham’s explanation: “I had to do what was best for Ward 1.”

Incident No. 6: LL might be able to chalk up Graham’s bail on Fenty to pragmatism if not for one thing: When it became clear that Fenty would win the mayor’s race and Cropp would become a has-been, Graham jumped aboard the Fenty wagon. It was a daring move that came after several private polls and the Washington Post predicted a Fenty landslide. Graham gave his public blessing five days prior to the primary election and was rewarded with a spot onstage next to Fenty on election night, high above the huge group of campaign workers who actually helped deliver Fenty’s victory.

Since then? The guy who wanted to make sure he didn’t piss off Cropp now refers to Fenty’s gaggle of unproven nominees to key city posts as “truly inspired” choices.

OK, maybe LL got it wrong. Graham probably deserves one of the following labels: Mr. Bandwagon, Mr. Fence-Sitter, or Mr. Opportunistic. Yeah, those might be more precise than Legendary Suck-Up.

LL apologizes for the choice of words, Mr. Graham.

Fire Sale

In the crowded Ward 7 D.C. Council special election field, Yvette Alexander did very well at her fundraising event on Saturday. As expected, she was officially endorsed by Council Chairman Gray. At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown—a Ward 7 resident—also gave his nod to the longtime community activist.

But what the Alexander campaign really needed was an endorsement from someone outside the Ward 7 political power structure—a plug to show that Alexander can make an impression independent of her powerful backers.

The boost came by way of Dan Dugan, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. At the event, he talked about how impressed the union was when they interviewed Alexander in preparation for deciding who to endorse in the 20-strong Ward 7 field. When thanking Dugan for his support, Alexander commented about how hard she had worked to get ready for the interview and how tough the Q-and-A session was.

Quite a grilling, then, huh? Perhaps charade is a better word: The firefighters didn’t talk to any other candidates.

So far, LL hasn’t found another Ward 7 candidate who was even contacted by our first-responders union. “She got the exclusive,” quips Victor Vandell, the candidate wearing Fenty colors on his campaign signs and getting checks from the people who also give to Fenty. “It’s funny, I’ve received letters, e-mails, and phone calls from all kinds of groups trying to make sure I fill out their candidate questionnaires, but nothing from the firefighters.”

Could it have been a simple oversight on the part of the union? “You see how hard it is to contact me,” says candidate Greg Rhett, who answered on the first ring to the number published for him on the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Web site.

Dugan confirms that Alexander was the only candidate interviewed by his political committee. “We did research on the top three or four contenders and then took it from there,” he says, although Dugan couldn’t name any other top contenders “off the top of my head.”

He says one of his political action committee members ID’d Alexander as a woman on the rise and that currying good will with Gray had nothing to do with their endorsement. Dugan figures the union voted to endorse her “on or around Feb. 22.” That was more than a week after the Post reported that Gray would be backing Alexander. “We were not aware that the chairman had endorsed her,” Dugan says.

It’s not as if the firefighters couldn’t use a boost at the Wilson Building. The union endorsed Gray’s opponent, Kathy Patterson, in the 2006 Democratic primary. That made it 0 and 2 with its backing of Linda Cropp in the mayor’s race.

Never Too Early

We all know the hot formula for success in D.C. politics these days: Start early. Mayor Fenty was essentially running for the city’s top post the day after he was reelected to his Ward 4 council seat in 2004. Some politicos attribute Cropp’s failure to catch up to Fenty to her late start—she formally announced her campaign a year before the election.

But attorney and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dee Hunter may have just taken the first-out-of-the-gate imperative a bit too seriously.

The other day, Hunter, who was going door-to-door in the John A. Wilson Building handing out letters of support for the mayor’s school reform legislation, stopped LL in the halls. “I’m going to take on [At-Large Councilmember] Carol Schwartz,” Hunter excitedly said. He was talking about the 2008 at-large council race. He claims attorney and D.C. political mover and shaker Don Dinan will serve as his treasurer. Dinan did not return calls seeking comment.

Hunter says he’s had it with the District’s bizarre, federally imposed election code that requires two of the four at-large members of the council be from the non-majority party. In the minds of many D.C. pols, that little provision has been the main reason Republican Schwartz has stayed in office for three terms.

So Hunter plans to dump his lifelong Democratic Party label and run as what he calls an “independent Democrat.”

Schwartz refuses to size up possible opponents just yet. “Judging from the interest in the special elections, I’m sure we will have lots of interest in the at-large race,” she says. “I don’t plan to comment on every person who says they plan on running.”

Hunter is also mulling a legal challenge to the set-aside system. “I’m working with [American University Law School Professor and Maryland State Sen.] Jamin Raskin,” says Hunter. Raskin says, sure, he’s consulted with Hunter on the matter. He even thinks a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the set-aside would have merit. But Raskin doesn’t really have the time to undertake major litigation while working as a full-time professor and serving in the general assembly.

Hunter later conceded that he may have been overly exuberant with his hallway declaration to LL, saying he isn’t ready to “roll out” the whole campaign. “We’ll be ready to go in April,” Hunter says.

Web Extra: Fenty Allies Take Over Ward 7 Campaign

You can add one more voter to the list of people annoyed with Ward 7 council candidate Victor Vandell’s embrace of the Fenty colors, game plan, and campaign team.

This time it’s Vandell’s campaign chairman. Jerome Brocks—who has been with Vandell since the beginning of his quest for the Ward 7 seat—has resigned his post, because he says the Fenty mayoral team that Vandell was once part of is now in charge.

“I started the campaign,” says Brocks, “and now they have people from Ward 4 running it.”

Well, maybe not actual Ward 4 residents, but certainly the Fenty faithful. In particular, Brocks is disturbed by the intimate involvement of former paid Fenty campaign workers Sinclair Skinner and LaMont Harrell. “The idea that people from outside the ward are in charge of this does not sit well with me,” he says.

Brock made his resignation official in a letter to Vandell.

The resignation is a strange twist for Brocks. For several months, he’s been fending off charges that Vandell isn’t really from the ward. The candidate moved from Ward 6 into Deanwood about two years ago. His newcomer status was highlighted by Gray during his endorsement speech for Alexander.

Vandell has mostly praise for Brocks. “He’s been one of the foremost strategic people responsible for moving our campaign from ground zero to being a front-running campaign. But he’s also very emotional, sometimes maybe a little overly emotional,” says Vandell, who doesn’t rule out a reunion with Brocks. “There will always be a place for him on this campaign.”

Vandell dismisses Brocks’ claim that “outsiders” dominate his team. “That is absolutely not true,” says the candidate. “There are tons of Ward 7 people involved in my campaign.”

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