Fourteen years ago, Marie Drissel was looking for a savior.
Marion Barry was limping to the end of his fourth term as mayor and the city wasn’t just broke, but broken. A federally imposed control board was the de facto city ruler, put in place because Congress didn’t trust the city to manage its own budget. Looking to replace Barry were three sitting councilmembers: Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, and Jack Evans.
Drissel and several other activists were not impressed with the options. So they went looking for an outsider to run, one with the financial bonafides they thought necessary to lead the city. Their top pick: the city’s wonky, bow-tied chief financial officer, Tony Williams. Drissel and some other city activists ran a “draft Williams” campaign to convince the CFO to run. They succeeded, and though he got into the race late, Williams won handily, highlighting the fact that Drissel & Co. weren’t the only ones dissatisfied with the crop of already elected choices.
Now Drissel is back at it. She is currently putting out feelers to her old “draft Williams” cohorts to see if anyone would be interested in getting the band back together. She says there’s strong interest in the nascent effort to find someone who has the law-and-order background she now says is needed to run a city that’s been battered by scandal after scandal.
“Before we were in a financial crisis,” says Drissel, who almost single-handedly derailed the city’s bid to legalize Internet gambling last year. “Now I believe we’re in a corruption crisis.”
Two councilmembers have resigned this year, later pleading guilty to felony charges. Three campaign aides or associates of Mayor Vince Gray have also taken plea deals that indicate that the mayor’s 2010 campaign was rife with illegality. The vigorous federal investigation of Gray has many believing he won’t last his full term, or that even if he does, he’ll be so weakened that he won’t seek a second one. (When asked about a second term, Gray—who hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing—says he’s just focused on the job at hand.
Drissel won’t say whom she’s trying to draft, though one potential candidate LL hears folks talking about is Eric Washington, chief justice of the D.C. Court of Appeals. Washington was recently head of the national Conference of Chief Judges, spent time working on Capitol Hill, and worked at the powerhouse law firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells). He’s also shown some interest in local politics, heading the D.C. Democratic State Committee from 1992 to 1995.
“He’d be fabulous,” Drissel says of Washington. Through a spokeswoman, Washington declined to comment.
The head judge isn’t the only fantasy candidate tossed around these days. The Washington Post recently reported on a poll that asked voters how they felt about Michael Powell, a Virginia Republican and former Federal Communications Commission chairman whose father used to run the Army and the State Department. Powell told the paper he’s not interested in a job in D.C. politics.
Other names being dropped include U.S. Attorney Ron Machen and his top deputy, Vinnie Cohen Jr., both of whom, of course, are quite familiar with the federal investigations now engulfing the Wilson Building. Both have said they’re focused only on their current jobs.
For the members of the D.C. Council who are poised to run, talk of an outsider is a pesky unknown in their electoral calculus.
“It’s the X-factor,” says an aide to one of the current councilmembers likely to launch a mayoral bid, who spoke under condition of anonymity because the councilmember hasn’t officially declared anything yet.
So why all the fantasizing about an outsider? On a certain level, it seems natural that there’d be a certain level of disgust with all of city’s elected officials given the steady stream of scandals. After all, a recent Post poll found that a majority of residents haven’t a clue who most councilmembers even are. But there’s also an element that goes beyond mere guilt by association. Each councilmember who is considering a mayoral run, or are in pre-campaign mode, comes with his or her own unique baggage. Herewith, a cheatsheet:
• Muriel Bowser: Plenty of people expect Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser to make a strong push for mayor, and it’s easy to see why. She’ll have the kingmaking Ward 4 as her base, access to the money machine of her political patron, Adrian Fenty, and she’s an African-American woman, a demographic that tends to make up a large share of the electorate in D.C. campaigns.
But Bowser is tight with the city’s old guard, as evidenced by large campaign donations she’s received from lobbyist David Wilmot and Medicaid contractor Jeff Thompson, who allegedly financed an illicit shadow campaign that helped get Gray elected. She’s also got a slightly tin ear on ethics matters; she told Kojo Nnamdi in January that she’s “very proud” of all the donations she’s received from corporations and developers. In an election where a pay-to-play culture is likely to be on voters’ minds, she might want to lose that talking point.
• Jack Evans: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has not made it a secret that he’s running for mayor at the next available opportunity and recently met with Fenty to gauge who, if anyone, the former mayor might endorse. In his public statements, Evans has played up his 20-plus years on the council, saying he’d provide the steady hand the city needs. But it’s going to be a hard sell to most of the city’s voters that a white guy from Georgetown deserves to be mayor just because he’s been around for a while. In an election where ethics is sure to be a hot topic, Evans will also have to explain his affinity for top-of-the-line sporting tickets paid for by deep-pocketed donors and other odd incidents, like the time he used his political action committee to pay for a girlfriend’s trip to China. Evans has never been accused of breaking the law, but those episodes will still be an easy target for his opponents—after all, as LL and others have observed, the real scandal in politics is often what’s legal.
• Vincent Orange: It would be hard to imagine a mayoral election without At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who has run for virtually every elected office in town. Orange won his last two elections by winning the mostly African-American votes in Wards 5, 7, and 8, while his opponents split the white vote in other parts of the city. A similar scenario might play out among Bowser, Evans, and Wells. Might Orange be tempted to see if he can make it three in a row?
“He’ll obviously take a shot,” says an aide close to Orange.
But if things turn sour for the mayor, it won’t be good news for Orange. Some of the key players in the alleged shadow campaign—including Thompson, Jeanne Harris, and Vernon Hawkins—all played roles in Orange’s special election victory of 2011. Orange has declared himself absolved of any wrongdoing related to suspicious money order donations tied to Thompson, because he correctly reported all those donations to the Office of Campaign Finance. Still, in a scandal-weary city, “I did the bare minimum to comply with loose regulations on disclosure!” isn’t much of a rallying cry.
• Tommy Wells: Like Evans, Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells hasn’t made it a secret that he wants to be mayor. He recently shared with Roll Call that he thinks he’d have a lock on independent voters, who’d be eligible to vote in a special election should Gray not finish his term (under normal circumstances, Wells would have to win a Democratic primary to get a shot at the job). “Clearly a special election benefits me more so than anybody else,” Wells said.
LL’s not so sure about that. Wells has been far ahead of his colleagues on calling out the council’s pay-to-play culture and has rabid supporters among the city’s growing smart-growth set. But Wells will have to convince large swaths of a skeptical black electorate that his push for a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly city isn’t a veiled attempt to speed up gentrification. He’s been making quiet guest appearances at ANC meetings and meet-and-greets outside his ward lately to introduce himself to voters. At one event, according to Ron Williams, an advisor to Wells, a woman in the audience said “a lot of folks are asking how ‘liveable, walkable’ fits into their lives,” referring to Wells’ past campaign slogan. Williams says the crowds east of the river have been receptive to Wells’ message, but that doesn’t mean Wells will win any votes.
But LL doesn’t want to let all this naysaying stop Wells, Orange, Evans, or Bowser from running in the next citywide election. As far as LL is concerned, the more flawed candidates, the merrier. Most voters, of course, may see things a little differently.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.