Mayoral candidate Marie Johns has snagged some prime Ward 8 real estate for one of her huge banner campaign signs. Motorists passing through the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia can’t miss her “different. real. better!” slogan or the giant image of a smiling Johns.

The banner is tacked up on a wooden facade underneath a small “Welcome to Historic Anacostia” sign. The display wall also includes a placard advertising the owner of the corner lot: “UNION TEMPLE BAPTIST CHURCH: ‘WORKING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.’”

The Johns campaign isn’t paying anything for the space—it’s chalking it up as an in-kind donation from the church, according to campaign manager Leslie Pinkston.

But that free advertising might end up costing Johns some valuable political capital.

Union Temple is led by the Rev. Willie Wilson, who last summer angered D.C.’s gay community with a sermon outlining his rather intolerant take on homosexuality. The July 3 sermon, which was recorded and sold as a CD, ended up in the hands of the Washington Blade, sparking protests from gay leaders and prompting denunciations from a wide range of elected officials.

Some highlights from the now-famous sermon make it pretty clear why the gay community has issues with the charismatic minister:

  • “Lesbianism” is about “to take over our community.”
  • “[W]hen you get down to this thing, women falling down on another woman, strapping your up with something, it ain’t real….It ain’t natural”
  • “Any time somebody got to slap some grease on your behind, and stick something in you, it’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that.”

Not that anyone was that surprised at Wilson’s fiery outburst. He had already staked out a firm reputation for race baiting among D.C. politicos.

Wilson led an 1986 boycott of an Asian-owned takeout near his church after he said a member of his flock had been “disrespected” by a store owner. When asked by the press whether his demands that an African-American be allowed to run the business inflamed racial tensions, Wilson replied that if Anacostia residents had been less forgiving of the store owner, “we would have cut his head off and rolled it down the street.”

But Wilson can be valuable political ally for a newcomer like Johns. He commands the attention of legions of east-of-the-river voters and mounted a strong mayoral run in 2002. Since the sermon, though, gay activists and Wilson have remained bitter enemies. And some activists say Johns’ willingness to accept free space from his church constitutes a tacit Wilson endorsement.

“I would think if [Johns] was sufficiently plugged in she would be well aware of [Wilson’s] record of hate-mongering,” says Rick Rosendall of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, an advocacy group that does not endorse candidates. “She should stop pretending to be committed to tolerance if she’s not prepared to prove it.”

Pinkston, who says Johns was “in the field” and unavailable for comment, argues that the high-visibility donation has nothing to do with Wilson or any tacit backing of Johns’ effort. “It is not an endorsement. We haven’t even discussed an endorsement,” says Pinkston, who says she personally approached a Union Temple staffer about hanging the banner.

The campaign was looking for some high-profile exposure on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade route, she says. “[Johns] had no conversation with Mr. Wilson, or with the church directly….Bottom line, the location was ideal. The parade went right passed it.”

Pinkston declined to comment on how voters might react to even an arms-length political association with Wilson. “This campaign is really about building bridges and I would rather not get into the other sensitive issues at this time,” she says. “This is just about the banner.”

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