TIME TO THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT WHO GETS OUR VOTE
[from August 1998 issue]
Even though we're still a colony and the Control Board is in charge and the Constitution still gives the Congress the authority, whether we like it or not, to do what it pleases, this year's voting exercise may be one of the most crucial ever. After all, if we can bring new dynamism to the council and a new image to the mayor's office, we may actually be able to realize the return of home rule in our lifetime.
Let's start with the city council, largely because the race most important to us right this minute--when we say "us" we mean a major segment of this newspaper's audience--is going to be what happens in Ward 1. Yes, at-large council races are also critical , but we can hold discussion of those until we visit this topic again on September 11. And, yes, mayor is important too, and we will get to that below.
As readers of this newspaper may recall, we have over the years bemoaned missed opportunities for real digging by the council as a whole and for a notable absence of knowledgeably aggressive performance of duty by many individual members. We don't mean th e occasional political grandstanding that seems to be an election season activity, but on-going informed probing, investigating, brainstorming, and constructing sensible solutions in the manner of at-large member David Catania, Ward 3 member Kathy Patters on, or Ward 6 member Sharon Ambrose, for example.
Why didn't we include Ward 1 member Frank Smith, Jr. in the above, distinguished short list? Since election to the council ought not be a popularity contest, notwithstanding that Frank Smith is a warm and decent person, we think his performance--overall-- over the many years he has represented the ward has been lacking.
For example, it has disturbed us for some time to know that it was during his "watch" as chairman of the council's oversight committee responsible for the city's housing agencies and programs that the whole house of cards collapsed. The handwriting had be en on the wall long before the collapse and a vigilant chairman would have insisted on hard-hitting hearings to hold the bureaucrats responsible for the mess to answer publicly and to insist on corrective action or out the door. But nothing was ever done and so in due course the courts stepped in and took all these responsibilities away from the city because of years of mismanagement. We contend this would not have come to pass if the council, through its committee with the assigned jurisdiction, had been doing its job.
Why didn't Smith vigorously pursue these matters? Was it because the appointees were buddies of Smith's good friend the mayor and he was too nice a guy to embarrass Marion Barry? Or was it that he just wasn't up to the challenge of being a "junkyard dog" sort of chairman? Or, maybe, even by then, he was just getting burned-out. It doesn't really matter anymore, except for the fact that thousands of low-income citizens--large numbers of whom are his own constituents--got the short end of the stick from the government they thought they could, and should have been able to, trust.
So what to do? We say, when the Democrats go to the polls to vote in their primary on September 15 they ought to cast their ballot for Jim Graham. He's extremely bright, energetic, immensely knowledgeable about the workings of government, and genuinely ca ring about the welfare of the average person in the street. We also think the possibility of having someone with his background, which includes serving as a staff attorney on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (back in the days when the outstanding Democratic Senator Abe Ribicoff was chairman) and building up from virtually nothing what became under his tenure as CEO one of the premiere health care service agencies in the nation (the Whitman-Walker Clinic), would be a real plus for both the council as it pursues its daily work and for the citizens of Ward 1.
We think our colleague Jose Sueiro, publisher of the highly regarded La Nacion newspaper here in DC, may have stated the case the best when he penned the following assessment in his July 31, 1998 editorial:
". . . Mr. Smith is of the old school of politics, a strategy mastered by our Mayor of calling upon racial distinctions or economic disparities that divide us as opposed to seeking common ground and shared goals. Indeed some of what disturbs us is that Mr . Smith is very much a part of the Barry era, and that era is over.
". . . Mr. Graham is . . . someone who is his own man and is going to step up to the challenges facing our Ward. He draws attention to his work and his ambitions. He is not soft or quiet. He makes his positions known. He is someone who is going to lead in the Ward and on the Council. Ward 1 needs someone of his stature who will shake up the city and bring greater attention to Ward 1. We believe that Mr. Graham will quickly become one of the most effective, talented and committed Councilmembers."
We couldn't agree more.
Now, what about the Democratic candidates for mayor? Out of the blue charges Tony Williams on his white horse and everyone seems enormously enamored, including our own insightful op-ed columnist and contributing editor, Michael Romanello. Readers of his " Perspective" column this month will be offered a different take on the mayor's race than in this space.
We don't deny that Williams is a bright and articulate man--and we do like his public personality (we've never actually met him), but we're not ready to say, "He's the one." We're not so sure that it is a totally good thing that he's quite a newcomer to o ur city. Many of our neighbors think that is actually good because it suggests there is no "good ol' boy" network for him to curry favor with, and vice-versa. Actually, we don't buy that argument: The good ol' boys have already zeroed in, and he has embra ced them. We are especially apprehensive about the old Barry pals and hangers-on Rev. Willie Wilson and boxing promoter Rock Newman, who's also a close buddy of Cora Barry (who once seemed to despise "Mr. Bow Tie," as she would call him). What's all this tell us? It tells us we'd better be real careful indeed.
We read in Mr. Romanello's column that Williams assures us citizens that should he be elected, yes, these two operatives in the ol' boy network "will have access; the lady I spoke with at a shelter last night and who gave me a dollar will have access; and so will people who have given me $10,000. Everyone who supports me will have access, equally." Yeah, right. If anyone believes that they probably are the same people who believe the world is still flat. We can guarantee that when that nice lady from the shelter who stuffed a dollar bill into Williams' hand calls his office next year (if he gets elected, of course) and has a genuine problem that needs his help because the rest of the system has been giving her the heave-ho, she won't get past the outer of fice receptionist. We'll bet our front yard on that!
No, we are not convinced he's the right person even though he seems to say many of the right things and is a dynamic presence overall. And, even though he says many good things, he's also got us mighty worried with his agenda to push a gross receipts, or "business activity," tax plan. He does not seem to be aware that such a plan would drive out the major law firms, trade associations and other non-profit organizations to Virginia and Maryland, even with his $1 million threshold. Does he know what an abso lute disaster a similar system has been for Pittsburgh? He ought to take a trip up there and talk to members of its city council.
But $1 million is not much when you're talking big payrolls and receipts flowing in and out. And to say that it will be embraced by the business community when it's understood that it will replace other taxes like professional license fees or the Arena ta x, for example, doesn't really impress us. After all, most professionals who work in large firms pay their own fees directly, and those fees are only a few hundred dollars at the most, so their firms won't be saving on that score. And, what about the Aren a tax? Why is anyone still being forced to pay it? It should be done away with entirely. It's a subsidy to Abe Pollin and the MCI Arena that's gone on long enough. Why are they getting subsidized by businesses, many of which are being competed against by the Pollin operation?
That brings us to Jack Evans. We believe he is a highly credible candidate in the Democratic primary. He may not have lots of flash, and he may be a bit stiff in public, but so what? We think he has great skills and deep knowledge about the myriad issues which confront our city. And, when it comes to being "smart," which everyone seems to think Williams has a lock on, our readers should not forget that Evans' academic credentials are every bit as impressive as those of Williams, including having a degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance.
Also, we feel very comfortable that Evans has a deep understanding of legal and judicial issues. There's a lot more to worry about that numbers; there's a host of law-related policy and operational issues that we believe Evans is fully cognizant about. Th is is of vital concern. We recognize that he has had a few slips here and there in that regard, but, on balance, nothing that he hasn't corrected. (We were even quite delighted to see that he came around to accepting our contention that the Carol Schwartz "Chardonnay Lady" bill, as we like to call it, was the right approach after all.)
And, we also feel comfortable that Evans understands that the gross receipts tax idea is a potential disaster--even for the thousands of micro-businesses in the city which are responsible for so much employment. Now, Williams says the tax wouldn't apply t o those small businesses, but there are similar proposals with lower thresholds that would; and Williams' prestige behind the concept gives added life to the overall idea. We think the idea should be killed outright, and Evans feels the same because Evans has functioned in the real world in his earlier career and knows its reality. And that's very important in our view.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Contributing Editor Michael Romanello's August "op-ed" commentary takes an entirely opposite view than our main editorial on the matter of the Williams candidacy. For this reason, we are including his piece so as to provide visitors to our website with differing viewpoints.
ANTHONY WILLIAMS AND JIM GRAHAM SHOULD GET THE RESPECTIVE DEMOCRATIC NOMINATIONS FOR MAYOR AND THE WARD 1 COUNCIL SEAT
In mid-June, this column reported the results of a straw poll conducted the day after former District chief financial officer Anthony Williams announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor. Although all of those interviewed for tha t poll said they knew little about Tony Williams or about his stand on various issues, the consensus was that Williams is the only Democratic mayoral candidate free of blame for the governmental mismanagement and abuses that led to the creation of the Fin ancial Control Board and brought on congressional micro management of District affairs. The column ended by predicting that this year's primary election campaign was going to result in a "very interesting summer."
Eight weeks later most would agree that politically speaking, the summer has not only been interesting, it's been exciting. And, the summer is not over yet. Washingtonians can expect the weather and campaign rhetoric to heat up dramatically in the remaini ng four weeks before the September 15 primary.
While Democratic mayoral nomination seekers Kevin Chavous, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil stick to the long-revered campaign formula of kissing babies, telling voters what they think they want to hear and not making waves, Tony Williams goes about explainin g why and how business owners and poor folks will both benefit from a well thought out economic development policy and a more equitable tax system. He talks about why the condition of District schools and the expertise of its teachers cannot be separated from discussions about attracting new residents and businesses, and expanding the tax base. Hardly an advocate of trying to solve problems by throwing money at them, Williams explains why crime prevention programs, law enforcement and well-founded social programs go hand-in-hand in helping to create a safer, more livable and people-friendly city. This is a radical approach to campaigning in the District of Columbia and one that seems to be paying off.
As majority party incumbents, Chavous, Evans and Brazil are hard-pressed to make a convincing case for their candidacies. Although each has enjoyed three terms on city council, none of them has distinguished himself as a whistle blower or defender of soun d fiscal policies and good government. Instead, each is viewed as being a good ol' boy who played the game by the rules while Washington lurched inexorably toward the financial abyss. What about them has changed to foster confidence in the electorate? The answer seems clear; nothing has changed. They are each good, honest and well-intentioned men, but is that of itself reason enough to elect any of them mayor? More and more people are saying no, that is not enough reason.
Of the three, only Chavous has a hope of beating Tony Williams. Burned by Williams's back-to-back successes in the Ward 1 and Ward 2 Democratic Party endorsement votes, Chavous has begun to take off his gloves. His problem, though, is that Williams's camp aign strategy has created a situation in which Chavous can do little more than shadow box.
Evans, some whose most ardent supporters admit off-the-record never really had much of a chance of gaining the nomination, is also feeling the heat.
"Evans is beginning to act as if he woke up the morning after the Ward 2 vote and found his wife practicing tying a bow tie in bathroom mirror," said one ANC commissioner from Ward 2. No longer Mr. Happy, Evans too has begun attacking Williams instead of trying to explain his own agenda. This is a bad sign and not one that is being missed by some of Evans's long-time supporters. We can expect to see some quiet departures from the Evans camp in the coming weeks.
Harold Brazil's campaign is in danger of becoming footnote to this year's election.
With its fund-raising momentum already dead in the water some of Brazil's key supporters and volunteers are beginning to jump ship. In an attempt to halt defections Brazil has trained his guns on Williams and switched them to full automatic: Williams is a bean counter, says Brazil; Williams was responsible for dropping people from the city payroll and for cutting social services at the height of the District's financial crisis, he asserts; Williams, Brazil charges, is surrounded by long-time Marion Barry supporters, including Ivanhoe Donaldson.
Asked during an August 7 telephone interview about Donaldson's involvement in his campaign, Williams exclaimed, "No, no, no! [Donaldson] is not involved in the campaign, and he does not speak for me."
Tony Williams's candidacy has sparked excitement within the business community and revived interest in the electoral process among voters. In less than two months, politically unknown Williams has accumulated a campaign chest of nearly $400,000, attracted a 1,000-plus volunteer force from across the city, won endorsement by the Washington Teachers Union, all but knocked Council Member Harold Brazil out of the mayoral race, whipped Council Members Jack Evans (312/43) and Kevin Chavous (312/159) in the Ward 1 Democratic Party endorsement vote, and humiliated Evans on his home turf by denying him the Ward 2 Democratic endorsement.
How can a low key man with a fondness for bow ties go from being a virtually unknown bureaucrat to the front runner in a race to be mayor of the nation's capital?
The answer is simple. Tony Williams is so far above the competition when it comes to brain power and the ability--and demonstrated willingness--to make the tough and often unpopular decisions good mayors have to make that even the most unsophisticated vot er can see the difference.
Two notable endorsements Williams received recently were by Barry friend and advisor Rev. Willie Wilson of the Union Baptist Temple in Anacostia, and by boxing promoter Rock Newman. As with Donaldson, involvement in the Williams campaign by these individu als has led to attacks by the other candidates. However, Williams's reaction to these attacks has been quite different.
Tony Williams responds to his attackers by saying that he welcomes and values Wilson's and Newman's support. Williams does not equivocate when he responds to those who have expressed concern about the access to him Wilson and Newman will have should he be come mayor. "They will have access; the lady I spoke with at a shelter last night and who gave me a dollar will have access; and so will people who have given me $10,000. Everyone who supports me will have access, equally," he said.
It is exactly this type of forthright honesty and refusal to be intimidated by critics for taking actions he believes are right that cause Tony Williams to stand out in the crowd. This, combined with the almost tangible aura of integrity and ability that Williams exudes has taken his mayoral campaign very far very quickly. Because of these qualities more and more people, including this columnist, believe Anthony Williams should be, must be the Democratic mayoral nominee.
Former Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Jim Graham's bid to unseat long-time Councilmember Frank Smith, Jr. has also sparked voter interest. Like his colleagues on council Chavous, Evans and Brazil, Smith is rightfully perceived as being a nice guy who has done little lately to improve the quality of life of his constituents or to support good, rational governance down at Judiciary Square.
Graham, on the other hand, during his tenure at Whitman-Walker has proved himself principled, innovative, fiscally capable, a good administrator and committed to improving the lot of others. For these reasons and others, challenger Graham, not incumbent S mith, received the Ward 1 Democratic Party endorsement.
Is Graham the perfect candidate? Does he have the answers to all the city's problems? The answer to both questions is of course, no. However, given the opportunity, Graham seems to be capable of great things. If for no other reason, Jim Graham should be t he Democratic Party nominee for council from Ward 1.
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