Connecting experience to vision for D.C. has been a problem for Reta Jo Lewis


Reta Jo Lewis, a candidate for D.C. mayor, formally launched her campaign Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, with a rally and address at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington. (Mike DeBonis/Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

From her quaint beginnings in Bulloch County, Ga., to the administrations of a U.S. president, a secretary of state and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Reta Jo Lewis has amassed a resume unique among the D.C. mayoral candidates.

As a special assistant for political affairs to President Bill Clinton, Lewis organized a whirlwind U.S. visit by Nelson Mandela. She served as a senior staff director organizing the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She won a coveted spot on the Obama-Biden transition committee and worked to smooth relations between local and state governments around the globe for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In her travels and advocacy work, Lewis has launched and mentored the careers of bureaucrats, attorneys and lobbyists. Many of those now comprise the backbone of a small but fiercely loyal group of supporters who follow her to each mayoral forum and belt out applause each time she takes the microphone.

But the problem for Lewis, 60, has been translating her vast experience into a detailed and clear vision for how she would run the city’s vast municipal bureaucracy.

Lewis has said she would be a “team builder;” govern by “consensus;” make decisions in an “open and transparent manner,” and embody the kind of moral compass needed to guide the District beyond a series of ethical scandals.

The broad rhetoric has resonated with her core fan base, who say they’ve seen her put it into action behind the scenes as an effective political operative.

She has solved problems in board rooms of the U.S. chamber, for example, by uniting pro-business groups with unlikely partners, such as the Congressional Black Caucus. And after an earthquake devastated Haiti, she worked tirelessly at the State Department, supporters say, to make sure the Red Cross and other relief organizations could operate with the full backing of the U.S. government.

When Lewis announced her bid for mayor in November, she stressed her role as an outsider to city politics, assuming voters wanted a fresh start after three council members had resigned amid corruption charges, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) 2010 campaign remained under federal investigation.

She described being in the first desegregated seventh-grade class in Statesboro, Ga. “I guess you could say I was an outsider then, too,” she said.

Lewis, however, has yet to break through with voters. A Washington Post poll pegged her with low-single digit support among likely voters.

At her best, Lewis has needled the many incumbent politicians in the race, including for upending the will of voters by delaying plans for an election for a attorney general.

At a debate last month, longtime political analyst Mark Plotkin, cut to the chase, asking Lewis to respond to the Achilles heel of her campaign:

“You have wonderful qualities, but ...I’m gonna waste my vote, if I vote for Reta Lewis,” Plotkin said. “What do you say?”

“I say the only vote that matters is the one on Election Day,” Lewis said. “Can I win? If you send me to city hall to bring back integrity, transparency, and accountability.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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