D.C. Council incumbent Jim Graham deflects opponents' brickbats by citing record

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), a powerful player on the D.C. Council, appears to have weathered recent scandals but must combat some residents' perception of him being too cozy with developers.
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The incumbent, one challenger alleged, took thousands in political donations from a developer who ran a "campaign of terror" against poor tenants. A second challenger said another four years for a three-term incumbent "would be far too many."

When it was his turn to respond at a candidates' forum, Jim Graham, the irrepressible D.C. Council member for Ward 1, dismissed his opponents with a rhetorical swipe. "They haven't talked about their records, and here's the reason: They don't have any," he said, before breezily conceding that his tenure has not been without blemish.

Graham, 64, rejected his challengers' allegations, saying he has worked to protect tenants and to expand development in Columbia Heights and on U Street NW. "I'm a human being," he said. "You can't be perfect all the time."

Among the council's most powerful players, Graham wields influence that extends well beyond Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and other Ward 1 neighborhoods in which he's a ubiquitous figure, cruising in his cream-colored Volkswagen convertible, fastidious in tortoise shell glasses, stylish suits and ever-present bow tie.

In a city of often drab bureaucrats, Graham is an outsize persona, handshaking and schmoozing his way through ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, spitting out e-mails containing announcements and crime updates, each bearing his signature sign off, "Bests, Jim."

Yet, Graham, who before his election in 1998 ran the Whitman-Walker Clinic, serving AIDS patients and Washington's gay community, is far more than a retail pol. His reach runs the gamut of Washington life: oversight of liquor regulations; access to millions in taxpayer funds to hand out to community groups; a seat on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. His network of supporters has poured more than $200,000 into his campaign, dwarfing the total raised by two lesser-known opponents.

Yet this campaign for reelection is unlike two Graham won by overwhelming margins. The main reason is the shadow cast by his former chief of staff, Ted G. Loza, who was indicted last fall on charges of accepting $1,500 in bribes to push legislation that would help some powerful players in the city's taxi business. Graham was not charged in the indictment, but he found his name thrust to the center of an embarrassing scandal.

To supporters, Graham is a fierce defender of the city's most densely populated and diverse ward. He champions projects that inject life into forlorn neighborhoods, attends to the smallest of urban migraines, such as potholes and broken street lamps, and balances the needs of competing interest groups, such as the bar owners and residents who quarrel over the quality of life near Adams Morgan's entertainment strip.

But his opponents in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan community leader, and Jeff Smith, a former D.C. school board member, portray Graham as a political boss overly cozy with the real estate industry, whose contributions account for a large portion of his campaign war chest.

Smith, 36, a Park View resident who directs an education advocacy group, likes to invoke Loza to disparage Graham, saying that the aide's indictment suggests that the incumbent "doesn't have a firm grasp" on his staff.

Confident supporters

Graham's supporters contend that the effects of the scandal seem minimal. His campaign last month trumpeted a poll it paid for that found that nearly 70 percent of likely Democratic voters support the incumbent in the primary. Still, at least two groups -- the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the D.C. Latino Caucus -- endorsed his opponents.

Despite his apparent cushion, Graham zealously guards his image. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but kept close tabs on the reporting -- telephoning and sending e-mails to Washington Post editors to complain that a reporter's questions to others suggested a negative bias. He eventually agreed to answer written questions.

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