Barry Leaves Three Men and a Void
By Vanessa Williams
For months, the question of whether Barry would run has dominated all political discussions, frozen significant parts of the campaign apparatus and made it difficult for the declared Democratic candidates to get much attention.
The three D.C. Council members who are seeking the Democratic nomination in the September primary welcomed Barry's departure yesterday. But campaign strategists wonder if any of them can step into the vast void left in the city's political leadership.
"Now begins the future," Harold Brazil (At Large) said yesterday shortly before Barry made the expected announcement that he would not seek reelection.
Kevin P. Chavous (Ward 7) called Barry's withdrawal "a golden opportunity for all of Washington because we'll be able to hear an honest discussion and debate about the future of the city without the specter of Marion Barry hanging over it."
For Jack Evans (Ward 2), Barry's decision "removes from the mayor's race someone who is a larger-than-life figure, a big personality presence. It means the race isn't about Marion Barry; it [will be] about the city, which is what it should be about."
But some political strategists questioned whether Brazil, Chavous or Evans can spark the imagination and participation of the District's electorate the way Barry did in his first mayoral campaign and again in his stunning comeback in 1994 after serving time in prison for drug possession.
"The post-Barry period will be dull," said Ron Walters, professor of Afro-American Studies, Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. "Especially in this atmosphere where it's not clear what kind of power the mayor is going to have anyway . . . the diminishment of democracy has diminished the enthusiasm of people, and with [Barry] gone, that certainly will not augur well for bringing a lot of people out to vote."
Walters said the current field of candidates will not be able to inspire passion among voters. "I'm not the only person who has observed that this field of people vying for the mayoralship is lackluster. They don't have great records. . . . They're not charismatic."
But Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a businessman who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, thinks Barry's absence will create a more exciting race because voters will feel they actually have a chance to influence the outcome.
"In the past, [voters] had resigned themselves that the mayor would run and he would win," said Gildenhorn, owner of the American City Diner in Northwest Washington. "I think the voters are going to be more open-minded, enthusiastic and more focused on the candidates and the issues."
Elijah Rogers, who was city administrator during Barry's first term and who remained close to him, said he has not decided whom to support in the Democratic primary.
"I think what the community is looking for is somebody who has a vision for what the District of Columbia ought to look like in the year 2004, after four years of a new mayor," Rogers said. "People are looking for strong leadership. . . . I think people are tired of the same old thing, and if they sense the three announced candidates are basically saying the same old thing, you will not have as great a turnout."
A Washington Post poll, as well as the candidates' own surveys, indicates that a large number of District voters don't know enough about Brazil, Chavous or Evans to have an impression of them. When asked in the Post poll whom they would vote for if Barry were not in the Democratic primary, 35 percent of the respondents said they were undecided.
The Post poll suggests that Chavous, whose Ward 7 is tucked away in the eastern corner of the city and who has a large black middle class living alongside large numbers of low-income residents, would gain most from Barry's decision not to run.
Chavous would pick up 34 percent of the mayor's supporters, the poll found, while 21 percent said they would vote for Brazil and 12 percent would favor Evans.
Many of the people who support Chavous said they voted for Barry four years ago. According to the poll, six in 10 current Chavous supporters backed Barry in 1994, compared with 45 percent of Brazil's supporters and 44 percent of Evans's supporters.
Some of Barry's longtime kitchen cabinet of political advisers have said they would support Chavous if the mayor got out of the race.
Although Chavous doesn't argue with the poll numbers, advisers to Brazil and Evans are not willing to concede Barry's voters. They both note that a large percentage of Barry loyalists -- 33 percent -- said they were undecided about where to throw their support if Barry was not on the ballot.
"The issue about where the vote will go is really up in the air," said David Abramson, a former media consultant to Barry who is now an unpaid adviser to Evans. "There are just a ton of people, black and white alike, who feel truly unsure of an awful lot as relates to alliances, and all of that will clear up, I think, rather quickly" with Barry out of the race.
"I don't think anyone has a lock on the Barry vote," said Ron Lester, a former pollster for Barry who is now working for Brazil. "I think all three major candidates are going to have to go out and compete for it."
Lester said Barry's legendary base -- composed of at least 25 percent of the city's registered voters -- was disproportionately made up of African Americans, government workers and low-income residents, including senior citizens.
"The candidate that does the best job of addressing the issues those voters care about will be the candidate who ultimately succeeds in getting a large share of that vote," Lester said. "I am convinced that there will no longer be such as thing as 'the Barry vote.' I think Marion Barry was a unifying factor to a lot of voters, but without him in the field, I think they go to different candidates."
Barry's decision not to run for reelection was seen yesterday by some as ending the mayoral aspirations of Carol Schwartz, an at-large Republican on the D.C. Council. Four years ago, Schwartz received 42 percent of the vote against Barry in the general election. Her support largely came from voters -- most of them white, but some black -- who were horrified at the possibility of Barry returning to the mayor's office.
That Schwartz was able to capture such a large percentage of the ballots, even though Republicans make up a tiny fraction of the city's registered voters, was a testament to her skills as a street campaigner. But it also indicated a strong anti-Barry vote, even among Democratic voters.
In 1994, Barry bolstered his base by registering large numbers of young black men and women, especially residents who were unemployed, had experienced run-ins with the law or whose family members felt ill-treated by the criminal justice system. But Lester and other political scientists note that many of those one-time Barry constituents have not voted since and would be a difficult group to tap into for this year's election.
With Barry out of the race, the Post poll indicates Chavous would do particularly well with younger voters, at least those who bother to vote. Among registered Democrats younger than 30, Chavous was the choice of 30 percent of the respondents -- a seven percentage point advantage over Brazil and 17 points better than Evans.
But if young voters ignore the contest, city workers and senior citizens who do go to the polls will likely be watching carefully to see where to invest their votes.
Charles Hicks, an official with Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was relieved yesterday that Barry had declined to seek a fifth term.
"With the mayor out of it, it kind of opens the field up for everybody," Hicks said. "If Barry had run he would have won because he had votes locked in, people loyal to him and supportive of him."
Hicks said that although Chavous is his "personal favorite . . . I don't think anybody has a lockdown. . . . Things can happen."
Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company