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As a Longtime Activist, Clarke Championed Rights of D.C. Residents

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page A10

Dave Clarke

D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke gives a speech during his 1993 swearing-in ceremony. Juana Arias/The Washington Post
David A. Clarke, 53, the chairman of the D.C. Council whose ties to the African American community and deep commitment to liberal causes gave him a rare ability to appeal to District voters across racial and economic lines, died Thursday night at his home in Northwest Washington. He had central nervous system lymphoma, a fatal form of brain cancer.

Clarke began feeling ill in mid-1996 but continued working until Dec. 30, when he entered Georgetown University Hospital for tests. In mid-February, with his illness still unidentified, he was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A diagnosis was announced March 10, and he returned to his Mount Pleasant home a few days later.

Through more than 20 years of elective politics in the District, Clarke was a passionate champion for civil rights and self-government for the District. An advocate for organized labor, the elderly and the least fortunate among the city's residents, he became the highest-ranking white officeholder in a city where 70 percent of the population is African American.

He grew up in the District, came of age in the city in the 1960s and embraced the great causes of that time: civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, consumer and tenant rights, and abolition of the death penalty.

Dave Clarke
David Clarke in 1974.
In the 1970s, Clarke was the architect of the District's Firearms Controls Act, which outlaws all handguns not registered with the police chief before Sept. 24, 1976. He also sponsored legislation to assess private homes at a lower tax rate than commercial property. In the 1980s, he fought for rent control and co-sponsored the Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act, which prohibits condominium conversions unless the majority of tenants approve and low- and moderate-income elderly tenants are allowed to stay. He also helped enact one of the country's most liberal "right to shelter" laws for the homeless.

In the 1990s, he successfully waged a fight against efforts to reintroduce the death penalty in the District. And, while trying to save the city from financial chaos, he still argued that reductions in the number of D.C. government employees should be achieved through attrition rather than layoffs.

Clarke's ardent support for home rule was fueled by personal experience. He often told the story of how at age 12 he applied to be a congressional page only to find that it was impossible because, as a resident of the District, he had no member of Congress to sponsor him.

"It was on that day that I dedicated myself to home rule for the District," he told a reporter more than 30 years later. "I had a stake in this whole thing, and injustice anywhere was injustice everywhere, and the injustice the civil rights movement was fighting against was the same injustice that was denying my city and me home rule."

President Clinton, in a statement released yesterday, called Clarke "a public servant who dedicated more than 20 years of his life to the District of Columbia. He was a champion for the city's poorest residents, for District government employees, and for the need to increase affordable housing. He will be dearly missed by all of those whose lives he touched."

And Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement that Clarke "never hesitated to stand up, often at unpopular times, to defend the District's working men and women. . . . His presence will be greatly missed. . . . The battle will be harder without him."

Clarke worked for years on grass-roots community issues. When he ran for office, he was, for many voters, the candidate from the neighborhood, a person in whom they had implicit trust. He ran most of his campaigns from a cluttered study in his house in Mount Pleasant, with a group of elderly volunteers at a Ping-Pong table in the next room stuffing envelopes and working the telephones.

Except for three years in the early 1990s, Clarke served on the D.C. Council as either a member or its chairman. He was first elected to the council in 1974, the year that the Home Rule Charter mandated that members be elected rather than appointed.

He stood 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 250 pounds and worked 16- and 18-hour days. He was an acknowledged master of the details of the D.C. budget and the city government in general. Although he held highly visible positions, he was never one to hog the limelight. He worked as hard on important issues that lacked glamour as on issues that made headlines.

As council chairman, he twice presided over the demanding task of amending the city's land-use plan.

He also had a quick temper and a sharp tongue. At one time or another, he yelled at most people who had to deal with him regularly -- fellow council members, his staff, city officials, loyal constituents. As council chairman, his struggles to bring about consensus among his colleagues competed with his struggles to keep his temper.

Those who complained about his outbursts, he told an interviewer in 1993, did so because "they don't have anything else on me. They try to make my intense style into some kind of personality thing, but it's not."

Temperament notwithstanding, Clarke always had the ability to inspire keen loyalty among supporters, and not even his critics attacked his reputation for absolute integrity.

Dave Clarke

Clarke, shown here in 1984, preferred his bike to a limousine. Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post
He had little use for the trappings of office, preferring his 10-speed bicycle to the chauffeured limousine many politicians regard as one of life's necessities. He often attended campaign gatherings without an aide, a circumstance that occasionally left him with no one to hand out campaign literature. Sometimes he forgot to shake hands with the crowd; sometimes he plunged in with his hand out and his shirttails flying.

As a young man, he wanted to be a Baptist preacher, and his stump speeches frequently rang with the cadences of the pulpit. More often than not, he would suddenly veer from high exhortation to a stupefying recital of facts and figures.

There was always a certain quirkiness about Clarke, and this sometimes led to political ploys that backfired. In a famous incident in 1989, he protested the use of carriage horses in the city by hitching himself to a carriage loaded with 375 pounds of carrots and pulling it along Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the District Building. The fact that he was wearing a suit merely highlighted the absurdity of the scene. Clarke later acknowledged that he had made himself look foolish.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, he took the lead in revamping the city's criminal code, including the narcotics laws, and he oversaw the laborious and detailed process of "codification," by which the changes became part of the existing body of law.

"I a.m. particularly proud of that," he told a reporter in 1990. "A democracy where the people don't know what the law is or can't find out is not a democracy."

He backed gun control. In the years from 1974 to 1978, when Congress forbid the city to change criminal laws as part of the price of home rule, he devised a way of making control of handguns stricter by amending the police regulations.

As council chairman since 1993 -- as the District teetered on the edge of financial ruin -- Clarke played a leading role in efforts to save money. He argued for repeal of the congressional prohibition against levying a commuter tax, and he called on the federal government to increase its annual payment to the city and to help with unfunded pension liabilities -- liabilities the District inherited when Congress passed the Home Rule Charter.

Clarke was first elected to the council from Ward 1, which includes Howard University, Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant, LeDroit Park and parts of Shaw and Kalorama. In 1982, he ran for council chairman, a citywide office, and defeated two well-known black candidates, Arrington Dixon, the incumbent, and Sterling Tucker, a former council chairman, in the all-important Democratic Party primary.

Clarke served as chairman until 1990, when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor. Despite Clarke's longtime concern about issues affecting the city's African American residents, many voters expressed skepticism that a white man could serve as leader of a city where the majority of residents are black.

The same issue had arisen in Clarke's race for the council chairmanship in 1982, and at one point, he withdrew his candidacy. He said then that he feared a "growing racial distrust" that was being fueled by the policies of the Reagan administration. But after two weeks, he returned to that contest and went on to win it.

In 1990, black-white division was exacerbated by the arrest and conviction of Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges that grew out of an FBI sting. Many blacks felt that the Republican administration of George Bush was out to discredit all strong black leaders, not just Barry.

In the mayoral election that year, Clarke received 11 percent of the vote and ran fourth in a field of five. The winner was Sharon Pratt Kelly.

Clarke spent the next three years as a practicing lawyer and taught at the D.C. School of Law. In 1993, he won a special election called in the wake of the suicide of John A. Wilson, who had succeeded him as council chairman.

David Allen Clarke was born in Baltimore on Oct. 13, 1943. His father, Allen Joseph Clarke, died when Clarke was an infant. When Clarke was 2, his mother, Ophia Carroll Clarke, moved to the District, where she worked as a clerk at the Department of Agriculture.

Mother and son lived in Southwest Washington. "Not the Southwest that's there now," he once told a reporter. "Before urban renewal, when there were communities." He attended Thompson Elementary School and Jefferson Junior High.

When Clarke was 16, his mother died of tuberculosis, and he lived with an aunt at 12th and M streets NW. He graduated from Western High School, which is now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and went on to George Washington University, where he majored in religion.

After his graduation in 1965, he enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., but he longed to take a more direct role in the vast social changes that were sweeping the country. Two weeks after his arrival, he transferred to the nearby Upland Institute for Social Change and Conflict Management.

He persuaded Upland to send him back to Washington, where he went to work for the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy and his recently formed D.C. Coalition for Conscience.

In 1966, Clarke was arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Ball for protesting the Greater Washington Board of Trade's opposition to home rule. On the Fourth of July that year, he was arrested for reading the Declaration of Independence on the Washington Monument grounds to a group of protesters who had no permit.

By then it was clear to Clarke that he wanted to study law. He enrolled at Howard University Law School, where he graduated in 1969. At Howard, he found a mentor in Frank E. Reeves, a civil rights activist who was associated with the law school. Working with Reeves, the future council member undertook such tasks as organizing legal help for the hundreds of protesters who came to the city in the spring of 1968 to take part in the Poor People's Campaign, a protest encampment on the Mall that lasted for five rain-drenched weeks.

In the same period, Clarke went to work as a legal aide for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Clarke headed SCLC's Washington office for two years before establishing a private law practice in 1970.

Even then, he was widely known as a lawyer who would help any needy person.

Dave Clarke
Jeffrey Clarke, the council chairman's son. Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post
In 1974, Clarke entered the D.C. Council race as a long shot. With a campaign budget of $4,000, he worked out of his apartment at Florida Avenue and 19th Street NW -- and won.

Clarke was a member of the NAACP, the Washington Urban League, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Democratic Action.

He was a recipient of the Paul R. Morgenstern Jr. Memorial Humanitarian Award from Howard University, the Howard University Outstanding Alumnus Award and the Human Rights Award of the Ancient Independent Order of Moses.

Survivors include his wife, the former Carole Leavitt, a special education teacher in the D.C. public schools whom he married in 1973, and their son, Jeffrey, both of Washington.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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