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D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke Dies

By Michael Powell and Vanessa Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page A01

D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, whose 1960s liberalism prevailed for three decades and helped shape Washington, died Thursday, ending in the minds of many a political era born of optimism and turned bittersweet by the city's troubles.

The working-class son of a widow, Clarke devoted much of his life to the cause of the poor and the marginalized in the city where he was raised. As with many of his political generation in the District, he was a civil rights activist. But Clarke's ability to transcend race -- a popular white politician in a majority-black city -- was unparalleled in the racially divided District.

He was only incidentally a legislative leader, and that was to prove Clarke's weakness in the last decade, as the District's spending and management spiraled out of control and many came to view the council as rudderless and adrift. Though he held the city's second-highest elected office for 12 years, his prickly personality often thwarted consensus-building within the council.

"He was an activist who was a bit out of sorts as a politician," said Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "He wound up his career at a very poignant time, presiding over the demise of programs he spent a lifetime battling to establish."

Clarke, 53, had central nervous system lymphoma, a fatal form of brain cancer.

The D.C. Council has five working days to declare the chairman's seat vacant. Then, it will meet Wednesday to select one of the four at-large members to serve as chairman until a special citywide election, which must be held within 114 days. Council sources say Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large) has the votes to be elected acting council chairman.

But few had much heart for such talk yesterday. For many, Clarke remained a symbol of headier times, and they recalled a tall, slightly awkward white man who spun about the city on his bicycle, a politician whose intensity and energy embodied the aspirations of a city struggling toward political liberation in the early 1970s.

Clarke championed gun control, tenants rights, labor unions and the homeless. Under his leadership, D.C. welfare benefits rose to among the highest in the nation, and the homeless gained a legal right to shelter. The very council that Clarke led has curtailed many of those rights in the last two years, sometimes over his outright opposition, sometimes with his grudging acquiescence.

Brigid Quinn, a former council legislative aide, found herself flung into memory's well at word of Clarke's death. She recalled the District Building in the early 1970s, a place that seemed as much a movement's headquarters as governmental epicenter.

"So many of the people there had come out of the civil rights movement. The '60s marches and the war, all that was still fresh," she recalled. "Everybody had oodles of ideas. . . . It held such hope.

"This is an era ending. This closes the day."

Clarke's minister, the Rev. Lynn Bergfalk, said he visited Clarke on Thursday. Clarke was so weak that Bergfalk was unable to say whether the chairman was conscious or not.

"I was with him [Thursday] and had prayer with him," said Bergfalk, who knew Clarke for 10 years. "He was not able to speak."

Clarke died at 10:30 that night.

Clarke joined Calvary Baptist Church as a teenager in 1963, soaking up the rolling cadences and millennial faith in a better day. "He's a person of very deep conviction," Bergfalk said. "His public concerns were rooted in a deep faith and a commitment to a biblical vision of justice."

None of this should be taken to suggest that Clarke was warm and fuzzy. He wasn't, say friends and colleagues. Tested in the crucible of civil rights and anti-war politics, arrested several times, he was a tough taskmaster, with a monkish distaste for small talk.

"You don't remember a lot of stories about Dave," Quinn said. "He was totally into ideology and process. . . . He wasn't really easy to talk to and engage on a social level."

To Jack Nelson, his longtime aide, Clarke's occasional roars and rages merely reflected the chairman's fierce political commitments. The city was ever caught in a political crunch, constrained by Congress and the White House, and Clarke saw little virtue in minding his tongue, Nelson said.

"He believed that he could better America," Nelson said. "He was crazy as hell, but he was a good person."

Clarke did not hesitate to put his body on the line for his beliefs. He lived for years in a clapboard house in Mount Pleasant, and when that neighborhood erupted in civil disturbances in 1991 involving Latinos, blacks and whites, Clarke stepped up. He was a lawyer at the time, having lost a bid for mayor.

"He was a constant presence in the street, standing there in the tear gas and flames," recalled Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, an activist group. "He was simply brave in very troubled times."

Some recall those days as perhaps Clarke's happiest. He was out of office, free of the responsibility to act responsibly that is the council chairman's cross. "He was like a lot of white radicals; he liked fighting to help people," said Sherry Brown, of Americans for Democratic Action, who organized alongside Clarke in the early 1970s in Adams-Morgan. "He was a street lawyer more comfortable looking out for the little guy than getting consensus on the council."

Notwithstanding considerable differences of personal style and temperament, Clarke had much in common with Mayor Marion Barry. Both men came of age in the civil rights movement, both courted arrest in pursuit of home rule, and both shared an early taste for politics populist and transracial.

They were among the first politicians to cultivate the gay vote and seemed entirely at ease in public housing complexes and senior citizen centers. And for 10 years, Clarke and Barry attended a weekly morning prayer group.

"My heart is heavy and saddened by this loss," Barry said. "I have known Dave Clarke up close for more than 30 years, and the District has lost one of its true never-let-up advocates for self-government. He was there from the very start, always fighting for the city, always working in the community."

Many remember Clarke, too, for defying strictures of race and class. Clarke, a graduate of Howard University Law School, emerged victorious in all but one of his races for citywide office, often vanquishing widely known and respected African American opponents.

Council member Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1) feigned shock when asked about Clarke's ability to thrive as a white politician in a majority-black District government.

"Was Dave white?" Smith said. "I think most people didn't even know Dave was white. He probably didn't either. He didn't act like one, he didn't talk like one. In a way, I guess he represents the very best of our city."

That said, others spoke hesitantly yesterday of Clarke's more ambiguous, generational legacy. Like many of his political soul mates, Clarke never seemed entirely comfortable in the suites of political power. Nor did he seem comfortable, some say, questioning the excesses of the 1980s, when District politicians balanced one expensive social program atop another with little regard for the bottom line.

Yet, critics say, it was the layering of program upon program without regard for accountable management that led to the city's fiscal crisis and the imposition of the financial control board by Congress. "The last years have been terribly stressful for those like Dave," Cropp said. "It killed him to have to cut back on all these programs."

Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University Law School and a lifelong D.C. resident and activist, said: "The generation of politicians who fought for home rule were long on vision. But their political values were much stronger than their knowledge of running government."

James O. Gibson, a former planning director to Barry and head of the D.C. Agenda, spoke to this conflict between activism and governing.

"Dave was caught squarely in the middle of the tension of advocating and governing," Gibson said. "He and Barry and others came out of a movement, but over the years, the Young Turks have become the aging Turks. Their frames of reference are in the distant past. Their causes seemed very old."

The sense of past glory half-forgotten was not difficult to summon yesterday as reporters jostled to interview council members about their fallen colleague. The council members had just emerged from a meeting with the financial control board, which laid out in rather clear detail the steps needed before it would approve the city budget.

The chastened lawmakers had no sooner begun to offer their recollections of Clarke than a deafening cacophony arose. A group of 100 or so advocates for the homeless were beating on empty paint cans and yelling at the control board and council for revoking a legal right to shelter for the homeless.

"Probably some of Dave's friends out here, part of Dave's going away ceremony," Smith said. "If he were here, he'd be out there picketing with them and making noise, trying to stand up for the poor."

Staff writers DeNeen L. Brown, Hamil R. Harris and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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