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David Allen Clarke

Unsigned Washington Post Editorial

Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page A16

To those who would spot him standing off to the side by himself in a ballroom full of political, business and community leaders, or to those who would do double takes along neighborhood streets when they caught his bulky frame rolling by on an unfancy bike, David A. Clarke hardly fit the image of the number two elected local leader of the nation's capital. Mr. Clarke, who died yesterday at 53, could come off as an aloof, temperamental figure, preoccupied with the most minute details of city government. But to those from every ward whose neighborhood concerns he worked doggedly to advance, Mr. Clarke was a man to trust -- the white politician with exceptional ties to Washington's African Americans, with integrity that no one could seriously challenge.

Mr. Clarke's agenda was consistent if not always flexible -- rooted in the 1960s world of civil rights and antiwar protest politics that he came to embrace so fervently. He could be unyielding in his demands for government attention to -- and public money for -- those he considered ill-served by the law, by business interests or by anyone he thought was undermining this city's hard-earned limited home rule.

Mr. Clarke's often all-consuming attention to details of a bill could be constructive, but it served the council better in his earlier days as member from Ward 1 than it did when he became chairman. That post called for a combination of mediation and leadership skills that he had difficult summoning. Still, Mr. Clarke's colleagues on the council over the years -- including those who fought him hardest on issues and endured his outbursts in the heat of deliberations -- did not question Mr. Clarke's conviction. His rage was genuine, not for effect.

To his longtime loyal supporters, Mr. Clarke's disdain for the trappings of high office had a special appeal. While the limos, bodyguards and position-papered staffers would herald the arrival of a mayor, Mr. Clarke would be tucking the portable dome light issued for his car under the seat as he looked for parking. He was content to tote pounds of paperwork, most of which he had researched, annotated and memorized in elaborate detail.

As someone who cared little about the limelight, Mr. Clarke was content to take on some of the less glamorous but important legislative work of the city: recodifications, land-use planning and efforts to change the pension systems that have left the city with an unfunded liability in the billions. As he struggled with his growing disabilities in the last months, Dave Clarke struggled as well to adjust to the council's changing role. His concerns were not driven by any obsession with political power but by the same honest quest that drove him through his years in office: an all-consuming interest in public service that won him special respect in this city.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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