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A D.C. Leader Who Moved Beyond Race

By Dorothy Gilliam

Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page B01

That Dave Clarke could be elected D.C. Council chairman three times in a majority-black city spoke volumes about his ability to engender a rare trust and respect from African Americans.

This 6-foot-5, lanky white man moved with ease through his largely African American constituency. From his days at Howard University Law School, through his final days as the city's second most powerful elected official, Clarke seemed genuinely removed from the color politics that dominate the nation.

Perhaps that's why so many African Americans are lamenting his passing Thursday night at age 53 after an illness that was diagnosed as brain cancer.

J. Clay Smith, a former dean of the Howard Law School and currently a professor there, recalls that he and Clarke were both students at Howard in the late 1960s.

"For some reason, Herbert O. Reid Sr. [then a Howard law professor and later a confidant of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry] took Dave under his wing. Some of us were jealous, because we wanted to be under his wing. But Dave was much accepted here and seemed to have a great talent and a political mind.

"As a citizen of the District," Smith continued, "I've always felt David knew who he was and knew the people in this city in a different way because he went to Howard Law School. I trusted him as a neutral and fair political operative."

Clarke engendered great love from the city's senior citizens. "When he told you something, I believed it," one of his senior constituents, Betty Cole, once remarked. "His color didn't matter to me."

Clarke won a seat on the first elected D.C. Council in 1974. Eight years later, he was elected council chairman, a job he left in 1990 to run for mayor. He was reelected council chairman in 1993 in a special election to replace John A. Wilson, who committed suicide.

With the tragic death of Wilson and now, sadly, Clarke's premature passing, it is truly the end of an era in the District of Columbia. Two men with impeccable civil rights credentials have passed from the local scene at a time when those values are rapidly receding in the nation.

Like many Americans born during World War II, Dave Clarke was a product of the civil rights movement, a time when many blacks and whites rolled up their sleeves and worked together to change U.S. society.

Howard University had a special value for white Americans like Clarke who matriculated there in the 1960s. The school represented social change and was viewed by some as a vehicle to help achieve that change. People like Clarke were not interested in perpetuating the subordination under which blacks had struggled for centuries.

Conversely, the black students were enhanced by knowing men like Clarke. Many had not met whites on an equal footing. Smith, for example, came from Nebraska, where the power structure was all white. "People like Clarke let us know that not everyone who was white was the same," Smith said.

Clarke's exposure to African American professors and mentors contributed to his understanding of the District's culture, and Clarke the politician was able to take advantage of that comprehension.

Yet Clarke never used his knowledge of black culture to the detriment of the city. Neither did he use his grasp of the symbols of black culture in an attempt to further his own interests. You did not see Clarke in the community wearing kente cloth or dashikis. He knew who he was and never tried to sell himself in cheap ways.

Despite his intellectual understanding of the needs of the black residents of the city, he never tried to sham us. There was an air about him that said to the average man or woman in Ward 8: "I'm going to work as hard for you as I a.m. for all the white wards."

And work he did! Even when his critics said he was moody, abrasive and disorganized, nobody ever said he was lazy. He loved the city with a passion, and he was a hard-working, hard-driving pol.

He was a familiar figure about the city, always a bit outside the norm, and you could see his long white legs as he rode his 10-speed bicycle up and down the street. He could always bring a smile to one's face for such slightly outrageous behavior for a politician. Yet it harmed no one and drove home his populist politics and his concern for the environment.

Hampered on one side by the federal laws that strangled the District and on the other side by a controversial mayor and sometimes contentious council, Clarke strived to accomplish the council's basic governmental role.

Just as he was able to rise above race, he also had an uncanny ability to see through the non-issues that dominate the lives of a great many politicians and see the real issues that affected the day-to-day living of city residents.

Clarke at his best did not have an easy or compromising temperament. But somehow he managed to suppress his own flaws long enough to bring some sort of harmony out of the dissension -- until the symptoms of his illness became a major hindrance.

Dave Clarke was not always successful; indeed, as council chairman he must bear part of the blame for the city's current woes. He nevertheless should get an A-plus for enthusiasm, an A-plus for commitment, and a double A-plus for the service he provided to this city for such a long time.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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