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A Civil Rights Champion of Unrelenting Intensity

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 1990; Page A01

Fifth in a series on D.C. mayoral candidates.

In many ways, David A. Clarke's rise to political prominence in the District of Columbia followed a predictable path.

He grew up fatherless in a modest home east of Rock Creek Park, attended public schools, received a degree from George Washington University and then obtained a law degree from Howard University, one of the nation's premier black institutions.

Clarke, 46, made his mark in the civil rights movement as a lawyer with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he demonstrated for home rule in the District.

A towering, brooding, somewhat awkward man with an intensity of purpose, Clarke embraced the politics of the 1960s, opposing the Vietnam War, championing tenants' rights and fiercely opposing the death penalty.

When he won a seat on the first elected D.C. Council in 1974, he pursued a populist's agenda, including the elimination of a tax on food. Eight years later, he became council chairman by ousting the incumbent in a close race.

What sets his re'sume' apart -- and makes his rise in Washington so unusual -- is that Dave Clarke is white.

For years, Clarke has closely identified with the aspirations of black Washingtonians and has been treated in return with a mixture of gratitude and suspicion. Now, as he reaches for the brass ring of the Democratic mayoral nomination, Clarke is facing the harsh reality that a predominantly black city may not be ready for a white mayor.

In the wake of the drug trial of Mayor Marion Barry that some say exacerbated racial anxieties, many Washingtonians appear to be unwilling to embrace the candidacy of a white mayoral candidate, even one whose civil rights credentials are impeccable.

A Washington Post poll published this week showed that nearly half the city's voters -- blacks and whites -- believe a black mayor should lead the District. That pervasive attitude poses serious problems for a white candidate running in a crowded primary field.

Clarke, who has drawn widespread support in past citywide races, currently is favored by only 9 percent of the Democratic electorate, according to the Post poll.

"I'm just not certain that at this point we need Dave Clarke," said council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), a supporter of Clarke's rival John Ray. "We need a strong, well-rounded black leader. Dave is very competent, but the timing is off."

At one time, Clarke might have been frightened off by such rhetoric. In 1982, he briefly pulled out of the council chairman's race, expressing concern about racial polarization.

He got back into the campaign after friends questioned his judgment, and he went on to defeat incumbent Arrington L. Dixon and Sterling Tucker in the all-important Democratic primary.

This year, Clarke says, he has no such qualms about the race factor.

"I got beyond that in 1982," Clarke said recently. "I can't do anything about being white. So I can't sit around worrying about it terribly much. I've already made my decision to run."

"I made that decision because I know I have the abilities to do the job and I know what needs to be done," Clarke said. "And so I have to offer that to the people. Now it's their choice as to whether to accept that or not."

Clarke has waged a dogged, issues-oriented campaign, characterized by the same grass-roots-style politicking that marked his previous campaigns. He professes an undying "faith in the people."

"They respect somebody who is part of the community, who has worked their way up, who has paid their dues," Clarke said. "I emphasize often that this is my first run for mayor. The first thing I ran for was not mayor. I waited for 16 years."

In a mayoral race featuring glib orators and charismatic stumpers, Clarke is very much the eccentric.

His mayoral bid represents the first time Clarke has set up headquarters outside of his Mount Pleasant home, but in many respects his campaign shares much of the grass-roots feel of previous efforts.

Elderly women still show up to staff his telephone bank and stuff envelopes. Clarke, unlike his rivals, travels without an entourage and often shows up alone at forums. An imposing figure 6 feet 5 inches tall, Clarke eagerly plunges into crowds, sometimes with his shirttail hanging out.

He is a walking compendium of facts and details, and is prone to lose himself and his audiences in the minutiae of the city budget. He labors to keep his legendary temper in check, but often gripes about his treatment by the news media. While other local politicians cruise along parade routes in luxurious cars, Clarke prefers to ride his 10-speed bicycle.

Last fall, to protest the abuse of carriage horses, Clarke, wearing a suit, hitched himself to a carriage ladened with 375 pounds of carrots and pulled it along Pennsylvania Avenue. The news media had a field day with the event and Clarke later conceded he had made himself look foolish.

Clarke's wife, Carole, his longtime partner in struggles, sees in her husband's eccentricities the very source of his political strength.

"People relate to him because people themselves have awkwardnesses," she said. "Most people are everyday people, getting out there trying to make a living. They see him as just an honest person, trying to do the best he can."

Tedson J. Meyers, a lawyer who lost to Clarke in a 1974 council race, said that part of Clarke's appeal is that he "isn't all covered over with a politician's finesse."

"He is the guy next door, and I may not agree with him on everything, but at least I know where he stands," Meyers said.

As a youngster growing up in Washington, Clarke had an early taste of adversity and disappointment.

He never knew his father, and his mother, a lowly paid clerk at the Department of Agriculture, died of tuberculosis when Clarke was 16. Thereafter, Clarke was brought up by an aunt.

When he was 12, Clarke got the idea of applying for a job as a congressional page. The District of the mid-1950s was still a virtual colony of the Congress and White House, years away from home rule, and Clarke received a lesson in the limits of democracy: He was told he couldn't apply because he didn't have a congressman to sponsor him.

Years later, Clarke still recalls the sting of rejection and his sense of outrage.

"It was that day that I dedicated myself to home rule for the District," Clarke said.

In recalling his involvement in the District's drive for home rule and self-determination, Clarke speaks in highly pragmatic terms. He stresses that he never approached civil rights issues from a "messianic perspective."

"I didn't come to save people from themselves," Clarke said. "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."

Henry A. Silva, a Baltimore pastor who knew Clarke as a young lieutenant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, recalls a telling conversation with Clarke 20 years ago in an Indianapolis hotel room.

" 'You're white,' " Silva recalls telling Clarke. " 'I just think you've gone out of your way to do things that you don't need to be doing for us.' Dave looked at me and said, 'I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing this for me.' "

"It stunned me," Silva said. "Dave was unusual. While we had a lot of whites coming into the movement, they could always leave. Dave never really left. The movement became his life."

At first, Clarke wanted to be a preacher. He studied religion at George Washington University after graduating from Western Senior High School in the District. In 1965 he enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., the same seminary King attended.

But after one week of orientation and one week of classes, Clarke quit. He said he longed for more direct involvement in the fundamental social change that was sweeping the country. He enrolled at the nearby Upland Institute of Social Change and Conflict Management and persuaded the administrators to send him on a field work assignment back to Washington, where he obtained a job with a young preacher, Walter E. Fauntroy, and his nascent D.C. Coalition of Conscience.

In 1966, Clarke was jailed for protesting the Board of Trade's opposition to home rule at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Ball. He also was arrested on the Washington Monument grounds for reading the Declaration of Independence to a group of protesters on the Fourth of July without a permit.

At Howard University Law School, Clarke found a mentor in Frank Reeves, a professor and a leading force in the District's civil rights movement. Clerking for Reeves, Clarke helped organize lawyers to represent hundreds of demonstrators who descended on Washington during the SCLC's Poor Peoples' Campaign in 1968.

In 1974, Clarke, then a private lawyer, mounted a long-shot campaign for a seat on the first elective D.C. Council representing Ward 1, a racially diverse central city area surrounding Howard University.

Campaigning with a $4,000 budget out of his apartment at 19th Street and Florida Avenue NW, Clarke proved to be a tireless candidate who capitalized on his reputation as a neighborhood activist to win.

"All the community knew him," recalled Jerry Cooper, a retired Census Bureau worker who is Clarke's closest friend and political mentor. "If they needed a lawyer, they'd come to Dave. He was always open to the homeless, every bum there was."

Today, Clarke likes to say that he is running on his record -- which arguably is the most liberal of any of the five Democratic mayoral candidates.

As chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee in the late 1970s, Clarke conceived of amending the city's police regulations as a means of enacting a strict form of handgun control. The tactic was necessary because Congress had forbidden the city to tinker with the criminal code during the first four years of home rule.

When the four years were up, Clarke shepherded through the revisions to the city's sexual assault, narcotics and theft laws. A stickler for detail, Clarke also oversaw the laborious "codification" process, in which new statutes are placed into the existing body of laws.

"I am particularly proud of that," Clarke said recently. "A democracy where the people don't know what the law is or can't find out is not a democracy."

As council chairman, Clarke presided over the massive job of twice amending the city's comprehensive land-use plan, the document that guides development in the city, and acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable council members on the city budget.

At the same time, Clarke had to subordinate his own political inclinations to forge consensus with the often-fractious 13-member council. While even his staunchest critics concede that Clarke restored a sense of order to the council after the stormy tenure of his predecessor, that consensus often proved to be an elusive goal.

Sometimes, Clarke would simply refuse to compromise when he perceived an important principle at stake. A champion of the city's tenants, Clarke lost a bruising battle to Ray and others in 1985 when they sought to weaken the city's rent control law. More recently, Clarke was one of two council members who voted against the recent council move to alter Initiative 17, the city's right-to-shelter law.

"Dave has a very genuine concern for the disenfranchised and the people who are dispossessed -- more so than many other council members," said council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large). "That's why you'll see him voting by himself on issues."

Clarke's moodiness and temper -- which he describes as "intensity" -- have hurt him politically and provoked consternation among friends and foes. He has argued bitterly with council colleagues and he is well known for bawling out his staff. Although he rarely loses his cool in more public settings, Clarke can appear petulant, fussing over what appear to be minor issues of process.

Several months ago, Clarke was visibily irked when Barry invited television crews to take pictures during what was supposed to be a private meeting on the city's budget problems.

Other times, his private tirades are directed at the news media, with whom Clarke has endured a contentious relationship dating back to when he worked as a college student in the pressroom of The Washington Post.

Clarke frequently disparages what he terms the media's "sports page" coverage of politics, and he has stewed for days over what he perceives to be unfair or inaccurate reporting.

Clarke's strident approach to advocacy has cost him support, including some liberal activists.

"I've seen him browbeat the hell out of well-meaning people," said Bob Boyd, a member of the D.C. school board. "I do not think he would provide the kind of cool, level-headed leadership that is needed. To put him in an even hotter boiling room is not a proposition I am willing to accept."

Still, Clarke has engendered intense loyalty in friends and supporters who look beyond his awkward personality and see a man of uncommon integrity.

Cooper said Clarke "is intolerant of inefficiency, and he gets so hung up on things being just right that he has difficulty restraining himself."

"Maybe he's rough and lacks appropriate social graces in certain instances because he's so interested in the big picture," said Gregory Mize, general counsel to the D.C. Council who first went to work for Clarke in 1975.

"I see a very principled and visionary man who doesn't get blown over by the shifting winds," he said.

Staff writer Nathan McCall contributed to this report.

Age: 46

Birthplace: Baltimore

Education: D.C. Public Schools (Western High School), George Washington University, religion degree, Howard University Law School

Work Experience: Assistant director and Washington director, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1969 to 1972; private law practice, 1973 to 1974; Ward 1 member, D.C. Council, 1975 to 1982; D.C. Council Chairman, 1983 to present.

Civic and Professional Associations: Member of Calvary Baptist Church, District of Columbia Bar, Mount Pleasant Neighbors, American Civil Liberties Union, Washington Urban League, NAACP, Education Commission of the States, National League of Cities International Task Force, Improved Benevolent Protective Order Elks of the World, Pigskin Club of Washington.

Marital Status: Married, one son.

Favorite Book: "A Moveable Feast" by Ernest Hemingway STAND ON ISSUES:

Rent Control: Supports current law. Opposed 1985 proposal to phase out of controls.

Taxes: Does not rule out a tax increase to reduce the budget deficit. Says he would look at utility tax revisions and tax on vacant properties, but would not increase property and personal income taxes.

Work force: Opposes a reduction in force, but favors the use of attrition in reducing the number of workers. Said he would order an audit of city agencies, focusing on ways to reduce unnecessary staff in front offices of agency directors.

Drugs crisis: Favors peer-counselor drug education programs and use of community-oriented law enforcement, with officers working more closely with residents. Favors increased gun control.

Education: Favors a change in D.C. Charter to give mayor and council line-item authority over school budget. Favors curriculum designed to educate students for job markets.

Worker's compensation: Supports a bill to expand workers' benefits.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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