Candidates Have Little to Run On By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 16, 1998; Page B1
It's as complicated a political calculus as a mayoral candidate confronts anywhere in the United States: how to campaign for mayor of Washington when Congress has all but neutered the office and some people view the position as irrelevant?
The next mayor, after all, cannot deliver on the traditional campaign staples, the promises to fill potholes, put police on the street or cut taxes. The presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board will continue to have authority to run every major city agency until at least 2001. The mayor is left with control over little more than the recreation department.
So the candidates confront some unusual choices. Do they promise what they manifestly cannot deliver? Do they campaign as the candidate who can work most effectively with the control board and Congress, and thus hasten the return to home rule? Or do they campaign against the control board, denouncing it as the personification of anti-democratic government and embracing a populist politics all but copyrighted by Mayor Marion Barry?
None of the major declared candidates D.C. Council members Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has put forth a campaign strategy that reveals how they intend to answer such questions, though they promise to do so in the months to come.
"It's a fair question to ask any of us: How will you move the city forward given the limited powers?" Chavous said.
Brazil acknowledged yesterday the difficulty of finding a genuine issue with which to excite the voters.
"I can say I'll clean the streets and make you safe," Brazil said. "But I can't do that."
Evans suggested that he would focus on collaboration with the unelected officials and Capitol Hill.
"I will be mayor in charge of the recreation department," Evans said. "Unless I find a way to work with Congress and the control board, my goal will be just to get the pools open on time."
As the candidates search for answers, much is at stake, not least their own relevance. The electorate threatens to pass its own judgment and tune out local elected government. Since the loss of home rule, voter turnout has dwindled and has hovered between 5 percent and 7 percent in recent D.C. City Council elections.
"The candidates must campaign intensely to convince the people that this office has some value," said Phil Pannell, an activist in Southeast Washington. "Your candidacy almost has to transcend politics otherwise, why would anyone vote?"
That said, community activists, businessmen and government officials suggest several ways that candidates could craft a message that would resonate during this mayoral campaign and offer a blueprint for governing in strange times.
Everyone starts with a central point.
"It's a matter of leadership, simple and clear," said Anthony A. Williams, the city's chief financial officer, who briefly considered and then rejected a mayoral candidacy. "If you had a good mayor, you could set the policy and drag the control board along."
That was a much-echoed sentiment, the notion that a mayor can lead by speaking frankly and harnessing the affection that so many express for the nation's capital.
But would-be leaders must wrestle with a related political and tactical question: Do they embrace the control board and its reform efforts, or reject many reforms and attack the board as a usurper of democracy? Neither choice is without peril.
Many candidates declare themselves reformers. But that's a word with a notoriously slippery definition.
To be taken seriously, many argue, a reform candidate must speak candidly about the city's condition and offer specific cures.
"It would be refreshing if a candidate said, 'I certainly don't agree with losing home rule but, hey folks, we brought it on ourselves,' " said Dwight Cropp, a former top city official and professor at George Washington University. " 'We didn't make the tough choices we needed to. We need to regain our credibility.' "
The risk is that such a grim message will annoy voters who chafe at the loss of home rule. But Williams counters that tough talk and tough choices could prove attractive to a demoralized electorate.
"To exert leadership, you have to dig yourself a hole and show you can climb out of it," Williams said. "If we have any hope of restoring home rule, the candidates can't expect a limousine to pick them up and carry them there."
There is another alternative: the militant outsider. Candidates could reject the robes of the control board-friendly reformer and embrace that staple of Washington mayoral campaigns, the candidate as street activist.
Such a candidacy would give voice to the populist, rail-against-the-system sentiments that have resonated so deeply in past elections. A populist candidate would seek to expand the electorate and mobilize the disenfranchised as Barry did so successfully in his 1994 comeback victory.
The danger is that populist style may have lost its currency. Voters in many of the city's precincts have expressed a weariness with protest politics and the calls for racial solidarity that such campaigns often trade upon.
"You could say, 'Elect me because I'm the one who's going to stick it in their ear,' " said Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and a past supporter of the mayor. "Barry's done that for years and years. But I think people would say, 'Okay, okay, we've heard that before. How does that get us back home rule?' "
Some argue that the insider-outsider dichotomy misses the point. Because the next mayor can deliver on few concrete promises, they suggest a Fun City candidacy, a lighthearted campaign in which a candidate trades on the symbolism of the mayor's office and delivers a steady dose of civic boosterism, leavened with urban panache.
San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. and former New York mayor Ed Koch who also ran during a period when a control board had authority over his city made an art of such campaigns.
Tom Edmonds, a Republican Party campaign consultant and author of the critique "D.C. by the Numbers," says that would allow candidates to embrace reform without pretending that they can deliver on specific promises.
"Leave the limousine on the corner and ride the bus," Edmonds said. "Clean a park, fix a pothole, ride a garbage truck, declare meter-free Friday. Forget the whine become a cheerleader for the city."
There is, finally, the question of how to handle the Republican-led Congress, which looms over the mayoral race like an overarching oak tree. When North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, threatened to wrest control of the police department from the mayor two weeks ago, the candidates ripped his proposal as an intrusion on home rule.
Afterward, several candidates privately acknowledged that they must measure such attacks with care. By law, the control board period ends when the city passes four consecutive balanced budgets. The city has turned in two balanced budgets in a row, which means that the next mayor could assume full powers two years into a term.
But many of the city's politicians fear that a Republican-led Congress could refuse to restore home rule or that it might rewrite the city's charter and install a permanent city manager.
American University law professor Jamin B. Raskin said candidates must offer a delicate dance, in which they express outrage at democracy lost even as they pirouette and give an occasional flutter of the eyes at the control board and Congress.
"Candidates are gearing their pitch to the voters, but the real election is with Congress because they will determine when the city gets back home rule," he said. "So candidates face a double imperative: to make the technocratic argument about the road to reform and the democratic argument that constitutional rights are being trampled on."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company