'Mr. Bow Tie' Becomes the Bull's-Eye
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 1998; Page A01
The political hunting season is open, and three of Washington's leading mayoral candidates share a single prey: Anthony A. Williams, the perceived front-runner.
Williams, they charge, is a celebrity candidate. A carpetbagger. A heartless bean counter. Candidate Harold Brazil, in particular, sprays extra-strength rhetoric, charging this week that Williams's campaign is populated with "a sordid collection of individuals."
But such attacks reflect a growing perception that Williams is the man to beat in the Democratic primary. In the past weeks, Williams has won endorsements, spun out policy papers and marshaled support on his rivals' home turf. He denied another candidate, Kevin P. Chavous, an anticipated endorsement in Ward 8. And his campaign rallied 126 followers Wednesday night to deny a fourth candidate, Jack Evans, an outright endorsement by Democrats in Ward 2, which Evans has represented on the D.C. Council since 1991.
Williams, the former D.C. chief financial officer, also caught an unexpected bouquet last week. Long derided as "Mr. Bow Tie" and the very personification of the congressionally imposed reformers who pushed aside Mayor Marion Barry, Williams won the endorsement of Barry's pastor, the Rev. Willie Wilson, and the mayor's onetime confidant Rock Newman.
"The bow ties are surging," said Terry Lynch, a vice chairman of Brazil's campaign. "He's riding an 'out with the old guard' sentiment that's perfect for this year's election. He could be pulling away."
Strategists on rival campaigns talk with some urgency of trying to derail Williams. Evans called a recent news conference simply to warn voters against being swept up in the "celebrity candidacy" of a "carpetbagger."
"Williams is putting together a strange coalition," said Howard Croft, a longtime political activist and administrator at the University of the District of Columbia. "It's the original Marion Barry coalition of wealthier whites and, surprisingly to me, poorer blacks. It eats into everyone's base."
That said, the other candidates have honed their messages in recent weeks, and no one is conceding victory to Williams. Endorsements look pretty but rarely yield hundreds of votes. And Williams has stumbled several times, as his opponents never fail to note.
Williams, who can appear a bit severe on the stump, initially disowned and later embraced his own proposal for a broad-based tax on the gross receipts of District businesses, including law firms, which are currently untaxed. And he has apologized twice during the campaign: once for his recommendation to slash the Office on Aging several years ago and again when it was revealed that he had not voted in several council elections.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 15, and in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, victory traditionally has been tantamount to election.
Williams is a newcomer to Washington, a nomadic public servant in a city where natives pride themselves on counting the number of generations their families have been here.
But, in what appears to be an outsiders' year, Williams has the luxury of facing a trio of three-term council incumbents. Evans, Chavous and Brazil could legitimately claim a reform record, but instead they have struggled to avoid being labeled as insiders. (They have sometimes reinforced this clubby image by their steadfast refusal to criticize each other's records in mayoral debates.)
Williams, by contrast, constantly reminds voters that he staked out ground zero in the reform effort, making the daily, often unpopular decisions that many now credit with turning around the city's finances.
"I've shown leadership," he said. "It's a lot easier to sit on the sidelines and do color commentary."
Another expression of this kick-'em-out sentiment came in Ward 1 this week, when the local Democratic Party voted to endorse Jim Graham's bid to unseat the ward's council member, Frank Smith Jr.
Among Williams's opponents, Chavous (Ward 7) often is described as perhaps the strongest. He has raised a lot of money, hired experienced campaign hands and honed his "mayor for around town and not just downtown" message. He is telegenic and speaks with passion of reviving the city's dilapidated commercial strips and attracting such prosaic amenities as sit-down restaurants. He hails from the less-affluent community east of the Anacostia River, has support from organized labor and environmentalists and can lay a plausible claim to Barry's black electoral base.
But Chavous's campaign can appear intent on tripping itself up. The candidate often is not available for comment on issues affecting his campaign. A significant number of community leaders in his ward are supporting Williams. And weeks after other candidates began issuing position papers, Chavous is holding his first briefing on an issue -- education -- today.
"I see this as a Kevin Chavous-Anthony Williams race, with Williams having the momentum right now," Croft said. "Kevin needs to start running his own events, with his own agenda."
Evans represents one of the most racially diverse wards in the city and is widely credited with having constructed the Mercedes-Benz of election machines. It bristles with national media, direct mail and polling consultants, and downtown business people continue to pour dollars into its gas tank. Evans has a careful target of 40,000 to 50,000 voters, counting on that to do the trick.
But Evans has an earnest -- some might say mechanical -- style on the stump. And he appears most hurt by Williams's entry into the race. Williams's campaign signs appear to predominate in the front yards of homes in Capitol Hill and in sections of Wards 1 and 3, areas seen as prime Evans territory.
Moreover, if recent party forums and endorsement votes are a measure, Evans's electoral engine is not yet humming. He got badly beaten in the Ward 1 endorsement vote -- 300-plus votes for Williams to fewer than 50 for Evans -- and just missed getting the required 60 percent of the vote needed for an official endorsement in Ward 2.
None of this has escaped Evans's notice. He now spends nearly as much time attacking Williams as talking about his not-inconsiderable plans for city government.
Brazil, by contrast, seems most in danger of floundering. His campaign has been plagued by defections, he has lagged in fund-raising, and he has offered varied and ambitious proposals without attaching any price tags. His onetime electoral base in Ward 6 is a patchwork quilt, with various pieces claimed by each of his rivals.
But as Brazil sees it, the problem is that he's been too nice.
"You don't want people to think you are some wild, mean person," Brazil said recently. "So I'm sitting there saying I'm going to be Mr. Nice Lamb and not say it like it is. . . . Well, that's poppycock."
He has gone about remedying that oversight with a vengeance. He has torn into Williams as a bean counter, blamed him for dozens of cuts made during the city's fiscal crisis, and said that former Barry supporter Ivanhoe Donaldson is promising people contracts and jobs if they support Williams.
To date, Brazil's campaign has not offered proof to back up his tougher charges, including that Donaldson is supporting Williams. (The Williams campaign vehemently denies that Donaldson is playing an official or unofficial role. Donaldson did not return phone calls yesterday.)
But Brazil's attacks on the coalition that Williams has cobbled together -- in particular on the volunteer work of Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan's disgraced former national security adviser, and some of the Barry hands -- may yet take a toll.
Two dozen recent street interviews found a majority of voters, black and white, leaning toward Williams. But many were not certain of their choice and wanted to know more. It is at such moments that negative attacks can do the most damage, campaign consultants say.
"I kind of lean towards the bow-tied fellow, Tony Williams," said Bessy Stanfield, a regular voter for decades. "But I want to know more about him."
In the gap between Stanfield's initial impulse and her final decision lies the remaining opportunity for each of the Democratic candidates.
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