Mendelson, Catania Claim At-Large Wins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, Nov. 4, 1998; Page A35
Democrat Phil Mendelson and Republican David A. Catania easily won election yesterday for the two at-large seats on the D.C. Council, ousting longtime incumbent Hilda Mason, the 82-year-old matriarch of the D.C. statehood movement, and marking the ascendancy of a new political generation in the city.
The election gave the city its first white-majority council and the first with two openly gay members. Mendelson and Catania are both white. Catania is gay, as is Whitman-Walker director Jim Graham, who coasted to an easy victory in the Ward 1 contest.
And in a year when voters said they yearned for a panel with new ideas about overseeing government and serving neighborhoods, the council that takes office in January reflects a desire for change. A majority of the 13-member council will have been elected within the last four years, only two members will predate 1990, and for the first time, no member will have been in elective service when the District first attained home rule in 1974.
"We are new people with new ideas,"
Catania, who reached the council last year after winning a special election, outlined a vision of activist governance for scores of cheering supporters at the Radisson Barcelo Hotel in Dupont Circle: "With the grace of God, with a new mayor and new council, we will turn this city around," he said. "We will build a community we all can be proud of . . . a government where you get a dollar's worth of services for a dollar's worth of taxes."
Voters sounded ready to embrace the future embodied by a revamped council, which will be in office when home rule is expected to be returned to District residents.
"We're ready for change," said Mary Goodwin, 63, of Adams-Morgan, who voted for Mendelson and Catania.
"I think David [Catania] has done good work and Mendelson is a part of a new group of people I hope will bring change," said Michael Mayes, 42, from near Kingman Park in Northeast.
Mason's post-election gathering at a gallery in the Eastern Market was somber and sparsely attended, and the group of friends and family turned out the lights and headed home around midnight without a concession by Mason. She declined to speak to reporters last night, but John Gloster, the Statehood Party candidate for mayor, said Mason would have a statement today.
Unspoken but thick in the air was the recognition that an era was passing, a legend bending toward forced retirement after an undefeated and proudly liberal political career.
Mason is the longest serving elected official in the city's history. The civil rights activist and fierce advocate of D.C. statehood was first elected to the school board in 1972, and joined the council in a special election in 1977. She suffered a mild heart attack in September, and some of her admirers openly suggested she ought not run again. But her tiny party could not find a viable candidate to run in her stead.
"She's one of my heroes," said John Wiebenson, 65, an architect who was with Mason's post-election group last night. "A lot of people try to stop things. Hilda has always tried to make them work. She's one of the most honorable people in District politics."
In recent months, what might have been a rather lackluster competition for seats on a legislative panel with temporarily diminished powers became instead a sometimes spirited contest with overtones of racial politics and the eclipse of an aging political generation.
The tone was set in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary, when council veterans Frank Smith Jr. (Ward 1) and Harry Thomas Sr. (Ward 5) were knocked off, respectively, by challengers Graham and Vincent Orange, a lawyer.
The day after, Mayor Marion Barry (D) publicly aired his concern about a white majority on the council governing a city that is about 62 percent African American. The return of at-large member Carol Schwartz (R) to the council after being defeated by Anthony A. Williams (D) in the mayoral race, along with victories by Mendelson and Catania will mean that seven council members will be white.
According to a Washington Post poll, majorities of both black and white voters would prefer the council to be majority black, reflecting the demographics of the city.
But in interviews, many voters said that preference would not be the sole basis upon which they would choose candidates.
Although race was a subject of discussion in the campaign, sexual orientation was not nearly so prominent. Some gay voters said that having two openly gay council members would be a source of pride.
Jeff Trammell, the former head of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and a Democrat, came to Catania's party to congratulate the candidate.
Trammell said the election of Catania and Graham "is significant for the gay and lesbian community" for a number of reasons. They are "role models" and the election of a Republican, Catania, and a Democrat, Graham, "shows diversity in the gay community. It's a political coming of age all across the country."
The other council races four ward seats and council chairman were not seriously competitive.
The at-large contest was the most contested because of the District's quirky election law, which requires that a Democrat can be elected to only one of the at-large seats. The 13-member council has eight ward seats, four at-large seats and a chairman, who also runs at-large.
As the candidates made the rounds of precincts in a light drizzle yesterday, voters sorted through their options.
Helena Lisane, 38, said she had voted the straight Democratic ticket, including Mendelson. At the last minute, she decided to cast her second at-large ballot for Independent candidate Beverly J. Wilbourn.
"She got lucky, I guess!" said Lisane, a mortgage processor who moved to the District from North Carolina this year to live closer to her father in Brightwood Park.
Wilbourn, 45, a political newcomer touting her business experience, enjoyed a late surge in popularity on the strength recent endorsements, including those of The Washington Post and Cora Masters Barry, the mayor's wife, who campaigned with her yesterday.
"There was not a lot of information about her, but I thought with her legal background she would be as good as anyone else already there," said voter Paula Hopson, 40, of Capitol Hill.
The other candidates included Umoja candidate Mark Thompson, 31, and independent candidate Malik Z. Shabazz, 32. Florence Brown, 84, of Northeast, voted for both.
"They were both young and active," she said. "I've seen their work and followed it in the community. They have different and new ideas."
Rounding out the field was independent candidate Sandra "SS" Seegars, a retired D.C. employee who declines to state her age.
Kea M. Prather, a 22-year-old photographer from Shepherd Park, said she voted for Seegars, who grew up in the city, in part to balance her vote for Williams, who has only lived in the city a few years.
Catania's party affiliation hurt him with some voters, however. Jerry Cubbison, 57, of Southwest, said he refused to vote for a Republican.
But Richard Summerfeld from the Forest Hills section of Northwest said, "I took a shot with [Catania] the last time, and I like what I saw him doing."
While favored, Mendelson campaigned vigorously to the end, taking nothing for granted. "I'm the pessimist," he joked, before the polls closed.
In the race for council chairman, incumbent Linda W. Cropp trounced challenger Joseph Romanow, 24, of the Statehood Party.
In Ward 1, Graham, 53, carried his momentum from the primary into his race against student Nik Eames, 26, of the Umoja Party; Republican lawyer Mark Leventhal, 29; and freelance writer Scott McLarty, 40, of the Green Party.
In Ward 3, incumbent Democrat Kathy Patterson, 50, was unopposed.
In Ward 5, Democrat Orange, 41, faced Republican student Ian Alexander, 21, who waged a spirited underdog campaign, knocking on doors and talking about issues in the ward.
In Ward 6, Democratic incumbent Sharon Ambrose, 59, easily fended off a challenge by independent Richard de Beauvoir, 39, a communications consultant.
As the evening wore on, the victors settled in for happy celebrations.
"The bar is open," Catania announced to his supporters, "and it's on the campaign!"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company