In Poor Areas, a Dearth of Campaigners
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 3, 1998; Page A01
In the summer of 1994, Marion Barry's campaign army came pounding on the doors of the District's poorest residents, rounding up voters for his crusade to regain the mayor's office.
Anthony Davis remembers the excitement as the Barry forces blitzed into Stanton Dwellings, a convoy of vans circling the streets of the Southeast Washington public housing development, workers leaping out and running door-to-door, and the taped voice of the candidate booming from a loudspeaker.
Barry's army returned on primary election day to get people to the polls. The former mayor emerged with an 18,000-vote margin over his nearest Democratic rival, John Ray, in the city's two poorest wards and won the citywide election by 14,000 votes.
"Ain't none of that happening this time," Davis said last week as he stood with a group of friends in the nearly deserted courtyard, surrounded by boarded buildings and balding lawns that looked like the ruins of a battlefield. "Ain't nobody coming around here."
Six weeks before the mayoral primary, in an election year many politicians have called the most significant in the city's history, there are few signs of campaign activity in Davis's neighborhood.
Throughout the city, utility poles are plastered with campaign posters, but those poles stand bare along the stretch of Congress Street SE that runs in front of Davis's apartment.
Although the candidates boast citywide organizations, most of their attention and resources have been focused on middle-class voters who traditionally turn out to the polls in higher numbers and who contribute money and time to their campaign apparatus.
People who live in the poorest sections of Southeast Washington -- Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River -- said in interviews that they believe the candidates have written off their vote so far this election year.
"Some of them seem to fear that if they seek the support from some of the people here, they are going to alienate folks on the other side of the Anacostia River," said Rahim Jenkins, one of the activists invigorated by Barry's targeted appeal four years ago.
Though the field marshal of Barry's 1994 campaign has joined the mayoral effort of D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and two key Barry backers have endorsed Democrat Anthony A. Williams, the city's former chief financial officer, residents say the race remains a rumor in the neighborhoods that once were Barry country.
Many people interviewed said they felt alienated from the political process and saw little reason to vote. Some, like Paula Gray, a 32-year-old single parent of seven, were so tuned out that they didn't know Barry would not be on the Sept. 15 primary ballot.
"I wanted to support him for the summer jobs he gave," she lamented. "Marion Barry has always stood for me."
The dead quiet of an empty street on a rainy summer afternoon exploded with the clatter of a rattletrap car bulging with eager campaign workers.
"Every door! Every door! Every door!" shouted Walter Glover as the workers scrambled out onto Congress Street in Southeast Washington. "Leave them literature! Give out bumper stickers. Get more voters!"
The scene four summers ago -- repeated in one poor neighborhood after another, from one public housing complex to the next -- had the precision of a military raid and the fervor of a gospel revival.
Barry's campaign commandos stormed from door to door, pounding until they overcame the din of air conditioners and televisions to draw residents from within.
They carried clipboards, registering voters on the spot and making converts to the cause.
Barry was not too hard a sell in these communities.
His troopers, who called themselves the Fighting 54th after a famed unit of black Civil War soldiers, pointed to Barry's impoverished childhood and his advocacy of programs for the poor.
The message was helped by Barry's messengers, many of whom were themselves poor, former drug addicts and ex-offenders, who had long been ignored by the political establishment.
And Barry's theme of redemption struck a chord that ran deep: He was fighting back from personal addictions that the white establishment had used to put him on trial and topple him from office four years earlier.
People registered in droves. In Ward 8, Barry's home and his power base, the number of Democratic voters jumped by almost 2,000 in the three months before the primary. On Election Day, Barry's workers came beating on the doors again with rosters of registered voters in hand. Buses awaited to carry them to the polls.
"We got people who never felt part of the process," said Atiba Mayers, one of the coordinators of the Fighting 54th.
"We pulled people out of the alleys, out of the parks, out of the crack houses."
The primary results were staggering.
In the three voting precincts that are home to major public housing communities -- Woodland Terrace, Frederick Douglass Dwellings and Stanton Dwellings -- Barry received 2,294 votes. The combined vote for the six other candidates in the field was 381.
The five candidates who have the money and organizations to wage credible citywide campaigns this year bristle at the suggestion that they have ignored the city's poor.
But few offered any specific battle plans to engage voters who are the least likely to participate in selecting the leaders of their government, but who are in the most need of government attention.
"I go after each and every vote . . . equally," said at-large Republican council member Carol Schwartz, who won 42 percent of the vote in the 1994 general election.
"You really have to reach out to everybody so that you have a government that is inclusive," said Harold Brazil, an at-large member of the D.C. Council who is seeking the Democratic nomination.
"Basically, my message is something that appeals to everyone around the city," said Williams, a late entry into the Democratic primary who in the last few days picked up the support of two key Barry operatives -- boxing promoter Rock Newman and the Rev. Willie Wilson -- with influence in Wards 7 and 8. (Barry himself has not publicly endorsed any of the candidates or given any indication that he intends to do so.)
Ron Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, said the endorsements of Newman and Wilson are significant because they give "Williams legitimacy among the black working class."
"This is important not only east of the Anacostia River, but if he mobilizes that political sector of the electorate, it will have an impact in other wards," Walters said.
But only time will tell whether residents will respond in force to Newman and Wilson's endorsements.
Warren Graves, manager of the mayoral campaign for D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), said that a race without Barry will result in "some people not coming out and voting."
"But it does not mean their interests are not going to be addressed and that we are not trying to connect with them," said Graves, who added that the Evans campaign is organizing supporters in Wards 7 and 8.
Chavous, who lives in Southeast Washington, has enlisted the director of Barry's Fighting 54th. Bob Bethea says he's confident that he can repeat for Chavous what he did for Barry.
Bethea acknowledged, however, that it will be more difficult to motivate those voters this time around.
"It was easy to get the people out because Marion had deep roots with the senior citizens in the community and the youth," Bethea said. "The challenge [this year] is to mobilize the people and get them to the polls."
Central to that challenge is selling potential voters on the belief that a candidate will be their champion.
The candidates have cast themselves as "reformers," focusing their platforms on leaner, efficient government, promising tax relief for residents and businesses and improvements in public schools and public safety, and stressing the need to develop stronger relationships with Congress and the D.C. financial control board.
"I think the issue fabric has changed to the extent that it's not fashionable to talk about justice and equality and treating the less fortunate with compassion, particularly as an extension of government action," said Alvin Thornton, chairman of Howard University's Political Science Department.
Thornton said many people whom Barry energized four years ago have become so alienated from government that, "anybody who comes along and says, 'I'm going to go into those communities and mobilize those people to articulate and protect their interests' would be engaging in a huge gamble."
"These candidates cannot do it, and a resurgent Barry could not do it the way he did it the last time," Thornton said.
Thornton and other political scientists predict a "depressed" turnout this election year because voters are confused, frustrated and, in some cases, indifferent.
As a result, he said, candidates are investing their resources competing for traditionally active voters, including middle-class homeowners, senior citizens and labor union members.
And then there is the issue of style.
"Let's face it, this array of candidates, though not all equally, generally have less experience and aptitude for engaging in the kind of politics that one must engage in" to reach poor, disengaged voters, Thornton said.
"It's different from TV and money and polls. It's people-to-people. You don't just wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to do that.' "
Winnie Carroll fled the stifling heat in her apartment at Woodland Terrace, giving up on the single oscillating fan that seemed only to turn over the hot air.
The 38-year-old took pride in her status four years ago as a political power broker.
At Barry's urging, she voted for the first time in years and made her daughter register and vote as well.
"Mayor Barry helped me get my first job," she said. "He helped the elderly. He contributed a lot to the people of Woodland Terrace." This year, she said, "I probably won't vote. I haven't seen any of the other candidates come to Woodland Terrace."
Anthonita Dooley, 44, a mother of six who also lives in Woodland Terrace, said, "I voted for Marion Barry because he did a lot of things for us. He used to come out here; he had a party right there in that park."
But this year, Dooley said, she isn't familiar with the candidates and doesn't plan to vote. "I don't know anything about their politics," she said.
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