Williams in Lead in Race for Mayor
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 30, 1998; Page A1
Washington's former chief financial officer, Anthony A. Williams, holds a commanding lead in the District's Democratic mayoral race, just three months after he made a late entry into the contest, a Washington Post survey shows.
Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed said they plan to vote for Williams in the Sept. 15 primary. His three leading rivals trail far behind, with Kevin P. Chavous drawing 19 percent, Harold Brazil 8 percent and Jack Evans 7 percent.
Williams's support cuts across ward and racial lines, the survey shows. He leads in six of the city's eight wards and finished second to Chavous in Wards 7 and 8, both east of the Anacostia River.
Two out of three white voters favor Williams. Among black voters, who make up about 70 percent of the likely Democratic voters, Williams holds a 28 percent to 25 percent lead over Chavous, which is considered a statistical dead heat. Brazil received the support of 9 percent of likely black voters, and Evans received 5 percent.
A spokesman for the Chavous campaign said the candidate would respond after the results of the Post poll have been published and Chavous has had a chance to analyze them.
About half of those who expressed support for one candidate over another said there was "at least a chance" that they might change their mind. Candidates need to gain only a plurality, not a majority, of the votes to win the primary.
The poll was conducted Aug. 24 to 27 and is based on telephone interviews with 1,139 randomly selected adults who are Democrats and said they are likely to vote. Most of those surveyed said they place a higher premium on management than on charisma. Asked to choose between a mayor who is a good manager and a mayor who is an inspiring leader, six in 10 favored a good manager.
That plays to Williams's reputation as the man who took over as chief financial officer in 1995 and straightened out the District's notoriously tangled taxes and finances. About 63 percent of likely voters also said they believe that Williams has "new ideas for solving the city's problems."
Washington has never elected a Republican mayor, so the winner in the Democratic primary would be regarded as the heavy favorite in the Nov. 3 general election. But the survey suggests that the Republican candidate, Carol Schwartz, could run a strong campaign this year. Her favorability rating of 56 percent was as high as any of the Democrats.
The survey results reveal decided problems for Brazil and Evans. Both launched their campaigns before Williams got into the race and seemed to possess substantial electoral muscle.
Brazil was the only candidate who had run a successful citywide campaign previously, winning an at-large seat on the D.C. Council two years ago. And Evans declared his candidacy nearly a year ago, relentlessly raising money and cobbling together a handsome political machine.
But Williams, the survey suggests, is now eclipsing both candidates.
In the Post survey, Brazil and Evans claimed just single-digit support everywhere except in their home wards. Even in his Ward 2 base, Evans was supported by just 15 percent of likely voters while 47 percent supported Williams.
"It is simply hard for me to believe these numbers given the reaction from voters as I campaign," Evans said yesterday. "Many are telling me, some whispering to me, that they are going to vote for me."
Evans has struggled with the erosion of his political base for more than a month. He failed to win several key endorsements in his ward, including those of some gay Democratic organizations.
Jeffrey Levi, 44, a white researcher at George Washington University who was among those called in the Post survey, said he intends to vote for Williams. But Levi, who has a long history as a campaigner for gay rights issues, acknowledged some discomfort with his decision.
"Evans has been very supportive of the gay community," Levi said. "He's always been someone we could count on and can still count on."
But Williams, Levi added, is "a rare exception: someone who has not been part of the old political system who has made it to the first tier of candidates."
The news wasn't any better for Brazil. He represented Ward 6 for four years before winning an at-large council seat, and he was accustomed to ringing up wide victory margins in his home ward. But 35 percent of the Ward 6 voters surveyed support Williams compared with 17 percent for Brazil.
Brazil's campaign manager, Don Jones, did not dispute that Williams is in the lead. But he said Brazil's polls show "it's much closer than that."
The survey indicated that Brazil's recent decision to launch a series of attacks on his opponents may have backfired with voters who are trying to discern among four leading Democratic candidates of similar age and background.
For his mayoral choice, Flippen said he is trying to decide between Evans and Chavous.
Carol Ruppell, a government relations specialist who lives in McLean Gardens in Ward 3, was no less turned off by Brazil's tactics. "Brazil has been low-brow and offensive," she said.
Ruppell is one of many Ward 3 voters who are leaning toward Williams. According to the Post survey, he has the support of six in 10 likely voters in Ward 3. Ruppell, who is white, said her decision was rather easy.
"Williams is a sophisticated person who transcends local Washington," she said. "He was very effective in finances and realistic in his approach."
Williams also leads in Ward 4, where more voters turned out than in any other ward in the last mayoral primary. Four out of 10 Ward 4 voters say they will vote for Williams. He also leads the fields in Ward 5 and 6, where he received the support of about one-third of the probable voters.
The survey found that 88 percent of likely voters approved of Barry's decision not to seek reelection. The people who said they supported Barry in 1994 favor Chavous by a narrow margin over Williams.
But some of the mayor's supporters simply seemed dispirited.
"To be honest, I haven't really followed up on any of the candidates," said Tamika Plowden, a black 22-year-old resident of Ward 8, who voted for Barry in 1994. "If I have time, I'll try to vote."
The survey suggests that without Williams in the race, Chavous might well lead the electoral field.
One in four Williams supporters say Chavous is their second choice. And Chavous leads Williams by substantial margins east of the Anacostia River. In Ward 7, which he represents on the council, Chavous held a 2 to 1 advantage over Williams. He had a somewhat smaller lead in Ward 8.
"I would love to see Chavous as mayor," said Dorothy Powell, a black 50-year-old resident of Ward 7 and a secretary with the U.S. Navy. "His local constituency services are very good."
That said, Chavous is not nearly as strong in his home ward as he'd like to be, drawing support from just 43 percent of Ward 7 voters. And the Post survey suggests something of a class split within the black community.
Williams enjoys a larger lead among middle-class and affluent African Americans. He currently claims the support of 39 percent of all District blacks with household incomes more than $50,000, easily outdistancing Chavous, who was the choice of 24 percent of those voters.
Among blacks with household incomes less than $20,000, Chavous claimed 23 percent of the likely vote while Williams had 20 percent. A potential problem for Chavous is that low-income voters historically are less likely to vote than more affluent voters.
Chavous has heralded his leadership abilities, promising repeatedly on the campaign trail that he will be a leader, not a "mere bean counter." That resonates with some voters.
"I think the city has enough managers," said Flippen, the Adams-Morgan executive. "The city needs an inspiring leader."
But the survey results suggest that, for most voters, it could be the wrong message at the wrong time. After years of fiscal crisis and managerial breakdown, a decided majority of likely voters said they want a mayor with managerial experience.
Williams holds a 3 to 1 advantage over Chavous among those voters, while Chavous leads Williams by a 3 to 2 margin among those who seek an engaging leader for the city.
With the election just two weeks away, the survey indicates that Williams possesses a number of strengths. Asked a series of questions about the attributes of candidates who would look out for their interests, who would deal best with Congress and who had new ideas Williams finished either first or in a tie with Chavous.
A majority of those surveyed said they had a favorable impression of Williams, giving him a 55 percent favorability rating, with 13 percent unfavorable. Chavous's favorability rating was 54 percent to 15 percent, Evans's 42 percent to 15 percent, and Brazil's 38 percent to 29 percent.
There remain a number of potential problems for Williams, however. About 20 percent of the likely voters have yet to make up their minds. And they are disproportionately African American and less affluent, and consistently view Chavous more favorably than they do Williams, according to the poll.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
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