Contenders Leave Ward 4 Voters Unsettled
and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 28, 1998; Page C01
Shirley Thompson and Clyde Solomon are dead-cinch voters in Ward 4, a corner of Washington where elections are akin to secular religion. They care deeply about the city and never miss a vote.
But three weeks before the Sept. 15 primary, these longtime Takoma residents, husband and wife, sat on their porch without much of a clue about who they'll support for mayor.
"A lot of people are telling me I should take a look at Tony Williams," said Thompson, 49. "But I'm really just beginning to pay attention."
Solomon, 48, nodded. "I want someone who isn't afraid to make a tough decision, but I'm wide open. No preconceptions."
For the city's leading Democratic candidates for mayor, majority-black Ward 4 is something of a grand prize. Election after election, voters in this sophisticated ward turn out in greater numbers than anywhere in the city: In 1994, they were the engine behind Marion Barry's surprising comeback victory.
But interviews this week with Ward 4 voters suggest that they find this a most disorienting election. The familiar faces of past elections Barry and former D.C. Council member John Ray are absent. A third perennial candidate, council member Carol Schwartz (At Large), will be the Republican nominee in November. But the Democratic primary is filled with a passel of first-time and little-known contenders: Harold Brazil, Anthony A. Williams, Jack Evans and Kevin P. Chavous.
And those Barry loyalists who might have looked to him for guidance won't get any. The mayor ended weeks of speculation yesterday by saying he does not intend to make an endorsement in the primary.
A third of the 42 Ward 4 voters interviewed in recent days said they were undecided. Among those who said they had made up their minds, however, Williams was most often the favored candidate.
Still, it may be too early to place the ward's voters definitively in the column of any candidate. A handsome expanse of Washington, Ward 4 stretches from the brick row houses of Petworth to the bungalows of Takoma and the sprawling manses of Rock Creek Gardens and Shepherd Park. Seventy-eight percent of the residents are black; 53 percent of the homes are owner-occupied, the highest rate in the city. On its porches and shaded lawns, many speak of the election with a sense of detachment.
Mrs. John A. Kenny peered from behind her screen door on Iris Street NW. She's an elderly woman who said she never, ever misses an election.
"We're just question marks right now," she said. "We're going to read the newspapers, look at their past performance, and try to find a level of trust with one of them."
Gloria Freeman, 60, a retired art teacher in the D.C. public schools, remembers the proud moment when she cast her first ballot for a mayoral candidate in 1974. After years of struggle, residents had won the right to elect local leaders. Freeman voted for Walter Washington.
To Freeman, who lives on Somerset Place in Brightwood and is passionate about her neatly tended neighborhood on the eastern lip of Rock Creek Park, the right to choose a mayor signified nothing less than "another rung in a ladder of self-sufficiency . . . the same kind of feeling I practically had with desegregation."
So it is with a sense of sadness that she considers diminished options.
She voted for Barry last time and may check the box next to the name of Williams, the city's former chief financial officer. But her heart isn't in it. The office has been debased, she says, stripped of its power by Congress.
"Even though I thought I would not see the day, after having gained the right to vote late in life, I would say I perhaps will not vote," she said this week. "I simply feel at this point any mayor of Washington is a titular figurehead."
Her enthusiasm for the District's diluted democracy has waned.
"Whoever is elected knows he must be a pawn of Congress," she said. "I don't have a right to elect [Congress], but they have the right to undercut who I vote for and the direction I want to see taken."
He looms over the election, and the ward, like a vast oak tree.
Marion Barry came to Ward 4 in 1994, after serving a term in prison, to announce his bid for another mayoral term, and the ward rewarded him with a strong plurality of its votes in the Democratic primary.
Even today, in the first election of the post-Barry era, he remains a larger-than-life figure, prompting equal doses of nostalgia and relief at his decision not to run.
Martha Uzzell, 64, a retired federal custodian, harbors a protective affection for Barry. Like many, she took offense at the columnists and writers who ridiculed him, each shot registering as a vicarious slap at those who elected him.
"Marion Barry was a good mayor," Uzzell said as she lugged a bag of groceries home from the Georgia Avenue shops. "They took all his power away from him until he couldn't do no more. . . . If he was running again, I would still vote for him."
Wendell Moore, 37, couldn't disagree more on the legacy of Barry.
"It's time for D.C. to have a new mayor," he said as he watched his son and stepson scramble up slides and ladders outside Truesdell Elementary School at Eighth and Ingraham streets NW. "Marion Barry is hurting the city more than helping the city."
Home to 69,000 people in a city of 500,000, Ward 4 nonetheless has a small-town feel. Oaks and dogwoods frame neatly tended gardens, and residents of five- and six-decades' vintage speak of their decision-making as a deeply personal, almost tactile process.
Voters want to feel the candidates' handshakes, to look into their eyes and measure their voices and commitment. Such retail campaigning can pay off.
A month ago, Jack Evans worked his way up Eighth Street near the Maryland line, knocking on the doors of low-slung brick homes. Some might expect Evans, a white man, to find few votes in this largely black neighborhood.
Weeks later, three of those homeowners spoke of their continued indecision but said they leaned toward Evans. "I like the way Evans talks," said Henry Sorrell, a longtime resident of Washington. "He seems like an intelligent man. Right now, if I had to pick, he'd be it."
Other voters spoke of stockpiling newspaper articles on the candidates' records and attending another forum. They are not inclined to give points for rhetorical form.
"I'm looking for substance and authority," said Jon Goodman, of Takoma, who favors Evans or Williams. "I hear Chavous talking about bringing back family restaurants c'mon, is that the most important issue?"
Among those voters who have decided on a candidate, a large majority said they leaned toward Williams although several said they might switch to Schwartz, the Republican, in the general election. But even they seemed a bit uncomfortable with their decision, unsure if this accomplished technocrat with the cool personality could lead their city.
"I worry about his interpersonal skills in a very diverse city," said David Hamilton, a Takoma architect. "I wonder if we need someone with a bit of charisma."
For some, the changing of the political guard may come too late. Twelve percent of the ward's population has left since 1990, as residents look elsewhere for good schools, thriving commercial strips and a functioning political class.
Pat Williams teeters on that very same edge now. She grew up in a leafy neighborhood north of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and teaches at Sidwell Friends School. Her husband is a physician, and she said they will vote for Williams.
"As an African American, I think it's highly desirable to have someone who has done a good job and presents himself and our city well before the nation," she said. "I won't have to worry where he is on Saturday night."
That said, she and her husband are ever so painfully considering a suburban move.
"I'd love to feel good about this city again, love to," she said. "I used to feel so proud of being a Washingtonian. I want that feeling again."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company