D.C.'s Reticent Mayoral Candidates
By Michael Powell
The speaker hammered at one problem after another. The homicide rate remains far too high. The business community hasn't done enough. And, in an unmistakable reference to Mayor Marion Barry (D), "the tired people of the past who are filled with excuses and devoid of hope must . . . move on."
The speaker, former U.S. attorney Eric H. Holder Jr., wasn't running for mayor. But his rhetoric was hotter than anything uttered to date by the trio of D.C. Council members -- Harold Brazil, Kevin P. Chavous and Jack Evans -- who have announced their mayoral candidacies.
All three have spoken sparingly of their visions for the city and are rather chary about criticizing the embattled mayor.
Campaign insiders portray this reticence as strategic. The candidates, they say, are biding time until Barry decides whether to run for reelection to a fifth term or accept a gilded retirement as a university professor. No one wants to goad Barry into the race with an ill-advised attack, or to alienate his supporters.
"They are all hedging their bets," said Dwight Cropp, a professor at George Washington University and a former chief of staff to Barry. "No one wants to scare off anyone."
But playing it safe entails its own risks. If the candidates hope to convince voters that the mayoral election is more than a beauty contest, if they want to argue that a mayor can lead the city as surely as the presidentially appointed financial control board and its chief management officer, Camille C. Barnett, they need to begin defining themselves and their candidacies.
Otherwise, the candidates risk forfeiting the reformist banner to which each has laid claim.
"They aren't saying much of anything," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who is supporting Evans (D-Ward 2). "You can't style yourself a reformer if you're not willing to attack the status quo.
"You have to get out there and tell people what you stand for."
Certainly that's the strategy employed by mayoral candidates in other East Coast cities.
In Philadelphia and New York, Ed Rendell and Rudolph W. Giuliani carefully laid the foundation for their campaigns in the first months. Rendell, who ran in the midst of a fiscal crisis, spoke repeatedly of demanding sacrifices from labor and cutting and reordering the budget. And Giuliani, in carefully staged speeches and news conferences, hammered again and again at the city's quality of life and the need to fight crime.
Once established, those positions became the touchstones by which the candidates defined themselves and their mayoral bids.
All three D.C. Council members use precisely the same four words -- "time for a change." But they have spoken sparingly about how they would tackle the city's toughest problems.
And that's curious in a city with the second-highest homicide rate in the nation, a school system ever teetering near collapse and a financial control board in charge of the city's nine largest agencies.
"In several special city council elections, the voters have said they want something new and they want different," said Terry Lynch, a local activist and director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "It's time for these candidates to say who they are and how they intend to earn our votes."
When he filed candidacy papers, Chavous (D-Ward 7) acknowledged that he would talk about the "obvious issues" of crime and schools. But he preferred to frame his campaign as being about "the soul of the city" -- prompting Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political science professor, to quip that Chavous is running for "First Minister."
Brazil (D-At Large), too, has spoken of focusing on crime. And he seems intent on sparring with the control board, over issues large and small.
Evans is collecting dollars and business endorsements by the handful. He has framed a campaign theme of "no more excuses" -- for a failing school system, police force and city bureaucracy. And Evans has been somewhat more critical of Barry than the other candidates; but, as a white candidate from Georgetown, he also is least likely to inherit the mayor's electoral base.
But like his fellow challengers, Evans has yet to issue position papers or give the sort of set speeches that attract news coverage and define a candidacy.
Evans attributes the seeming lack of candidate enthusiasm to the calendar. This is the time in an election, he said, where candidates work quietly, going door to door, church to church in search of money and votes.
"Mayoral elections in the District don't really get the coverage and the enthusiasm of the public until petitions become available in May," Evans said.
Perhaps so. But in an election year when mayoral candidates will face constant questions about the very relevancy of the office they seek, each of these candidates faces a special challenge to enunciate a vision for the city's future.
"We've been without effective leadership for 15 years," Cropp said. "Maybe people don't know how to articulate an effective leadership style anymore."
There is an added burden as well. Wittingly or not, each candidate is playing to two audiences: the voters and Congress. If Congress is not sufficiently enamored of the mayoral winner, it could extend the control board's fiat.
Control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer spoke to that reality last week, when he pointedly contrasted Holder, now the deputy U.S. attorney general, with the declared candidates.
"The machinery of this city is inhospitable to candidates with Holder's characteristics and courage," Brimmer said. "I don't see that changing in the next election, and that could mean a very long process of reform."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company