Behind every successful woman there's a man. Eleanor Holmes Norton might be tempted to disagree, but yesterday's other big winner in D.C., Sharon Pratt Dixon, would surely point to her campaign manager and alter ego, David Byrd.
Washingtonians who followed the election returns the night before last, when Dixon rolled over her four Democratic mayoral opponents in plenty of time for everyone to get a good night's sleep, will remember the interviews with Byrd, a tightly controlled, slightly built man of 29.
He fielded the media's puzzled questions about Dixon's decisive margin of victory with the unemotive serenity of one who knew all along it would turn out that way. "I didn't have a lot of smiles last night," he said in an interview yesterday, "because months ago I knew it would happen. It was fate. It was bound to happen."
Byrd knows he sounds mystical, but he also sounds as though he means it.
"A lot of people can't see the picture beyond the frame," Byrd explained. "We saw she could win without the financial backing of the status quo. That she didn't have to cater to the powers that be and the special interest groups. She could win without eating at Joe and Mo's every Thursday. She could win because she was committed."
In television interviews election night, everyone was asking Byrd about the impact of The Washington Post's multiple editorial endorsements of Dixon. Byrd was patient, and not ungrateful, but he thinks "people are just looking for an answer" to the seeming puzzle of her victory.
The endorsement explanation, for Byrd, is reductive, and even a little insulting. "It underestimates the work that went into the campaign," he said, and it ignores all the evidence she and he and the tiny squad of Dixon volunteers could see week after week at candidate forums. "People listened to the pundits and the prognosticators but they weren't listening to the public," Byrd said.
The Dixon campaign, according to Byrd's articles of faith, knew from the standing ovations that her message was getting through -- the message she captured most memorably with the line about the need for a shovel, not just a broom, to clean up the District Building. The Post's editorial, Byrd insisted, just helped people "see beyond the edges of the frame."
Dixon's victory, of course, makes such talk seem visionary rather than naive. But Byrd is an unorthodox political operative, if political operative he even is. For one thing, he chooses to meet for a brief interview across the street from Dixon headquarters, on a park bench, to stay away from phone calls and interruptions. He arrives dressed not in the bow tie and jacket of election night but in faded jeans, tasseled loafers and a Dixon T-shirt ("Yes She Can!").
Byrd, who grew up in Springfield, Mass., is a Howard University dropout (he first met Dixon when she was on Howard's board of trustees), onetime Piedmont Airlines sales representative at National Airport (tickets, lost luggage), and former lyricist-producer for a Canadian rock group in Los Angeles (the Diviners).
It was not to cleave to the political center that Byrd moved back to Washington from the West Coast; he wanted to be closer to his mother and sister, his only family, after the death of his father a few years ago. And he signed up with Sharon Pratt Dixon, he said yesterday, not as a political junkie but because "I thought serious changes needed to be made in the city," particularly the high dropout rate and the economic conditions that threatened to make it permanent. "I didn't think anyone was paying attention."
Dixon, at the time the only announced Democratic candidate, was not a difficult choice for him. "I knew that anybody from the council or the mayor's office was out of the question."
After a few months' work briefing her on issues, Byrd recalled, "we just jelled. Without saying a lot to each other, we understood each other. She's an intense person, and I'm an intense person. She's a bottom line person, and I'm a bottom line person." When Dixon asked him to manage her campaign just after last Christmas, he thought about it for a few days and decided to do it.
So he went on the payroll? Byrd smiles a little. "I became head volunteer." With Jesse Jackson still talking about entering the race, contributions to Dixon remained at a trickle. As the three council members announced, the trickle became a slow drip. "There was no such thing as paid staff." The money that came in went immediately to pay bills. "You were either committed or you couldn't stay."
Those who stayed, and became Dixon's kitchen council, included Michelle Darden, who handled scheduling; Paul Rowe, who oversaw the volunteer operation; Virgil Thompson, who was responsible for community liaison; Adam Dennis, who headed field operations and "GOTV" (get-out-the-vote); and before long, Sonya Sims, who became Dixon's press secretary.
After school was out in June, they were joined by Dixon's children. Aimee, 21 and just out of the Rhode Island School of Design, became her mother's aide-de-campaign, taking notes and making sure phone calls were answered. Drew, 19 and a student at Stanford, looked after advance work and fund-raising.
But titles, through those long months, were a formality in a decidedly informal operation. "We all worked seven or eight jobs for months at a time," Byrd recalled. "You had to ask people to do so much it was inhumane." They responded, in Byrd's view, out of sheer commitment to candidate and cause during the weeks when the city's attention was focused not on the campaign but on the drug and perjury trial of Marion Barry.
Dixon had been a mayoral campaign manager herself -- for Patricia Roberts Harris, her mentor, in 1982 -- so the potential for conflict with Byrd was considerable. What's more, as a candidate, "she had a campaign manager who was very committed to her but who had never run a campaign," Byrd said.
Evidently she repaid his commitment. "Had I not had her confidence I would not have stayed," he said, "and I would not have had the confidence of others" in the campaign. "I stayed in the middle and kept the family together," he said.
Beyond that, he saw it as his task to "help her concentrate on being the candidate," something that in Byrd's view she does very well. "With all due deference to the others," he said, "she was clearly the best communicator... . They had 12 years or 16 years on the council to define themselves in the public eye. She had three weeks, once the trial was over."
Byrd's look says: You be the judge of who can communicate and who can't.
For a man who knew all along Dixon would win, Byrd seems rather uncertain about what will happen to him should his candidate prevail, as expected, over Republican Maurice Turner in the general election. Or perhaps he's just being polite. "I haven't decided," he said. "If she feels I can serve her... ." His voice trailed off.
"I'm not a political professional. I don't want to be a career government employee," Byrd said. "I'll find another project. Everything in life I've wanted to be, I've already been. I've been a good son. I've been a good brother. I've got an angel watching over me."