Forget the sleeping pill. No use for it anyway. It's 1:35 a.m. Thursday and Philip Pannell, up since 8 the previous morning, walks in his kitchen, unlit cigarette in hand.
He's got mail to open, calls to make, events to organize: the annual Nina's Dandy cruise ride ("last year raised $19,000," he says); a convention-watch party for the D.C. Democratic State Committee; three candidate forums, all in Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River.
"Tomorrow," he says, "is a full day."
It's an election year. One of the city's busiest political gadflies -- so in-the-know, so completely connected that most everyone in local government has an anecdote to share -- is, after nearly 30 years in the District, still on his toes, still keeping folks on their toes. There is constant drama. It doesn't help that he's manic depressive (diagnosed in 1985) and has used alcohol (Milwaukee's Best, $2.95 a six-pack) to "self-medicate."
It also doesn't help that in the Book of Phil, little is compromised. Nothing slides. Broke a promise? Expect a late-night call. Ignored an issue? Expect a late-night call. He once called Marion Barry and told him: "I hope they cremate you so you can get a head start on going to Hell."
"I don't even remember what he was angry about," Barry says. "It was way after midnight. But that's Phil."
He's ticked off right now. "Look, City Hall sees Ward 8 as a geopolitical nuisance, like a gnat at a fancy picnic. See all that wonderful downtown development? Adams Morgan, U Street, Dupont are just booming, all very vibrant. Then you have Ward 8," he continues, upping his tempo. "Do you know we have no major supermarket here? Did you know that? If, if, if" -- watch out, the stuttering signals an approaching crescendo -- "if Ward 8 is a priority, if people care, really care, about what goes on here, we wouldn't be in the shape that we're in. The violence, the drugs, the trash, the high HIV rate."
Then you realize: The story of Ward 8, where he has lived for more than two decades, is the story of his life, too. How much it has changed -- "not much," he quips -- is how much he has changed. It's the same fight, on the same ground.
From meeting to meeting, he carries everything he is everywhere he goes. That means never forgetting that he's black, that he's gay, with "bisexual proclivities" (the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's oldest gay Democratic organization, honors him Tuesday night), that he's bipolar, that he lives in the poorest ward in the city.
He's smoking his Carnival Menthol, opening his mail. "I'm working on trying to revitalize the PTSA at Ballou Senior High School."
Ballou, across the street from his one-bedroom condo at the end of a cul-de-sac -- "Who wants to call it a dead end?" he says, laughing -- has "about 1,200 students and eight parents" in its Parent Teacher Student Association.
He is not a parent.
In fact, Pannell, 53, has no significant other, no insignificant other, no brothers, no sisters, no pets. His father is dead. Mamie, his 77-year-old mother, is in the Bronx. He lives alone.
Running the Show
Dressed in kente cloth, with a matching shoulder bag, Pannell circles the restaurant, asking folks to sign his election petitions.
The Players Lounge, a legendary hot spot among local politicos, plays host to tonight's meeting of about 10 officials from the Ward 8 Democrats. On a wall of the 31-year-old restaurant, near the doors to the restrooms, are four framed photographs: Anthony Williams, the current mayor; Marion Barry, the former mayor; Sandy Allen, Ward 8 D.C. Council member; and Pannell, in a dark suit.
Pannell is here to discuss a candidate forum and suggest just how things should go.
The meeting starts. He reads aloud: "Now, on with my recommendations. The president gavels the meeting to order promptly at noon. . . . The invocation is given by a Ward 8 pastor who is a registered Democrat in Ward 8 and who has done something to promote the event in his or her church."
The talk turns to logistics. Two minutes for opening statements. One minute for closing statements. How about questions from the floor?
Pannell cuts in. "This sounds parochial and selfish, I know," he says, jabbing the air with his pen. "But I don't care. We need to know who lives in Ward 8. Candidates should say, 'Hi, I'm so and so, and I live in Ward 8.' "
The topic of the back-to-school picnic comes up. "It's June," someone says. "We should have started planning back in March."
Pannell looks up. "We have to have a picnic. Maybe we can't give out backpacks like we've done in the past, but maybe we can give out pens and notebooks," he says, the ideas coming fresh to him. "We can draw up a wish list. Get candidates to contribute. Have someone underwrite a Good Humor truck."
Eugene Kinlow, the group's president, asks: "Is there a volunteer to chair the picnic?"
Eyes focus on Pannell. "Only if everyone here is on board," Pannell says.
Cynthia Glass, licking stamps on envelopes, yells out: "Do you really have time to do it?"
"Yeah," Pannell says. "I have time."
Kinlow, like many others, marvels at this energy, at what he calls Pannell's "24/7 work ethic."
"That's just how he is. He always walks the talk. Not just for years but for decades," says Kinlow, 42, who has known Pannell more than half his life. Pannell served as president of the Ward 8 Democrats three times. "He is a friend." Kinlow pauses. "He is not an easy person to have as a friend." He pauses again. "His opinions are very, very strong. If you differ with him on an issue, he has no problem feeling free to gut you."
Folks call this The Phil Pannell Experience:
"I hope this is the Brizill residence. . . . First of all, you know, you're putting that stuff like on the Internet and everything about Arrington and me, it doesn't mean anything, because you're such a garbage anyway. . . . Hopefully, this city will not have to deal with you much longer, because you are just a low-life heifer. . . . You can play this all over. . . . You can shove it."
The rest can't be printed in this newspaper.
Pannell left that message on Dorothy Brizill's answering machine, defending his friend Arrington Dixon, a former D.C. Council chairman.
Brizill runs DCwatch.org, a must-read for gadflies and activists such as Pannell. She transcribed the message, posted it on the Internet on Dec. 12, 1997, and has avoided Pannell since. Crosses the street at the sight of him. Refuses to be on the same elevator with him.
"That message was totally, totally unprovoked," says Brizill, who says she has known Pannell for 15 years and was aware of his "reputation": the late-night calls, the name-calling. "The problem with Phil is, when he believes something, he believes it very passionately, and anyone who's not there with him, lock step, all the way, is an enemy. Then he turns emotional and irrational."
June Johnson, a civil rights activist from Ward 6, has blocked calls from Pannell from her phone for more than two years. "I want no personal or public communication with him," she says. (Johnson and Pannell used to be friends; he campaigned for her in the past.)
"When I first came into town" -- in 1983 -- "and saw him in a public meeting, I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy? Why is he acting that way?' He was out of control. He is still out of control," says Johnson, 53. "I have heard him make all kinds of racial overtones against all races in this town, especially [to] women. He is one of the most disrespectful individuals that I've ever met in this town. If it doesn't go his way, it won't go no way."
Most everyone who speaks of The Phil Pannell Experience blames his harangues on one thing: alcohol.
"I do not have an alcohol problem," says Pannell. "I used to have a problem. But I've been in control of it in the past three years. I've gotten older. I can't drink the way I used to drink." He drinks two six-packs a week now. He used to be able to drink a case -- 24 12-ounce cans -- in one day.
"Okay, there were times that I've said things that I'm absolutely ashamed of. Okay, I did go to certain meetings inebriated and my behavior was totally despicable." He continues. "I hope to get better. I hope to get to a point when I'm tough on issues -- I'll never go soft on that -- but soft on people."
It's Always About Politics
He drives a 10-year-old Plymouth Colt Vista. He smokes cheap cigarettes, drinks the cheapest beer. ("It's like flea piss, really," he says.) He doesn't wear expensive clothes, doesn't take expensive trips.
"I refuse to be tied down to a job, to a paycheck, to whatever because of my politics, because of what I stand for," he says.
Pannell has had 15 jobs since he moved to Washington in 1975 -- all in the District, most of them politically related.
The 15th job lasted three weeks.
He was a parent outreach coordinator for the PCS Center for Student Support Services, a nonprofit that serves public charter schools. Pannell tells it this way: D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous (Ward 7), who chairs the council's education committee, didn't like that Pannell supports Vincent Gray, who's challenging Chavous in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
Chavous tells it this way: It wasn't about the primary, not about Gray vs. Chavous; the support services center, he says, should maximize the opportunity to have a parent in that position.
"Of course it was about the council race," says Pannell, who quit the $40,000-a-year job. The most he has ever made was $51,000, working as an assistant to Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education. "It was about politics."
It always is to Pannell.
To say that he loves and craves and thrives on politics is an understatement. He was a political science major at Fordham University (Class of 1975) and was a thesis away from earning his master's in political science at Howard University. (The uncompleted thesis is on the black neoconservative movement.) But it goes beyond education. He is considered extremely efficient, such a master at grass-roots politicking that he has worked (paid or unpaid) on every major campaign in the District since he moved here nearly 30 years ago. He started but dropped his own campaign for a Ward 8 council seat in 1988. He is running on a four-person slate to represent Ward 8 on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. He's a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston and will also be doing "color commentary" for the Joe Madison radio show from the convention floor.
"He is, in some ways, a political historian of this city," says Dixon, who first met Pannell in 1974, the first year a city council was elected under home rule. Dixon hired him right out of college, put him in charge of his Ward 4 office, on Upshur Street NW. He has worked with Pannell since.
"Look, some people say that Phil has had all these jobs because he is uncontrollable," says Dixon. "But it's not that. He just can't fit in a niche. You can't box him in. He's bigger than the job he takes. He overwhelms it."
D.C. Democratic Party Chairman A. Scott Bolden sees it this way: "Phil fights for everybody and he fights with everybody. He is unbought, unsold, unpaid for. There are no mixed feelings when it comes to him and his politics. There are no deals to cut with him on an issue."
Donna Brazile says she and Pannell are "kissing cousins."
"Phil is probably one of the last revolutionaries -- one of the people who still believe in what the cause was about. Justice and equality for all, and 'all' means everyone," says Brazile, a Democratic consultant who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. The two first met in 1982, when Brazile was working on the 20th anniversary of the March in Washington.
"That's why he stands for Ward 8 the way that he does. That's why he is involved in everything that he's involved in. He's never sold out. He's a man of principle."
'I Knew I Was Different'
"Your father doesn't take care of you. Your mother is not here. Why are we taking care of you?" his grandfather would ask him.
Born Sept. 29, 1950, Pannell was reared in segregated Newport News, Va. His parents split when he was 6 months old. He didn't meet his father, Philip, until he was 18. His mother, Mamie, left for New York when he was 4.
Mamie's parents, Mack Clinton Owens and Katie Massie Owens -- "Bible Belt Protestants," he says -- looked after him. They were strict. Lights out by 10 p.m. No card playing. No joining the Boys Club or Boy Scouts -- not that he wanted to. "I just didn't have a choice," Pannell says. "I knew I was different. They knew I was different. I knew very early on that I was attracted to boys."
He remembers four young black men -- in their twenties, heads often tied up with scarves -- who would walk around town, the words "sissies" and "faggots" tailing them. "In the back of my mind," he says, "I thought that would be me one day."
Pannell ran away at 13, decided to walk to New York only to get picked up by the cops 10 miles into the trip. He refused to go home, stayed in a detention center for two weeks until his mother, who worked at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, claimed him. She took him to New York.
"I had to do what I had to do," says Mamie Pannell, speaking on the phone from East Bronx. She has sickle cell disease, feels "very much up and down." Phil calls three times a week, visits her at least once, if not twice, a month. "I did everything I could to raise him right, to put him on the right track. He's not a dumb bunny. Everyone that knows him speaks of his intelligence."
'People Started Dying'
The Washington Blade, the gay weekly newspaper, wouldn't touch it. "Too incendiary," Pannell says now. "That's what the editor said."
So Pannell published the article, "The Black Gay Avoidance and Denial of AIDS," in his neighborhood newspaper, the now-defunct Henson Herald.
He wrote: "It is totally disgraceful that in 'Chocolate City,' Black Gays have no political clout. . . . When it comes to the Gay civil rights movement in this town, the Black participation is negligible. You could fit all of the Black Gay activists in a phone booth and pray that they can raise the change to make a call to get no answer."
Says Michael Saint-Andress: "You have to understand: Phil was talking about AIDS before anyone in the black community talked about AIDS. He was laughed at. He was ridiculed. Black gays didn't want to hear the message." He is sipping a drink at Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill, where on Monday nights there are half-price burgers, $3.50 a pop. Pannell sits to his left, passing around his election petitions. "Then, all of a sudden, people started dying. Then they knew, then they knew what Phil was talking about."
Black men were dying left and right, east and west of the river. "There was a period when folks would die on the same day, and I had to decide which funeral to make," Pannell says.
So he took to the streets, strolling Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the main drag in Ward 8, handing out condoms and AIDS brochures on the weekends. He went to barbershops, bars, strip clubs. He got so involved in AIDS awareness in the '80s that organizations would send him free tickets to carnivals and theater openings because they thought he had AIDS.
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the worst, reminding him -- as if he needed reminding -- that he comes home to no one but himself.
Pannell says he has been single since 1988. Robert, a doctor, was his last boyfriend; their live-in relationship lasted 13 years. "Living with you," he remembers Bobby saying, "is like living in a community center."
"When you're an activist -- I hate calling myself that, but that's what people call me -- what do you have to show for yourself? It's gotta be more than 'Yes, I had a good meeting today,' " says Pannell, eyes flat and impassive, rocking in his rocking chair in the corner of the living room he calls the "tranquillity corner."
He's just gotten home from a meeting. He's got another one in two hours. He grabs a beer.
Some people would call his condo a mess, Pannell says. Today, everything is in order. The carpet is immaculate. Incense pervades the room. The wall near the door is covered with postcards from all over the world. Right below them are dozens of buttons on corkboards. "Ward 7, Kevin Chavous, Democrat for City Council" (yes, the same Kevin Chavous); "I'm a friend of the homeless"; "Someone Jesus loves has AIDS"; "I love Anacostia."
There are also two crucifixes, a black one in the living room and a metallic one in the bedroom, where a wall is covered with certificates of achievement, appointments, appreciations. There are plaques, too.
"They remind me of the stuff I've done," Pannell says, sitting in his tranquillity corner. "Sometimes I look at them, and I don't know, I just think."
Of a life fulfilled, a life wasted?
"I just think, I feel alone, I feel unhappy. When you approach things with zeal, with passion, and you're not seeing the success you want, what do you do?"
Pannell catches himself, snaps out of this confessional. He stands up, flashes a big smile. Then he speaks of his projects: the candidate forum for the AARP, the revitalization of the D.C. Coalition, a black gay-and-lesbian group.
"I do have hope," he says slowly. He sounds as if he's trying to convince himself.