It seemed like somewhat of a mismatch. The short, salt-and-pepper haired woman parked her dark brown Mercedes sedan, strolled down the street and melted into a small cluster of people gathered outside Columbia Station, a scruffy but chic Bohemianstyle bar and cafe on Columbia Road NW.
For most of the patrons and bystanders outside, the favoured clothes on that sticky summer night were cutoff shorts of faded dungarees, tank tops or T-shirts. The woman, D. C. City Council member Hilda Mason, wore a prim navy blue suit and a burnt-orange double-knit blouse with gold bangles jangling from her wrist.
She was quick to put the people at ease. "That's my church down the street over there," she told a group of black youths gathered around a stoop next to the bar, as she pointed towards All Souls Unitarian Church. One of the youths, after being introduced to Mason, said he thought the area needed better housing. Hilda Mason, pausing briefly to admonish her husband ("Charlie, you mustn't block son campaign workers introduced her housing was in order.
Inside it was the same story, as Mason campaign works introduced her to person after person with whom the candidate quickly found a common acquaintaince or a similar cause. That very personalized, Hilda-next-door approach appeared to be working the other night. "I've got to vote for her," one patron said after talking with Mason a few minutes. "She's like my mother.
Some of her opponents have criticized Mason for being too vague on some issues and relying too heavily on a person-to-person campaign. However, a Mason adviser defened the approach privately, saying: "In a humdrum campaign, you have to talk about yourself. Nobody's listening to issues."
Of the 10 candidates running in next Tuesday's special City Council election, 61-year-old Hilda Howland Mae Mason's political career mirrors most closely the traditional route toward elective office taken here and in other major American cities. Mason began by making her name in small community groups and parlayed her successes there into citywide appointive and elective positions.
When there were few if any local offices to fun for, Mason picketed department stores and hospitals that would not hire blacks, and she was active in community organizations, such as the Congress for Racial Equality, that claimed to represent citizens.
Later, when city political activity centered on an elected school board, she was twice chosen school board member from the influential fourth ward, stressing her involvement in community-controlled schools after nearly two decades as a teacher in the school system.
Since 1974, when city voters elected a council for the first time in more than 100 years, the 13-member of D. C. City Council has become a major focus of local political activity. And now Hilda Mason, waving the D. C. Statehood Party banner and with strong endorsements from many of the city's leading Democrats, is trying to hold on to the Council seat to which she was appointed when fellow party member Julius Hobson Sr. died March 23.
Mason's campaign is built on a laundry list of her experiences in D. C. community and educational activities. It is broad enough, her campaign suggests, to include something of importance in most major areas that could concern voters. And Hilda Mason is strong on it herself.
When, for example, a reporter noted that one of Mason's major rivals, Barbara Sizemore, also claimed long involvement in human rights causes, Mason answered bluntly, "Yeah, but not in Washington, D. C."
Although there are three Statehood Party candidates on the ballot, Mason is the only one endorsed by the party, whose central committee chose her over Hobson's widow, Tina, to fill the at-large vacancy.
Mason, an early and prominent member of the Statehood Party, is not exhorting her party affiliation. It does not appear on some of her campaign posters, is not overplayed in her literature and her campaign manager Lola Johnson Singletary, is a registered Democrat.
Hilda Mason is a political realist. "Statehood means full self-government," she says, "and we're talking about moving a citimenry to support full self-government. To me, that's more important than just throwing around the word statehood.
"Do you think anybody in this city could win an election without the support of the Democrats? Even Hobson was not a party person. He was an idea man. It bothers me when in this embryonic home rule we are putting so much emphasis on party. We all had the same goals and we're pushing for the same thing."
Mason has gobbled up the Democratic endorsements and with them, some of the financial and organizational support that has traditionally gone to the Democratic Party, which represents three of every four city voters.
Among those who have endorsed Mason are Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, vice City Council members (including Chairman Sterling Tucker), most of the leadership of the D. C. Democratic State Committee and numerous party ward leaders.
Many of them, like at-large City Council member Marion Barry, know Mason from her days of community activism and school board work."She's a hard worker, dedicated, conscientious and courageous," Barry said recently.
"All of her efforts have been toward total self-determination for the individual," says campaign manager Singletary. "For example, she doesn't like smoking because you don't show enough discipline to help yourself."
When Mason, somewhat reluctantly, accepted the Statehood Party's draft as Hobson's potential successor, it was hoped by party leaders that she would use her interim term on the Council to boost her visibility. That she has done, appearing at many civic and community functions to which city officials are routinely invited and political hopefuls frequently are not.
The biggest controversy in her past years of public office was perhaps her key role as a school board member who favored firing Sizemore as school superintendent in 1975. However, neither of the two has drawn that issue into the election. DeLong Harris, who was Sizemore's attorney during the fray, is now listed as a Mason supporter.