He came from Ohio to the District of Columbia in 1956 as an outsider, named to head the local office of the Urban League, a civil rights group known largely for its accommodation with the white establishment while many blacks were starting to pound the street for their freedom.
Now, 22 years later - after more than a few civil rights battles trying to jar the city's and the nation's conscience to open society to blacks, almost constant pleadings with Congress promoting his adopted city and a taste of political life as the city's first elected council chairman - Sterling Tucker has become the embodiment of the Washington establishment.
What's more, for much of the city's influential white business establishment and large numbers of black professionals, Tucker has become their candidate for mayor in the crucial Democratic primary next Tuesday.
Quiet and steady, albeit sometimes a bit dull as he makes his campaign pitches around the city, Tucker to many of his supporters has become the "safe" candidate for mayor. He's the one, they say, who will manage the city government better than the incumbent running for reelection, Mayor Walter E. Washington, but who will not tilt the city ship as much as the third major contender in the primary, City councilman Marion Barry.
He is the one, his supporters and some critics say, who is the best suited, after 18 years as executive director of the Washington Urban League and seven years as an appointed and elected leader of the City Council, to administer the city government's vast bureaucracy in a way that city services will be delivered as promised.
Tucker has attracted a broad base of support in his campaign, but various polls have shown that his supporters are not as committed to him as are the supporters of either Barry or Washington.
One campaign aide has said that Tucker's supporters, to a large degree, are "people who were involved in civil rights, people [now] beginning to have a stake in how the city develops." In some respects, it's a "fast crowd" around Tucker, upwardly mobile people with more than a little money for sylish clothes and cars, European and Caribbean vacations and the best restaurants, clubs and discos.
But the questions pop up about Sterling Tucker as quickly as he finds fault with the way another D.C. program has been run by Walter Washington. How imaginative is Sterling Tucker? Is he a politician who can be trusted? Is he charismatic enough to deal with the city's varied interest groups that run the gamut from the White House to the unemployed youths who idly pass the time on the street corner at 14th and U? What kind of a mayor would he be?
"I'm qualified, eminently so," Tucker says, seemingly a bit miffed that anyone should think otherwise. He promise that a Tucker administration would not just deliver the "fundamental and basic" city services.
"I would have a legislative program," he says. "What are the priorities, overall policy. Here's how we ought to go about it.
"You've got to know what you want to accomplish. There's no plan now, no policies. The government just continues to operate from day to day. What Sterling Tucker would have is able people, responsible and effective leaders," he said.
With that in mind, Tucker has released a series of position papers throughout the campaign attempting to detail what the voters could expect from a Mayor Tucker. He's pledged that there would be more housing restored and new programs to help lower-and middle-income people buy a house. The schools would be improved, he says, and city programs to get jobs for minority workers would be enforced. Consumers and the elderly would see city agencies that work for them, Tucker says.
Even one Barry supporter, longtime civil rights activist Josepth L. Raugh, says, "I always had a high regard for Sterling. The Urban League totally dominated the (civil rights) field here. Sterling simply did a superb job."
But such glowing comments about Tucker often times are tempered with a caveat or two - from the same people who praise him.
"If he has a fault," says R. Robert Linowes, president of the influential Board of Trade, "it's his hesitancy. He doesn't seem to relate as well as his opponents. He's too formal in many instances."
While Tucker says he's not "STANDOFFISH," neither is he overly gregarious. Tucker treats the business of government seriously, almost to a fault at times, leaving his listeners bored while he methodically recites the minutiae of city programs in his somewhat raspy voice. He is not above injecting a joke or two or an anecdote as he talks, but his speeches and comments are laced with talk about the "tools" of government, the "priorities," and, above all, "Leadership."
Tucker, short at 5-foot-7 but always dressed modishly in crisp, three-piece suits, now routinely wades into crowds at political gatherings, although earlier in the campaign he tended to wait for people to come to greet him. Still, such rituals of politics are not a Tucker forte.
Tucker the City Council chairman gets mixed reviews, with some critics, such as mayoral foe Barry, saying he is "nt a maximum chairman in introducing legislation or helping to guide legislation." One District Building source who watched Tucker in action said his work "has been adequate, but not inspired. He's run a good meeting, but hasn't come up with solutions to the problems."
But two other council members, David Clarke (D-Ward 1) and Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), neither of whom has endorsed Tucker for mayor, gave him high marks for the way he ran the council.
"He conducted the affairs of the (city's) first council in such a way to bring it respect.He did not allow the council to become factionalized," Clarke said. "He does try to persuade members [on issues] but he doesn't try to stop something the council wants to do."
Shackleton, who says that either Barry or Tucker would make a good mayor, put Tucker's performance as chairman "up around 8 or 9 on a 1-to-10 rating. He's very hard-working. He's decisive. You'd get a more active mayor."
Tucker wastes no chance at candidate forums to let voters know that not a single bill of the several hundred the council has passed during his tenure has been vetoed by Congress, which retains that authority under the city's limited home rule government.
He points to the proposed creation of a city housing finance agency, which would sell bonds to pay for new housing in the District, as his single most important piece of legislation. The bill is under consideration now and may be enacted after the council's election recess, he said.
He also listed as major accomplishments his bill to split administration of D.C. General Hospital away from the city's often criticized Department of Human Resources and a measure defining where and how the city could deposit its vast tax revenues.
"I think we successfully moved from a council with no authority to one with a set of rules and regulations, developing an institution," Tucker has told countless audiences, then noting that he does not think Walter Washington has "made the transition from the pre-home-rule days" when Congress governed the pulse of the city government.
Rauh, the Barry supporter and Tucker admirer, offered a somewhat similar assessment of Tucker, saying he will vote for Barry "because he's more likely to shake up things around here.
"The government down at the District Building is about where it was 15 years ago when [commissioner] Walter Tobriner was running the government. Sterling has been rather apathetic about that. I thought that in the Urban League he was more for change than now."
Sterling Tucker, trim and youthful looking at 59, was born Dec. 21, 1923, the fourth of eight children of the late John C. Tucker, a foreman for the Akron, Ohio, city government, and his wife, Una Mae.
"I guess I was poor," Tucker recalls, "but I didn't know it. We had clean clothes, with patches mended on. I felt very comfortable."
But the civil rights movement was still two decades away as Tucker was attending integrated public schools in the 1930s. There were the inevitable racially oriented scrapes that Tucker remembers as if it were something that occurred an hour ago.
"It was a beautiful Friday in May" Tucker says, setting the scene for one such incident when he was in the sixth grade. "I heard fire engines and I ran down to the corner where a bunch of other kids were all waving their arms at the fire trucks.
"As the fire chief pulled up, he walked over and pointed to me and asked why I set the false alarm, which I hadn't," Tucker said.
The white fire chief ordered Tucker, the only black in the crowd of children, into his car and drove him around the block a couple of times, all the while lecturing him on the danger of turning in false alarms.
"That was one of the most miserable weekends of my life," Tucker says. "You get the feelings early that people think of you as different."
Tucker was a good student, earning A's and B's, but his education was interrupted at 16, when he spent 14 months in a sanitarium with tuberculosis. Oddly, it was an illness that 19 years later would keep him out of prison.
Tucker enrolled at the University of Akron, the city's public university, with the young woman, Alloyce Robinson, whom he later would marry. Their engagement lasted five years because her father forbade them from getting married until she earned her bachelor's degree. College for Tucker was a time when he more and more actively protested the discrimination he saw around him.
While Tucker worked as the first black busboy at the Garden Grille, Akron's most fashionable restaurant, he noticed that blacks, despite Ohio's public accommodations law, were always turned away.
One Sunday, Tucker and Alloyce Robinson and another couple, dressed in their best clothes, went to have dinner at the Garden Grille. At first, as Tucker remembers it, the owner wanted the two couples to dine at the counter, then out of sight in the annex.
"We wanted to eat in the dining room," Tucker said. "We insisted on their obeying the law and they did."
Two weeks later, Sterling Tucker was fired from his 50-cent-an-hour job.
After graduating from college with a bachelor's degree in sociology, he started work at the Akron Urban League while continuing his studies toward a master's in social psychology. His early work there presaged much of what he would later do at the Washington Urban League, search out jobs for blacks from employers who were reluctant to hire anyone without a white face. After a brief stint with the national Urban League in New York, he later returned to Canton, Ohio, to become the executive director of the Urban League, a chance, Tucker says, "to take nothing and make it something."
He also jokingly adds, "If I'd stayed in Canton. I'd have been mayor long before now."
It was in Canton that Tucker filed income tax returns that the government later alleged in an indictment were fraudulent because Tucker from 1951 to 1954 evaded a total of $1,661 in taxes by overclaiming his allowable deductions.
Tucker says that he had claimed some honest deductions for items "that I just wasn't able to prove - things like medical expenses and contributions for which I didn't have the necessary receipts."
Tucker eventually pleaded no contest to the charges, after he had moved here to be the executive director of the Urban League.
As Tucker stood in federal court on Dec. 5, 1958, Judge Paul C. Weick told him:
"It has been my practice in this type of case to impose at least some form of imprisonment, either 30 or 60 days in jail. But I notice in looking through your report here that you are afflicted with active tuberculosis?"
"Yes, I am," Tucker replied.
"So that if we sent you to jail you might infect the other prisoners, and it would be necessary to put you in a hospital. On that account only I have decided not inflict any jail sentence," the judge concluded.
Tucker was fined $500 and placed on probation.
Tucker says now that he was cured of tuberculosis at the time he appeared for sentencing and does not remember his comment in the court transcrips that he was not. In any event, he said there has been "no trace" of the disease for the last 10 years.
"I think I was a victim of the times," Tucker says. "I was going to be made an example of black leadership."
Tucker was pardoned in the case in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Nonetheless the tax case, along with other more recent incidents in Tucker's life, have led some critics to question whether Tucker is to be trusted.
In 1976, The Washington Star disclosed the existence of a $25,000 trust fund for the education of Tucker's two daughters, Michele and Lauren. The trust was established with a grant from the Taconic Foundation, a large supporter of the Urban League.
Tucker dissolved the fund after news stories implied that there might be something wrong with it, although the U.S. attorney's office said they saw nothing wrong.
Then last year, former D.C. Corporation Counsel John Risher tried to oust Tucker from the council chairmanship on grounds that he illegally was accepting compensation for lecturing at Howard University when the D.C. home rule charter forbids such outside employment by the council chairman.
A judge ruled late last year that Tucker had violated the charter but that he would not have to give up his council post as a result.
"I know I'm totally trustworthy," Tucker says. "That whole question of integrity is so basic and fundamental to me, it baffles me that it's an issue for others. More has been made of that than I know is justified.
"When I sneeze, it's sure to make news. But when I get housing for people it doesn't," he said.
Tucker's 18 years as head of the Washington branch of the Urban League were ones filled with growing responsibility in the civil rights movement. His was a moderate voice and he once called himself a "responsible militant." At another point, he noted, "We can't have change and keep a status quo. We must point up where the problems are and call a spade a spade, although in the politest of words."
He was a vice chairman of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington and five years later the national coordinator of the Poor People's Campaign "National Solidarity" march on Washington. Under his leadership at the Urban League, Tucker said he helped secure 75,000 jobs for blcks and start remedial education programs for ghetto youths.
In part because the Urban League was not viewed as being in the fore-front of the national civil rights movement, Tucker at times clashed with more militant leaders. He said, "The most spirited discussion we ever had in the (Washington) Urban League was over the Black United Front," a group that included a wide range of local black leaders including militant Stokely Carmichael. The idea was to create a group with a broad representation of black leadership that could speak as a single voice on black issues.