Since the Depression, Sammie Abbott has been yelling at local politicians and fighting as a street-level civil rights activist, union organizer, freeway opponent and jack-of-all-progressive-causes.
Now, at age 72, the perennial outsider if moving inside. Sammie Abbott will become the mayor of Takoma Park today.
"I never liked to get up in the middle of a meeting and yap my mouth off," he said. "The first time I did, my wife tugged on my coat to sit down. But when the issues are important and no one else gets up, I have to."
Abbott, a graphics designer, with an office in Dupont Circle, is best known for his leading role in Washington's freeway fight in the 1960s and early 1970s.
"The whites in the suburbs wanted convenient ways to get downtown, and it was the blacks in the District whose neighborhoods would be torn down for road construction -- who'd suffer," he said. "I coined the slogan, 'White men's roads through black men's bedrooms." It was economically and racially biased and I couldn't stand it."
As mayor, Abbott plans to establish citizen committees dealing with everything from playgrounds to zoning. During his campaign against two opponents, he called for a city zoning authority independent of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
He has also advocated changing the county borders so that Takoma Park is entirely in Montgomery County. Two-thirds of the city now lies in Montgomery; the rest is in Prince George's.
"We'll have a referendum for Prince George's residents," Abbott said. "And if a majority -- and I mean a large majority -- want it, then we'll try to unite."
He notes, "I'm no politician. I want people to get control of their lives and we can start in a small place like Takoma Park. People aren't apathetic. They're just without hope. That's got to change."
Takoma Park resident Cody Pfanstiehl, director of public affairs for Metro, says, "I've seen him in action over the years on Metro issues, and it'll be absolutely fascinating to see what he does with people like himself when he's mayor."
Despite his longtime gadfly role at hundreds of public hearings and board of education and city council meetings, Abbott professes not to feel uncomfortable about his new job.
"I've always been called an outsider," he said. "I've pushed for citizen participation in things all my life, and I don't see why I have to change now that I'm in a position to actually do something about it.
"I'm having meetings with every damn person around -- citizens, county officials, everybody."
Abbott started yelling during the Depression when he fought for social insurance and strong unions in his home town of Ithaca, N.Y.
"My family were business people, and I didn't know anything more about things than what I read in the headlines," he said. "How did I get started? Events moved me -- people out of work asked me to help them and I was strong-willed."
It was Washington's freeway fight, however, that really got him involved.
Abbott says he practically gave up his job as a graphics artist to serve as publicity director for the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis.
The committee successfully blocked construction of the proposed Three Sisters Bridge, North-Central Freeway and other projects.
"That was one hell of a fulfilling fight," he recalled, almost wistfully.
"We had rich people from Georgetown working with poor blacks. We had John Birchers working with conservationists. I don't care who's involved in our issue, so long as they all agree on a minimum program and forget about the rest during the struggle."
Tina Hobson, now director of consumer affairs for the Department of Energy, worked with Abbott on many of the same causes during the 1960s.
"In any kind of movement, you have the few people who glue it all together. Sam is the glue," she said. "Everyone else gives up when the job gets hard, but not him. He's a long-distance runner."
Not everyone takes to Abbott's methods. Hobson recalled when, in an effort to stop construction of the Three Sisters Bridge, Abbott had to be removed from a D.C. City Council meeting by several policemen.
Abbott and his wife, Ruth, whom he describes as "an omnivorous knitter and critic," moved to Takoma Park in 1940, where he first worked as a bricklayer. They have three children and four grandchildren.
His work on areawide issues such as freeways led to an interest in city politics. Once again, Abbott found something to fight against.
"We have a slate that's been running things for years," he said, rreferring to the group called Citizens for Sound Government that has controlled the Takoma Park City Council and mayoral seats since its formation in 1942.
"The incumbents or the people they pick were guaranteed to win. Then there was unanimity on the council year after year. I just got sick of it," he said.
Abbott ran for mayor in 1978 and lost by eight votes. He says he started running again the minute after he lost two years ago.
At the bimonthly city council meetings, Abbott has spoken regularly during the portion of the session set aside for citizen's comments. His statements often triggered acrimonious exchanges with the man who defeated him two years ago, outgoing mayor John Roth. Audiences used to joke that these verbal battles were more entertaining than Monday night television. t
"Mr. Abbott started the feud," said Roth, who did not run for reelection this year. "He said hundreds of things that were so out of line. I couldn't allow them to stand."
Abbott says he'll have no difficulty working with the council members who ran to the Citizens for Sound Government slate. "I deal with people as individuals," he said. "We won't be unanimous on things, but that's okay. When everyone is unanimous, it's time to get worried."