An average day on the campaign trail with Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark, the D.C. City Council member from Ward 8:
A young man, elated to have been hired on a new construction job with Rolark's help, dashes through the Saturday morning throng in the littered parking lot of the Safeway Store to shake Rolark's hand and get her autograph on a cash register receipt.
Later, at the Barry Farms public housing project, tenants spill out of the crowded gray apartments as Rolark's 16-car motorcade stops. Some want to talk about jobs and dilapidated buildings. Others just want to pose with her for Polaroid snapshots.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you don't have a say in the way this city is run," she says, shaking her hand at a group of teen-agers. "as long as I'm downtown, you have a voice."
In far Southwest, she pops in for wine and cheese around the backyard swimming pool of Jesse and Gladys King on First Street. This area, just off South Capitol Street, is a big-voting, civic-minded, middle class precinct of well-kept ranch and frame homes.
The talk is of unpaved alleys and bothersome tree limbs, and an assistant dutifully notes the names and phone numbers of everyone with a complaint. The candidate shifts gears to talk to these people, but the message is the same:
"I'm honored to be among you today -- and delighted to see that we have surroundings such as this here in Ward 8. And I want you to know that I am always available to discuss your neighborhood's concerns. You have a voice downtown."
In Ward 8, an often forgotten segment of the city east of the Anacostia River, the problems caused by poor housing, unemployment, bad transportation, crime, drugs and inefficient delivery of city services, could be a Pandora's box for most politicians.
But many who live and work in the area agree that Rolark, a 63-year-old lawyer who is running unopposed in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, has handled herself and her ward's problems well during her first term on the council.
"No one with any sense," says one learned observer of Anacostia politics, "would mess with Wilhelmina. She's gold."
In the November general election, Rolark will face Leon Parks, a 37-year-old newcomer to the political scene, who manages his own janitorial service, L & R Contract Services Inc., and has lived for 10 years at 3224 Wheeler Road SE.
Parks said he decided to challenge Rolark in the fall because he thinks politics in Ward 8 are "one-sided" and controlled by Democrats.
The ward encompasses the southern tip of Southeast and Southwest Washington east of the Anacostia River. Although many mistakenly label the entire area Anacostia, that neighborhood is the only one small historic segment of the ward, which also includes the blighted Barry Farms and Stanton Oaks housing projects, and the deep green, well-trimmed lawns of Bellview and Congress Heights.
According to the most recent statistics from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, nearly nine of every 10 registered voters are Democrats. But voter apathy remains a serious problem in the ward, where most of the residents are young and most do not bother to vote, and many politicians seeking citywide office virtually ignore it.
The precincts around Hendley and Patterson elementary schools, populated mostly by middle-class government workers and teachers who own their homes, usually generate the most votes, followed closely by Rolark's own Congress Heights precinct, which votes at Draper Elementary School.
Even though she faces no opposition in the primary, getting out the vote has been a big part of Rolark's campaign. At one point she held a 24-hour "registron" in her headquarters at 3117 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. "
Every other week, she and her volunteers have driven through the ward's streets, and, from a loudspeaker attached to the roof of her white Dodge Dart, urged passers-by to "roll on with Rolark and roll out a great big vote."
But in private, she worries that Ward 8's residents do not fully understand the power they could wield on issues such as housing -- a crucial concern in the area.
"I get 50 to 60 calls a day from people who have some kind of landlord-tenant problem," she says, "But they just turn off when I try to tell them how important it is to get out and vote on issues that relate to housing."
Ward 8 has the city's highest proportion of renters -- 75 percent -- and the majority of them live in subsidized housing. It also contains the greatest percentage of people on public assistance, and unemployment in the area is higher than anywhere else in the District.
Around the ward, Rolark is given high marks for her firm stance in favor of tough rent control laws, and for insisting that new developments in the area contain units for low and moderate-income housing.
Residents say tense relations with the police have cooled down considerably since Rolark began to act as an intermediary between residents with complaints and members of the D.C. police department.
Last weekend, at a community fair in the park across from Mildred Green Elementary School, police officers meandered through the crowd, laughing, talking and eating barbecue.
"this," remarked one elderly woman, "is something you wouldn't even have thought about five years ago."
She has strong support from the handful of senior citizens in the ward, from church groups and from organized labor.
R. Calvin Lockridge, D.C.'s high-profile school board president who is a Ward 8 resident, says Rolark ought to be more vigorous in obtaining solutions to the area's problems. But he concedes that she is "very concerned" about her constituents, and adds that "we will continue to support each other."
She has raised about $14,000, mostly from small contributors, with the exception of organized labor. In January the Greater Washington Central Labor Council cited Rolark "for outstanding and dedicated service to the residents and workers of the District of Columbia," and recently contributed $300 to her campaign.
Rolark and her husband, Calvin, publisher of the Washington Informer and president of the United Black Fund, are highly visible from their well-kept brick enclave on Foxhall Place SE.
A small, plump, fast-talking woman who describes herself as "hyper," Rolark insists that she is her own person and uses her office to represent the ward in the way that she sees fit. But there are those who believe that her husband is really the source of power in their relationship.
"They could easily be a black version of George and Cordelia Wallace," says one Anacostia politician who knows them both. A family member privately describes Calvin Rolark as someone "who is determined to be in charge of everything."
There are two children from his previous marriage. A daughter, Denise, 25, is the Informer's managing editor, and a son, Calvin W. Jr., 20, attends college in St. Louis. In her spare time, Rolark practices law, under her maiden name, from an office around the corner from the District Building.
Parks, who says he is conducting a door-to-door campaign, appears to be relatively unknown in the ward.
This leaves the Republican challenger unfazed, however.
"I am making a lifetime investment in this community," says Parks, who is married and the father of two school-age girls.
"I am simply stating the facts to my friends and neighbors -- telling them that it's time for a change in our representation on council."
Though his campaign funds are limited to "about $500," and he has no endorsements, Parks says, "I wouldn't be running if I didn't seriously think that I could win."