Get rid of D.C. delegate Walter E. Fauntroy? Why not, says Marie Dias Bembery, who is running against Fauntroy in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary and says Fauntroys main fault is that he talks a better game of representation than he plays.
Witness, she says, the fact that the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment has not been approved by the necessary 38 states.
Bembery's talk is not new. Other politicians have made similar pronouncements before. But none has run against Fauntroy, and time after time he has been reelected. Polls regularly show him to be the city's most popular politician, and no matter what the criticism--even after his visit with leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization angered many Washington Jews--Fauntroy has so far proven to be a pillar of District politics: no one has come close to beating him. To some, his reelection, despite the prophets of doom, despite what many consider strong and increasingly valid criticism of his performance, is a biennial political riddle in this city--a riddle reaffirming the fact that the gospel of politics has yet to be written.
Part of Fauntroy's political secret may lie in his roots. He is one of the few city politicians who grew up here, the pastor of his own church (Mount Bethel Baptist in Shaw) and he is the only person ever to hold the position as the city's nonvoting delegate in Congress in the 11-year history of the job.
"I don't think he will be beaten," says City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who in the past has toyed with the idea of challenging Fauntroy but now is running for mayor.
"He's popular, he has good name recognition," Wilson acknowledges. But, he adds, "I don't think he is as strong as he was five years ago, now; you sort of lose touch with people when you don't have to run, run, run. And he's not getting the best competition because politicians want power, not prestige, and he doesn't have the vote."
Wilson helped run Fauntroy's first campaign for Congress and has three times been elected to the Council. Bembery, who has never held any elected office, doesn't agree. She says Fauntroy can be beaten.
"I think it's the biggest myth in the District's politics that Walter Fauntroy is strong politically in this town," she says. "Most of what Walter says is rhetoric. In terms of realistic accomplishment what has he done . . . his biggest accomplishment is that he has conditioned people to accept a performance that is less than mediocre."
Whatever Bembery may say about Fauntroy, he seemed as politically potent as ever at his prayer breakfast last Friday at the Washington Hilton. Eight hundred people had come to his 8 a.m. affair. Sitting with him on the dais were Mayor Marion Barry, school board president David H. Eaton, Bishop Smallwood E. Williams of the Bible Way Church, the Rev. Ernest Gibson of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, Monsignor Geno Baroni and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young--an impressive gathering of national and local political stars.
The mention of a challenge from Bembery in the primary did not take the smile off Fauntroy's face as he walked out of the breakfast. "My record speaks for itself," he said after singing the last half of his breakfast speech. "If we are not effective we would not have got the Home Rule charter in '73 . . . not got the Congress by a two-thirds vote to approve the (D.C.) Voting Rights Amendment in '78 . . . I do not detect any great dissatisfaction with the way I'm handling the office of the delegate."
Bembery contends that Fauntroy actually hurt the drive for approval of the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment by undermining Self-Determination for D.C., the original group set to usher the amendment through the states. And, she argues, he doesn't serve the District, pointing to the fact that two laws passed by the City Council and approved by the mayor have been overturned in Congress during the two years. Moreover, suburban legislators like Rep. Stanford Parris (R-Va.) are now meddling in the city's affairs again.
Bembery's hopes for beating Fauntroy rest on her observation that only 46 percent of Democrats voted for him in the 1980 primary--when there were no other names on the ballot--and the fact that, based on his unsuccessful endorsements of candidates for mayor and City Council, his role as a political power broker is open to question.
But Marie Bembery has yet to raise money, yet to show any indication of name recognition like Fauntroy, yet to garner endorsements from major politicians, yet to sway any major interest group in the city to endorse her. With less than seven months to go before the primary, she perhaps is best known for being asked to leave Mayor Barry's administration in 1980 when she announced she wanted to challenge Fauntroy.
Her only political experience in the District is her work with Barry. That experience could help because she worked with some special interest groups--the gay community, Hispanics, senior citizens and churches.
Bembery has yet to break the spell. There is not enough evidence to indicate that Fauntroy, Washington's most popular politician, is as unpopular, weak and as ineffective as Bembery's contentions would suggest.