The first question at the Ward 3 forum came from the man in the white shirt, who wanted the candidates to rate each other on leadership. John Ray, Charlene Drew Jarvis and Patricia Roberts Harris would not do it. Betty Ann Kane didn't hesitate.
"As a former teacher," said the tall, thin D.C. Council member with the broad smile, "I'd have to give the current administration an F for failure and Mrs. Harris a zero for chronic absences."
The direct shot at Harris was part of a new offensive Kane has launched to convince potential supporters and contributors that the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the Sept. 14 primary is not essentially the two-way contest betwen Harris and incumbent Marion Barry that early polls suggest.
"I really see this race as Marion Barry versus an alternative," Kane said in a recent interview. "Everything indicates that the majority of voters are disappointed and see his administration as a failure. I've always seen Marion Barry as my primary opponent. I've been here all along helping people in the city. Where has Pat Harris been?"
As part of the new offensive, Kane plans to draw fast attention to herself with 100 fund-raising parties tomorrow night. The affairs are timed to coincide with a 16-minute television advertisement for Kane, designed to push her candidacy and to raise funds.
To silence whispers that her campaign is not worth supporting because she is white and cannot win in a city whose population is 70 percent black, Kane has become the first candidate to publicly discuss--and denounce--race as an issue in the campaign. Kane says race obscures debate on more important matters.
Kane also has been pressing contributors to give now, before June 10, when candidates must report their contributions to date and political handicappers will be looking to see how hopefuls are doing in backing up their claims with financial support.
She told a dozen potential contributors in the real estate industry at a recent breakfast, for instance, that she wanted checks or pledges "for $30,000 before I leave here." Kane's aides report that she "came close."
Kane is pushing to be noticed now because, despite her frequent sharp criticism of Barry's handling of city finances and the bureaucracy and her virtually nonstop campaigning citywide, she has not drawn the necessary money or support to register as a third force in the race.
Kane, an at-large member of the City Council and a former member of the school board, says she does not believe the polls that show her with 7 percent of the vote--about the same as Ray and Jarvis, but far less than the 27 percent for Barry and 38 percent for Harris shown in the early polls.
She is focusing on Harris, aides say, because the Kane strategists consider Harris' support to be soft and largely an indication of her raw popularity and name recognition from being a former presidential cabinet member. Harris appears to be getting money and support from sectors that Kane would like to mine.
For example, Kathy Molesky, Kane's campaign coordinator in Precinct 8 in the Palisades, an affluent, predominantly white area of Northwest Washington, said her own door-to-door canvassing has discovered voters who do not support Barry but who give Harris an edge over Kane because of her administrative experience--and because she is black.
"Most people know her from the school board, and she has helped people when they have a problem," Molesky said of Kane. "But they have questions about electing her mayor. . . . Race is part of it. They don't seem to see her as mayor despite all she has done."
The nub of the support Kane does have is with two basic groups: citizens concerned with city planning issues, who are angry with Barry for his failure to produce a comprehensive plan for the city, and many public school activists who remember her school board days. Kane's problem, so far, is that she has not been able to expand on that base.
But even as Kane goes after Harris she finds the former cabinet officer often an elusive target. "It's a Richard Nixon strategy," Kane said recently. "She's afraid to face people with specific proposals. She's unwilling to be pinned down on anything. I'm sick and tired of her trying to coast on her national reputation and trying to get elected without meeting people."
Harris has not parried Kane's attacks at forums. But when asked by a reporter about the charge that she is reluctant to meet people, Harris replied that she has an "all-day, all-night schedule" of meetings, of which Kane might not be aware.
"Its understandable," Harris said of Kane's criticism. "The warmer the reception I get from the people, the colder the campaign gets. It goes with the turf."
Dianna Brochendorff, Kane's campaign manager, said that if Harris does not begin to fade soon it will be difficult for Kane to mount support and build the financial strength necessary to beat Barry.
"There is no momentum in the campaign at the moment," said Brochendorff. "It gives the public the impression that Marion Barry, Pat Harris and Betty Ann aren't doing anything, that it may be a two-person race. It's not clear that Betty Ann can handle problems better and that she knows more."
Dan Pero, a political consultant who is working for Ray, also says the Kane campaign lacks momentum. "I don't see Betty Ann Kane going anywhere," Pero said. "Right now I'd say her campaign is dead. She's not breaking into any new voters and she would have to get her standing up in the polls to be a threat in September."
Kane's targeting of Harris is accompanied by a persistent drive to portray herself as the only sensible politician in the District Building.
"I have stood up for you," she told her audience at a recent forum. "Sometimes its been kind of lonely--being the only vote, being the only voice."
"I have the satisfaction," she said, "of seeing some things turn around--a vote to rescind the disastrous estate tax, a tax that three times I was the only council member to vote against. But now I need you to stand up for me. I need your votes. And I need your contributions."
Kane's claims have brought some sharp responses from other city politicians who try to cast her as a shrill vocal critic--and not much else.
"The person who spoke before me," Barry said at one forum, referring to Kane, "never managed more than 10 people in all her life, and secondly she submitted 44 pieces of legislation and not one of them was passed .. . . That ought to tell you something about her leadership ability."
In fact, Kane did get one piece of legislation passed through the council, the Funds Control Act, which requires that the mayor have council agreement for any changes he may make in the city's budget after the total budget package has been approved.
Kane's campaign fund-raising efforts have dragged from the start. By February, the first reporting period for campaign contributions, she had collected only $24,860, and by March 10, Kane had pocketed another $55,000--compared with $80,000 raised by Harris in less than two weeks before the March 10 deadline, $200,000 for Ray and more than $500,000 for Barry.
Kane refuses to say exactly how much money she has raised since March.
Despite the signs of trouble, many, including Kane's strongest supporters, refuse to rule her out.
"If Pat Harris and Marion Barry, both of them black, really go at each other, one or both of them could get hurt, lose strength and Betty Ann could end up with votes from a lot of people," said Mike Brenneman, head of Brenneman Associates, a real estate firm. Brenneman organized a May 26 breakfast at Blackie's House of Beef to raise funds for Kane.
Kane's presence in the race is a factor that aides to Barry have been promoting in private talks in the hope that Kane could draw some voters away from Harris. The aides have been promoting the idea that if black voters pay too much attention to Harris, it could result in a white candidate winning the race.
"Betty Ann isn't to be taken lightly," said Ivanhoe Donaldson, Barry's camapign manager. "She's capable of winning this thing."