In many ways, this political event was no different from all the others: D.C. mayoral candidate Patricia Roberts Harris at the Touchdown Club, promising to make the city great, its people better off.
Except that this was a group of custodial workers and among them was 23-year-old Marlene Harris, who did not vote in the last election and said she had no plans to vote in this one. Marlene Harris is a shy woman, and she did not speak to Pat Harris or even shake her hand. But the connection was made.
"I got the impression Miss Harris feels really deeply," she said. "I didn't get a phony expression from her . . . . I will vote this time. It might be my vote that will make her mayor."
Marlene Harris, who lives at Georgia Avenue and Taylor Street NW in Petworth, is the mother of two children, ages 3 and 4, and the wife of an unemployed used car lot worker.
She said she particularly liked Harris' plan to start all children in school at age 3, her promise to find jobs for the jobless, housing for the homeless. "She has high hopes, high dreams -- the same type dreams I have."
The meeting Wednesday night was arranged by Marlene Harris' boss, Robert Sanders, who owns General Maintenance Service Inc., a contract cleaning business with 1500 employes. Harris and the 120 others in the audience -- most of them black women -- work as custodial supervisors at night and attended the meeting on company time.
It was a group with which Harris, who is Mayor Marion Barry's leading challenger but still running a distinct second, has great empathy and rapport, according to her campaign coordinator, Sharon Pratt Dixon, who called the custodial workers part "of the quiet pool of support among women in this city" at all economic levels.
Sanders is himself an unlikely Harris supporter, being a self-described "old conservative Republican," who can't even vote in the election since he lives in Montgomery County. But after meeting Harris three weeks ago, he said, he became an instant supporter. "She can bring some grace to the office, some dignity," he said. "This woman is a strong leader."
Harris, who was fighting a cold, had come from another forum and looked tired as she stood on the podium in a chandelier-lit meeting room at the Touchdown Club at 20th and L streets NW, flanked by oil paintings of former Washington Redkskins Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell.
But she smiled often, spoke with feeling and seemed buoyed by the audience's warm reception. "This city can . . . tell the rest of the country that cities can work, Reaganonmics or not," she said. "It will be harder, but there are a lot of black persons in this room . . . and we've been making do with less all of our lives, and in this city we're the majority. We're the ones to show that you not only make do, you make it better."
Several times she was interrupted by applause, once when she mentioned that it was her 27th wedding anniversary ("Now think about where I'm spending my anniversary"), another time when she argued that "when children start early with education they stay later. Instead of leaving school early and graduating to go to Lorton, where it costs as much to keep them as it costs to send them to Harvard, when they finish high school they're ready to go to Harvard. That's a better investment of our resources than sending them off to Lorton."
Marlene Harris listened closely from the front row. She said she found the candidate, who has been characterized by her opponents as uppity and cold, to be warm, friendly and concerned. "They say she's high class, but she didn't act like she was higher than us. If she's made it that far, give her credit for it . . . . She's classy."
Marlene Harris said Barry had not kept his campaign promises. "He do the talking, but he don't do the showing," she said. She said she had seen him in person last spring at a luncheon at which she worked as a hostess. "He seemed like a nice person--but phony. He didn't seem for real. The whole time I was watching him, 'phony' was going through my mind."
The $4.50-an-hour custodial supervisor said she was impressed by the credentials of Pat Harris, a cabinet secretary in the Carter administration. "I was reading the front of her pamphlet. This woman has done a lot -- being a vice president, head of the board. She knows all about the government . . . . I don't know if D.C.'s had any women mayors, but it might take a woman to turn the city around, and she might just do the job."
Another woman in the audience was Essie Plowden, a 44-year-old mother of four who lives in Southeast Washington. "I like the way she said she's going to help the community--build homes for the needy people, try to help with the Medicaid . . . start the children in schools early," she said. "At least the mothers should have a chance to go out and work and try to provide for the kid."
Plowden started with General Maintenance 14 years ago as a "zone cleaner" making less than $2-an-hour and has worked her way up to project manager. "I work hard. Just like she said, you gotta work hard. I'm still working hard." She supervises 300 persons, and she said she would hold a meeting to tell them all about Pat Harris.
Not everyone in the audience was a Harris supporter. One woman, who sat in the back row and declined to give her name, said she had bought a lottery ticket the day before and won $10,000. "I'm all for Marion Barry. He brought the lottery to Washington."
Another woman, a District resident of 13 years, said, "Marion Barry's more down to earth. He's been there. He's struggled himself."
The meeting ended at 8:30 p.m. and the custodial workers returned to their office buildings. Marlene Harris, who supervises a cleanup crew of 25 at the Federal National Mortgage Association at 3900 Wisconsin Avenue, said yesterday that she and two friends talked about Pat Harris all the way back.
"They're all for her, too," Marlene Harris said. "They're willing to give her a chance." She got home sometime after 10 p.m. and still wanted to talk about Pat Harris. But, she said, her husband was tired and soon fell asleep.