For most of his political career to date, Arrington Liggins Dixon had the right stuff. He was an attractive candidate, handsome with dark, wavy hair. His experiences as a patrol boy, altar boy and ROTC cadet gave him an appealing sense of order and ritual. His movement from humble beginnings in Anacostia to a prestigious neighborhood in Northwest Washington showed determination and good taste.
A decade after he entered city politics, it all added up to the right spot: D.C. City Council chairman. Now, for the first time since 1968 when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the D.C. school board, Arrington Dixon must contend with political loss.
For four years he held the second highest leadership position in local government, commanding a small army of staffers from a large office and sometimes from his Ford LTD with telephone antenna, tinted glass and special license plates. Next January, he will be out of his prestigious job.
"I am a little bit disappointed that my service to the city did not get the support that I would have liked," Dixon said during a recent interview. "However, I feel the result of this election represents a political tragedy for my hometown, not because I lost but because the dream I was defending lost."
He was unemotional, trying not to appear bitter. He had been incommunicado for a while after the election, spending time with his mother and not making the customary calls conceding defeat. Some people were worried about his silence; others thought him a poor loser. Dixon says he was just taking time to get himself together.
"It might make some people feel good to think I feel terrible, but I don't," he said.
Dixon was beaten in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary for council chairman by David A. Clarke, a liberal City Council member who had dropped out of the race early on, but then rethought his concerns about being a white candidate and made a last-minute comeback. The entrance into the race of former council chairman Sterling Tucker and the endorsement of Clarke by United House of Prayer Bishop Walter (Sweet Daddy) McCollough were seen as crucial factors which, along with Clarke's close-knit political organization, swept Clarke to an impressive victory.
Among his friends and foes alike, Dixon was viewed as a man in thrall to image-- and one ultimately betrayed by it. When his campaign consultants completed their name recognition survey a few weeks before the primary, everyone was encouraged by the 92 percent positive response to the question: Have you ever heard of Arrington Dixon?
But the same poll found that fewer than half the respondents were able to connect Dixon with the follow-up question: Do you know who the chairman of the City Council is?
Thus, on the eve of his bid for reelection, Dixon had emerged, as one campaign aide put it, as "a man well-known, but not known well" -- meaning that people knew his name, but were unable to connect it with anything concrete.
Clarke, in the months leading up to Dixon's defeat, had publicly referred to the chairman's oft-demonstrated concerns for protocol and perks as "petty."
Alice Finlayson, the principal at Bernie Elementary School when Dixon was a student there, was more sympathetic.
"If anything, he is an idealist," Finlayson said. "But I told him over and over again: Your idealism is going to fail you if you don't watch out. You are in a political job and your job is politics. You have to make alterations, but he just kept on. He was a beautifully mannered boy, very different from the rest. He had an Old World type of culture that just belied the job of politics."
Just what Dixon, 39, will do next after four years as chairman was not clear. He still uses City Council jargon when he speaks of the future. There are "many prospects," he says, which he must "prioritize." But he won't name any because that would "narrow my options."
His resume is impressive, but parts of it are incomplete. He was a 1972 graduate of the George Washington University Law Center, but he did not join the bar. He attended the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, but dropped out after his brother was killed in an airplane crash.
Campaigning as a strong family man who had taught computer science, implemented scientific systems and been a systems consultant to a prosecutor's office, he was elected Ward 4 representative to the council in 1974 and reelected in 1976.
In his first bid for chairman in 1978, he ran against the flamboyant Douglas Moore, a firebrand who was unacceptable to conservative black Washington. Dixon -- predictable, often noncommittal -- was a shoo-in. In Washington, according to Arrington Dixon, symbolism was everything.
"I think that the concepts and images that people carry with them in the end transcend their limited skills," Dixon said. "If you want to get religious, I mean the fact that people have religious images of behavior carries them farther than a skill in a particular area. I just think we have to be about broader values."
He says he now is concerned foremost about his family. During the campaign, he and his wife, Sharon Pratt Dixon, daughter of D.C. Superior Court Judge Carlisle E. Pratt, were separated.
"I was very hopeful that he would win reelection and now I am just sorry," said Sharon Dixon, who was campaign manager for defeated mayoral candidate Patricia Roberts Harris. "But I am not troubled. Arrington is more than capable of finding rewarding work. I believe the Lord always has a purpose and it may mean that our lives will be richer. It is already something of a relief.
"There is pressure in politics, but politics is life. There are more losses than victories," she said. "The true measure of character is not how well people do when they are successful but how they behave when things are rough. I hope Arrington and I can set a good example in that regard for our children." Says Arrington Dixon, "What drives me is a vision of a model of how things can work best together. I viewed the council as part of an embryonic government that had to be raised like a child. You needed a chain of command to make it effectively relate to the people.
"My dream was a unified city, where Georgetown was connected with Anacostia," Dixon said. "One may argue that now with Dave Clarke as the chairman, and he is white, and Marion Barry as the mayor, and he is black, that is symbolic of unity. I don't buy that.
"One of the things I really wanted was to have the Green Line to Anacostia," he said, referring to the still-unfunded Metro subway line that would pass through all four quadrants of Washington. "That's the way I saw myself: My link was like the Green Line."