There was a hollow ring to the official explanation offered last week for the rejection of former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker to head the District's Board of Elections and Ethics.
Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Government Operations Committee that unanimously turned down Tucker, claimed that Mayor Marion Barry had broken a pledge to consult with him before sending over the nomination.
But in fact, Barry spent many weeks privately consulting with Spaulding and other council members to try to line up support for Tucker's nomination. Spaulding and others simply were using a convenient way to rationalize their direct repudiation of their once-powerful former colleague.
The real reason for Tucker's rejection is far more complex.
Many members of the council said privately that they personally don't trust Tucker, who gained a reputation among them as a "deal maker" while serving as the council's first elected chairman between 1975 and 1978.
While council members agree it would be advantageous to find a politically astute person to replace Albert J. Beveridge III as chairman of the trouble-plagued elections board, they fear that Tucker might use the post to nurse his own frustrated political ambitions or to help Barry.
Last year, Tucker, now a private consultant, flirted with challenging Barry, later talked about running for an at-large seat on the council, and finally made an eleventh-hour bid to regain his old post as council chairman--a bid that fell flat.
Some political observers suspected at the time that Tucker, who narrowly lost a race for mayor to Barry in 1978, had struck a deal with the mayor to work quietly on behalf of Barry among middle-class blacks in return for support from Barry's powerful political organization--this at a time when Barry was still assessing the potency of Patricia Robert Harris' campaign for mayor.
Other observers suggested Tucker jumped into the chairman's race not so much to win, but as part of a Barry plan to help defeat former chairman Arrington Dixon in the race subsequently won by David A. Clarke.
Today, there still are some lingering questions about the exact nature of the political alliance between Tucker and Barry. Consequently, few council members were prepared to back Tucker's nomination and have him checking up on them as the chief enforcer of the city's election and ethics laws.
Nearly half the council members will be up for reelection next year and some of them say they are wary of the potential for mischief, such as nuisance challenges to their nominating petitions or financial records. Some fear the elections board could be used to punish the mayor's enemies at a time when the council increasingly is asserting its independence from Barry on a wide range of budgetary issues.
In rejecting Tucker last week, the council committee, which also killed the nomination of Valerie K. Burden to fill a second seat on the three-member elections board, clearly startled and angered the mayor.
Barry, banking on Tucker's public reputation as a former council chairman who served 22 years as executive director of the Washington Urban League, rebuffed appeals to withdraw Tucker's name. He had been confident council members wouldn't publicly embarrass Tucker, despite their strong private reservations.
Although Barry will probably resubmit Burden's name, it is uncertain what his next moves will be. But clearly his miscalculation of the council's sentiment once again has set back efforts to straighten out the mess in the city's election system.
With two lame-duck members, the board has been unable to hire a permanent executive director to replace Teddy Filosofos, the Buffalo elections official who stayed in the job less than six months before quitting in frustration.
The vacancy at the top is hampering critical work to prepare for this year's school board and Advisory Neighborhood Commission elections, in addition to citizen initiatives and balloting for two "senators" and a "representative" to lobby for statehood.
The only computer specialist in the election office has quit, the city's voter registration rolls are still clogged with errors and the remaining demoralized employes are anxiously waiting for some sign of leadership from the mayor and council.