One by one, the Ward 8 City Council candidates arrived at a recent "Let's Be Neighbors" block party, eyed one another from a distance and took turns pressing campaign literature into the hands of residents relaxing in lawn chairs while children engaged in break-dancing competitions.
By the time the candidates had made their way along the street, past the colorful balloons and paper flowers, even visitors who were not Ward 8 residents were holding campaign literature and offering opinions of the candidates.
In a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination in next Tuesday's party primary, the four candidates challenging City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark rarely miss an opportunity to accuse her of failing to secure adequate city services and programs for the ward.
As Rolark arrived at the block party and walked in front of a lot overgrown with weeds, candidate Richard Smith, a tax consultant and lifelong resident of Ward 8, pointed to the lot and said, "I'm talking about neglect." Smith maintains that he could unite what he calls fragmented efforts to improve living conditions in the ward.
Ward 8, which is located east of the Anacostia River and encompasses the southern end of Southeast and Southwest Washington, is the city's poorest ward. The most recent data, from the 1980 census, showed that there were 77,877 people living in the ward, and that 33 percent of them were under the age of 16. The median family income for Ward 8 was $13,167, compared to the District's average of $19,099, and 36 percent of the ward's households were headed by women.
A major task for the candidates is to convince residents that they can make a difference.
"My kids can't walk up the street to school or go to an ice cream truck without running into drug addicts," said Marie Dickerson, a Stanton Dwellings tenant who lives close to 15th Place SE, called "the strip" by residents because of its heavy drug traffic. "I haven't heard anything from any candidates that . . . they are going to make my living any easier. If I had my choice, I would get the hell out of Ward 8."
James E. Carson Jr., a ward resident for nearly 30 years, said the last thing he has time to focus on is a council race: "I've been unemployed for one year and it's tough. I have applications everywhere. I worked for the school system for 14 years before I got riffed, and it seemed like nobody cared. For the first time in my life I had to get food stamps."
Candidate Leona Redmond, a community activist and an unemployed mother on public assistance, said joblessness is at the heart of many of Ward 8's problems.
As a council member, she said, she would secure more jobs for the area. "We've got to raise the level of income here if we're going to bring housing improvements to the ward," Redmond said.
She recently sought out Virginia employment officials to discuss making more Virginia jobs available to ward residents.
Smith and Redmond each expects to win the race, but political observers say that they may have just enough support to narrow the vote margin between Rolark and the candidate viewed as her chief opponent, District school board member R. Calvin Lockridge.
Lockridge, a school board member since 1977, has received the endorsement from the political arm of the Greater Washington Area Board of Trade. Lockridge said that he is conducting an "underground" campaign and is depending on young people, single parents and tenants in the ward's aging and deteriorating apartment complexes to elect him. He identified the base of his support as 700 persons, staff and parents associated with the area's Head Start program, a federally funded preschool program.
Lockridge's personality has a way of becoming an issue in his political races. On the board, his relationship with other members has often been antagonistic. During his year as president, some board members sought to have him ousted. His positions on controversial issues have grabbed headlines and angered city officials, Mayor Marion Barry in particular. In 1980, Lockridge recommended closing seven of the 13 schools in the largely white, affluent areas of the city as a way to cut costs during a city financial crisis.
Lockridge, who got his start in politics in Chicago and counts himself as a personal friend and political consultant of that city's mayor, Harold Washington, makes no apologies for his style. Sitting in the living room of his two-story brick home in Anacostia, he pointed to peacock feathers that border a massive collage of magazine covers featuring Jesse L. Jackson.
"I think the black male is the peacock of the black race," said Lockridge. "I'm aggressive. Some people call me arrogant. I say I'm confident."
As a council member, Lockridge said he would be what Rolark cannot be.
"A community in so much need cannot afford the luxury of a traditional legislator," said Lockridge. "This ward needs someone who is creative with the law and is a watchdog over the implementation of programs here."
Although residents -- even some of her supporters -- whisper that Rolark is running scared, she will acknowledge only that she is running "hard" and enjoys competition.
Rolark, like the other candidates, has walked through much of the ward, particularly the precincts known for turning out many votes, and attends as many events, "nips and sips" or church services, as energy would allow.
Recently, she rode through the ward in a 21-car motorcade that weaved its way down narrow streets past homes with immaculate yards, moved slowly through the courtyard of a massive apartment complex, up a hill past boarded-up buildings and through the business district. A Rolark aide called to residents over a public address system: "Vote for initiative. Vote for strength. Vote for commitment. Come to the doors. Come to the windows. Show your support for Rolark."
Rolark, sitting in the back seat of the second car, explained that the motorcade was sending a message to the community. "They motorcades are extremely effective. They show the weight of your support," she said. Ten of the 21 cars were sent by a local church, and local unions that have endorsed her were represented by seven cars.
"I'm going to get the majority of votes , and that's my firm belief," said Rolark. "I want to win big."
With one exception, she said little about the other candidates.
"I think he Lockridge engages in a lot of campaign rhetoric and he is doing it in an extreme fashion. To me, it amounts to a drowning man clutching at straws."
Rolark, chairman of the council's judiciary committee, has published a brochure that includes a laundry list of what she views as her accomplishments. Among them are: working to bring the Metro Green Line to Anacostia, increasing police patrols and bringing a new fire station to the ward. She also takes credit for holding annual job-placement programs for youths and working to bring economic development by "convincing the city to purchase" Camp Simms, the former headquarters for the D.C. National Guard.
William M. Andrews Jr., an AT&T communications operator and the fifth candidate in the Ward 8 race, maintains that Rolark has not concentrated enough of her attention on the ward's problems. "Name recognition is going to be a negative in this race," Andrews said.
But Rolark's supporters, many of them longtime Ward 8 residents and homeowners, said that Rolark has proved she is dedicated. They stressed that no one person could satisfy all of the ward's needs.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm satisfied," said beauty parlor proprietor Magdalene McDowell. "You can call Rolark in the middle of the night and she will come or send someone. Any time there is a crisis, she's there."
Rolark's number one fan is her husband, Calvin W. Rolark, president and editor of the The Washington Informer, a weekly newspaper, and president of the United Black Fund Inc., an organization that has raised money for tax-exempt organizations throughout the city.
Candidates Redmond and Lockridge have accused Rolark of having an unfair advantage because she can call on support from organizations funded by UBF.
Calvin Rolark said there has been no pressure on any community group to support his wife. He said that the UBF is active in the community and has made contributions, such as purchasing uniforms for local schools, that residents remember for years.
"We work as a team. It is just that simple," said Calvin Rolark. "And I dare anyone to challenge what we've done in the community, because we love the community."