I sat in the audience the other night when the D.C. chapter of Common Cause presented a forum featuring the six people contending for the two at-large seats on the District's City Council. I viewed all of the candidates with interest, but since incumbent John Ray is pretty much a shoo-in for one of the seats, I paid particular attention to the three top contenders vying for the seat Republican Jerry Moore was held for 15 years.
It's a spicy race because Moore, who lost the GOP primary to former school board member Carol Schwartz, is running as a draft write-in candidate. While Moore and Schwartz battle over Republican votes, Statehood Party Chairman Josephine Butler is trying to take advantage of their split. And all three are trying to capture enough Democratic votes to claim the seat. The race is further enlivened because it's taking place against a backdrop of Republican discontent and a little Democratic unorthodoxy: six Democratic council members are supporting Moore and one Democratic council member, Betty Ann Kane, is supporting Schwartz.
The forum started with a five-minute statement by each candidate, followed by questions from a panel of reporters. Butler, who for 50 years has been a dedicated community activist, and who has won the support of nearly every major labor union and the politically powerful Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, gave a frankly disappointing and rambling presentation -- a laundry list of issues ranging from rebuilding Rhodes Tavern to unemployment to the homeless, and fuzzy solutions for their cure.
Republican Moore told the forum: "I have knowledge, skill and experience. I do not serve Democrats, Republicans or Independents. I serve people. I'm concerned for you as people. The record is there for you to approve. It takes time to make a legislator; it doesn't happen overnight." Moore noted his chairmanship of the public works committee, his fight for Metrorail as a director of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit and his securing of half-fare transportation for senior citizens.
Since Schwartz was late due to an earlier engagement, I chalked up a mental score for Moore.
By the time questions were raised, the three of them were there and ready to go at it.
Schwartz, who said she opposed Moore's consistent voting with the Democratic majority, said, "I am more concerned about alternative voices."
Questioning her on her racial attitudes, a reporter noted that Schwartz's campaign literature emphasized Moore's link, as local president of Operation PUSH, to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Schwartz denied that quoting Moore as saying "there is not a nickel's worth of difference between me and Jackson" had "anything to do with blackness." It was only to stress his close link to the Democrats.
Schwartz, who is white as are 80 percent of the city's Republicans, had earlier elaborated to The New York Times that her literature "did not refer to Mr. Jackson's anti-Semitic remarks." H-m-m-m.
Schwartz, who was deputy chairman of a delegation that went to the 1980 Republican Convention pledged to George Bush, separated herself from the party's more radical wing. "In 1988, I expect to be for Howard Baker," she said. But some local Republican feminists say that in her opposition to the Equal Rights Ammendment, Schwartz's stand is identical to Reagan's.
Moore was asked about charges of being a "spoiler," and his answer was a combination of pomposity and effective communication. He cited specifics of his long incumbency and good record and said he was "yielding to the will of the people."
But if Butler's answers were vague, Schwartz seemed out of touch with the city's history and reality. Her response to the reason for the decline in the District population -- she blamed "high taxes" -- was refuted by nearly every candidate, with council member John Ray delivering an especially learned rebuttal.
Leaving the forum and with what I know about the city, my guess was that if it were a straight-up contest, the voters would go with the incumbent. But it is not a straight-up contest, and with its combination of party dispute and racial overtones, the final result is anybody's guess.