As the borrowed '63 Dodge Dart edged into a side street off Georgia Avenue near Howard University recently, Maurice Jackson peered out from the cramped interior at the well-kept, working-class row houses perched on steep, leaf-littered hills.
They were hills Jackson would have to climb over and over to deliver his message to voters that he, a 34-year-old member of the Communist Party USA, is a viable candidate for one of two at-large seats on the D.C. City Council that will be decided in Tuesday's election.
"I'm Maurice Jackson," he greeted an 83-year-old widow. "I'm the working man's candidate."
Jackson's manner is warm and winning. His lean, clean-cut appearance held Sara C. Boyd's attention as he fished through his stack of campaign brochures outlining his "people before profits" platform that, among other things, advocates public control of local utilities.
Minutes after Jackson moved on to the next house, Boyd said she was alarmed to learn that "the nice young man" is a Communist. It's a reaction that is repeated with almost unerring regularity.
"I don't go for that," she said, as she reexamined the words "COMMUNIST PARTY" centered under Jackson's picture on his campaign material. Jackson had never mentioned that he was a Communist as he and Boyd chatted about Social Security and their hopes that Reagan would not be reelected.
Despite the proliferation of his political posters and his popularity as a speaker at numerous neighborhood forums, Jackson's campaign faces one glaring problem: his candidacy is tethered to the rock-hard reality that most voters in the capital of the world's most powerful democracy tend to be moderate to liberal, with little interest in a Communist point of view.
A middle-aged woman who asked not to be identified tossed Jackson's brochure atop a heap of Jehovah's Witness literature, none of which she said she plans to read. And Jackson often tells the story of how would-be supporters approached him on the campaign trail to tell him, 'Man, if you drop that Communist stuff you could win.' "
Jackson, whose activism began with his work in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said he will never leave the Communist Party.
"Oh no, Jesus no, that's the farthest thing from my mind," he said. "The Party and my family are the dearest things to me in the world."
Jackson, who is married and is a longtime resident of Adams-Morgan, is a full-time paid Communist organizer for D.C., Virginia and suburban Maryland. He is also active in supporting Gus Hall and Angela Davis, his party's candidates for president and vice president.
Jackson is no stranger to local politics: As an independent, he unsuccessfully ran in 1980 for an at-large council seat and in 1982 for the Ward 1 seat. In 1982, he won his first District election by becoming the Ward 1 delegate to the Statehood Convention where observers credit him with helping to bring order to the firestorms of opposing views.
In his current bid for elected office, Jackson is trying to ease voters' misgivings by asking them to concentrate on his programs and not the political philosophy from which they spring.
Jackson has called for full employment, full rights for undocumented workers, affirmative action, reduced homeowners' taxes, an end to all evictions, full taxation of local businesses and the right to strike for all workers.
"This election is not a referendum on me as a Communist," he said. "The District election is a referendum on whether the city will go forward or go backwards."
One of Jackson's favorite targets is big business. He said corporations in D.C. lowered the city's tax base by about $1 billion last year by not paying their fair share. "A billion dollars could provide many, many jobs in Washington," he said.
John Ray, the incumbent Democrat who is considered a shoo-in to retain his at-large seat, said he doubts that a Communist will be elected to the D.C. City Council in the near future, noting that voters remain chilly to the notion of a Communist on the council.
"Most observers see Jackson running as a Communist and doing something Communists do to make any inroads they can make into public opinion ," Ray said. "You can't find any strong leaders or strong interest groups that can give a campaign momentum taking his candidacy seriously."
But Jackson's campaign manager, a gray-haired woman with a sunny smile, said people still react to the mention of communism out of a stereotypical misunderstanding and unfounded fears. "I think they see it as destroying our society as opposed to expanding the human characteristics of our society," she said, refusing, like most Jackson supporters, to identify herself for fear of anti-Communist reprisals.