At a victory celebration for the District's rent control referendum last Tuesday night, some tenant activists from Ward 6 took up a new battle cry.
"Down with Nadine," they shouted.
Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and two other council members who opposed the referendum, which negated council legislation that loosened rent controls, are up for reelection next year and are being targeted by some tenant groups for defeat.
The slim referendum victory has convinced some activists that finding candidates to oppose Winter, William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) and Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) would be the best way to get a council majority sympathetic to their views on housing issues.
But political observers say tenant groups may find that picking a political fight is easier than winning one, especially when most of the campaign experience and organizational skills are on the other side. Spaulding and Winter have been elected for three terms, and Kane is completing her second.
"Unless they tenant activists start to organize in a more traditional and political manner, I don't think they are going to defeat anybody," said Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), who supported the referendum. "We had to be leading 2 to 1 when we first got into this referendum, and we almost watched it defeated. The tenants' campaign was run like a movement, not like a political campaign."
Winter went further, saying that tenant activists who try to build on the narrow referendum margin as if it were a major victory should "bow their heads in shame."
The referendum vote was almost a dead heat in Winter's Ward 6, with the measure losing by 34 votes in that ward.
"I don't want to be overconfident," said Winter, "but if they can't even carry my ward, I don't think I'm vulnerable at all. I've been targeted before. That doesn't bother me. It was the crowd that crucified Christ. There is nothing anybody can do to destroy my activism."
The key group that has targeted the council members is the Tenant Organization Political Action Committee (TOPAC), a six-month-old group that so far has raised $600 for the 1986 election.
The referendum passed by a slim margin of 22,403 votes to 21,681, which would seem to offer little insight into whether at-large council member Kane's citywide constituency is ready to toss her out.
And, in addition to its narrow loss in Winter's ward, the referendum received a 16-vote defeat in Spaulding's Ward 5.
Nevertheless, Idus Holmes, president of TOPAC and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, said that tenants are on the offensive.
Holmes cited the fact that the tenants managed to win at all, even though their $3,000 grass-roots effort was up against a $21,000 antireferendum campaign supported by seven City Council members, plus Mayor Marion Barry and the real estate industry.
"I think we stand an excellent chance of defeating some council members," said Holmes. "My view is that commitment, hard work and fairness will win out over money."
Jim Henderson, one of the leaders of the Committee to Save Rental Housing, said he is certain that more people will pay attention, now that tenants have demonstrated that they have political muscle to flex.
"We have demonstrated that we can be effective," said Henderson. "I think you'll see us much more effective in the future, because we would have learned how to play the game."
But political observers say that unless the tenant groups find a candidate with strong name recognition, it will be difficult to beat Kane, who in 1982 easily defeated her opposition in the primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
In the cases of Spaulding and Winter, however, there is considerable debate over their strengths.
About half the housing units in Ward 5, which includes most of Northeast Washington, are occupied by renters, according to the most recent city government statistics.
Some residents say the closeness of Tuesday's vote is one indication that Spaulding's views are not overwhelmingly supported by his constituents.
Harry Thomas, Ward 5 chairman on the Democratic State Committee, said that a growing number of people view Spaulding as a weak council member who has won in the past only because of his access to the mayor's political organization and because large fields of candidates split the vote.
Bob King, a former Spaulding challenger, said that some potential Ward 5 candidates hope to increase the chances of defeating Spaulding by putting their efforts behind one candidate.
Others say that, of all the members targeted, Spaulding may be the easiest mark. Bernard Demczuk, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, said he has urged tenants to maximize their efforts in 1986 by focusing all their energies on defeating Spaulding.
"I think he is very vulnerable," said Demczuk. "I also think that labor, tenants, women, the churches and some small businesses would be able to rally around a good candidate against Spaulding."
In response, Spaulding said that "any politician who has an opponent is being targeted" and that he does not believe that rent control will be a major issue.
"There was a real drive in my ward to get people out to vote for the referendum," Spaulding said. "With all of their efforts, they were still unable to get it passed. I just see it as a sign that the people are as divided as the council was."
In Winter's case, tenants have singled her out because she introduced the idea of exempting single-family homes owned by fewer than five persons from rent control as the homes become vacant -- one of four provisions eliminated by the referendum.
Ward 6, which includes about 74,900 residents, is one of the most diverse wards in the city and poses a complex political problem for Winter. The ward stretches from posh, affluent Capitol Hill through the gentrified areas of near Northeast and Southeast and includes a low-income wedge of Anacostia east of the river.
Election results show that Winter's constituents in Anacostia strongly favored the referendum while her Capitol Hill voters were strongly against it.
Some Ward 6 residents said, however, that this split does not give an accurate clue to Winter's strength in the ward.
Bernice S. Brown, a supporter of the referendum and a resident at Marbury Plaza, a 673-unit complex on Good Hope Road in Anacostia, said that while rent control has been an issue, people may overestimate its impact on Winter's popularity. Brown said that only a small number of Marbury Plaza's tenants bothered to vote.
"Rent control is an issue here," said Brown, "but it is going to take more than one issue to work against [Winter]. If she is vulnerable, it is probably on the Anacostia side of the river. But I don't think anything could beat her on Capitol Hill."
Howard Croft, another resident of Ward 6, disagreed. He said that people on both sides of the river are concerned that Winter is linked too closely with real estate interests. He noted that prominent real estate agents joined Barry in sponsoring a fund raiser last week for Winter.
"We are going to find a person to run against her," Croft said, "and I think the implication of the referendum vote is that she ought to stop to pack, because the eviction notice is in the mail."
Theodis R. (Ted) Gay, former chairman of the Democratic State Committee, said that he is "very seriously considering" challenging Winter next year and would expect much of his support to come from people who believe that Winter's positions on issues are too flexible.
Winter counters that Gay "is where he is because I helped put him there," and that the supporters he claims actually back her. She stressed that the referendum's supporters include a group of people who never have backed her campaigns.
Winter said that she conducted a poll two weeks after the council adopted the new rent control law and found the 76 percent of 500 people questioned would vote for her in 1986.