Occasionally, people ask me about Walter E. Fauntroy. What does he do? And how does he do it? After all, everybody knows, the District's delegate to Congress doesn't even have a vote on the House floor.
The answers to these questions, as best as I can determine, are that Fauntroy runs for Congress, and wins; and that to do this, he sings "The Impossible Dream," preaches the gospel, goes to jail, helps people who can't pay their utility bills, practices karate, plays softball and at 5-foot-6 makes 6-foot-8 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker sit down and listen up.
Some people say Fauntroy wins because nobody else wants the job. I say it's because Fauntroy runs a 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds. Imagine having a 53-year-old man challenge you to a foot race two days before a primary and then beat the hell out of you.
Fauntroy. The name is synonymous with District politics and, after 25 years of public service, which he celebrated with a prayer breakfast and reception yesterday, the man looks like he could go 25 more.
How, indeed, does he do it?
"Fauntroy is a marathon runner," says Johnny Barnes, Fauntroy's legislative assistant. "The staff has to form a relay team, passing the baton, just to keep up with him."
"He's just a likable guy, always chipper," said Ted Prahinski, a former member of the D.C. Home Rule Committee. "He's like his father in that he knows how the system works."
Fauntory's father was a railroad employe who later became a clerk at the U.S. Patent Examiner's Office.
"He'd always help out a newcomer, show him where things were located, how things worked," said Prahinski, who is now a lawyer for the patent office. "Fauntroy is like that, too."
That sounds about right, especially if you look at what became of Delano Lewis, Fauntroy's first legislative assistant. Lewis is now a vice president at C&P Telephone Co. and a bigwig in local politics. Look at Robert Johnson, a former Fauntroy press secretary: He is now president of Black Entertainment Television.
You can call Fauntroy a lot of things, but stingy isn't one of them.
Maybe it's his background. His mother was a housewife, always providing love and attention to little Walter and his four brothers and two sisters. She is credited with turning him into a bookworm, and making him spend almost as much time in the local library as he did in church.
The church is where his life really unfolded. He became a member of the New Bethel Baptist Church in 1944, and by 1959 he was leading the congregation as its pastor. In between, he attended Virginia Union and received a degree in divinity from Yale, thanks to generous donations from the church.
More important, he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was touring Southern and East Coast colleges in search of the men who would become his disciples.
(If you think Fauntroy looks young for his age now, you should see those early photographs of him at 18, marching with King, who was 23.)
As local organizer for the 1963 "March on Washington," Fauntroy became well known around town. In the aftermath of the assassination of King, Fauntroy confronted Stokely Carmichael, urging him to cool the "burn, baby, burn" rhetoric.
Fauntroy lost that fight, but established himself as a voice of moderation. In 1967, he was rewarded with an appointment as vice president of the first D.C. City Council. In 1971, he became the first congressional representative from the District in more than 100 years. He has held the post ever since.
Today, Fauntroy still uses those 1960s-style tactics in protests against the South African regime, staging sit-ins at embassies and oil company offices, still going to jail in the name of freedom. But as chairman of the House Banking Committee's subcommittee on domestic monetary policy and ranking member of the House District Committee, he also has moved smoothly into the 1980s, pushing behind the scenes for self-determination for the District.
One day he may get to vote. Until then, he'll just continue to seek reelection, as he announced he would yesterday, and probably win, as he always has.