At the height of the campaign for the Ward 3 seat on the D.C. City Council, the race is dominated by the development issue and a mystery blimp.
The development issue was predictable; the blimp, less so.
To understand the complex interrelationships that have brought development and the blimp to the fore, it helps to understand the mentality of the typical Ward 3 voter. He or she is serious-minded, progressive and a tad fussy. More significantly, he or she is slated to take a summer vacation soon.
The summer vacation explains why, in May, the candidates already have clashed in a half-dozen candidate forums, with no such debates slated for July and August. Three forums so far are scheduled for June.
More than three months before the Sept. 9 primary, the race has peaked. Starting June 15, the candidates' media ads are expected to target the Virginia Beach, Rehoboth and Hyannis markets.
The appeal of the development issue to the candidates, leaving aside the blimp for a moment, is easy to understand. Wisconsin Avenue, the site of several major development projects, shows signs of becoming a Bethesda clone, much to the horror of property-owning residents who fear an influx of office workers, theatergoers and rubes from the 'burbs, not to mention other wards.
The candidates have fallen all over each other, vowing to halt the buildup. Ruth Dixon, a grandmotherly political scientist who wears fire-engine red business suits, suggested a computerized "development watch" to provide early warnings of stealthy businessmen gobbling up land parcels.
Schoolteacher Jim Nathanson, a former nice guy who has taken to rapping his opponents with glee, has called for a moratorium on all development that is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan. Mark Plotkin, the only candidate who tells Alben Barkley anecdotes on the stump, has treated the development question with a rhetorical flourish, appealing to all Ward 3 candidates to "cleanse yourselves" of contributions from the real estate industry.
Meanwhile, Mary Draper Janney, eschewing computers, moratoria and other remedies, is saying she prefers balanced growth, and Gloria Corn -- the only Republican to appear at the forums -- is gnashing her teeth about "unbridled development."
To all of this, one candidate has responded with the blimp.
Jody Pappalardo, a political neophyte who is backed by sex entrepreneur Dennis Sobin, has introduced into the debate a symbol that appears to have caught the fancy of the fussy. The blimp is depicted in a poster-sized photo reproduction that is handed out by the dozen at campaign events.
One elderly Ward 3 resident, clutching Pappalardo's blimp poster on her way out the door after a candidates' forum last week, said, "Jody really adds some spark to this race." Asked if she intended to vote for Pappalardo, whose single issue appears to be the allegedly overstrenuous efforts of the D.C. police to enforce drug and sex laws, the citizen responded, "Oh, my, no!"
Many of the other candidates feature campaign materials and props, too, of course. At the candidates' forums, for example, Dixon puts her posters on most stationary objects, including Coke machines. Corn waves a massive copy of the minutes of the D.C. Constitutional Convention, to which she was a delegate, citing the tome as "my record."
But only Pappalardo is touting herself with a blimp. Simply because it has been introduced into the political context, the blimp seems to have taken on some meaning, although the exact meaning is unclear.
In the photograph, the massive U.S. Army airship is shown moored in front of the east entrance to the U.S. Capitol, with a rather dingy looking Downtown in the background. The poster caption says that in 1929 Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Conn.) flew the blimp 140 miles from Virginia to the Capitol for a committee vote on a tariff. Bingham declared, "This is the way all congressmen will arrive in the future," but the caption writer's comments are more interesting:
"Ever since the Federal Government moved to the District of Columbia in 1800, most Americans have been certain that Capitol Hill has been swarming with gasbags and inflated intellects that are substantially lighter-than-air. The biggest of all gasbags to alight on the Hill was 196 feet long . . . . "
What, then, does the blimp actually mean vis-a-vis the Ward 3 council race?
Sobin, the mastermind of the Pappalardo campaign and a candidate for mayor himself, says the posters were donated to him and he doesn't know what the message really is. "Hey, it's different," he said, "and we got them free."