Lorraine Carr, 60, a lifelong Democrat from Northeast Washington, marched up to Republican mayoral candidate Maurice T. Turner Jr. recently, clasped his right hand in hers and said, "God bless you. I hope you win. We need a change in there -- we need some change right away."
Turner's face lit up in a wide smile, for Carr's is the kind of frustration he hopes to tap in his first campaign for public office. For Turner to win a general election in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a better than 8-to-1 ratio, he needs every Lorraine Carr there is -- and then some, he said.
"People are fed up, they're tired of the image the city's receiving," Turner, 54, said last month as he shook hands with afternoon commuters at the Fort Totten Metro station in Northeast Washington. "Now, you've got to be realistic: 100 percent of the people aren't going to vote for you. But a lot of them will."
Best known to District residents as a career police officer who served eight years as chief before his resignation last year, Turner is trying today to get accustomed to the disorderly world of elective politics. His goal for November, a difficult one to achieve to begin with, became even more complicated on June 13 when Mayor Marion Barry took himself out of the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
Barry, who is standing trial on drug charges and whose administration has been rocked by corruption over the years, was viewed by many GOP strategists as a nearly perfect foil for Turner and his law-and-order themes. Turner is all but assured of winning the Republican mayoral nomination in his party's Sept. 11 primary.
Early polls in the mayor's race, including Turner's own, showed the former police chief running well ahead of Barry but trailing other Democratic candidates. By abandoning the race, the mayor may have erased Turner's most compelling single issue: Barry himself.
"It was the worst thing, speaking electorally, that could have happened to him," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist. "If I were in Turner's camp, I would have wanted the Barry problem to remain as an Achilles' heel for the Democrats."
Turner, who switched parties to the GOP last year before Barry's arrest, said it made no difference whom the Democrats nominated because he did not view his own candidacy as an "alternative" to Barry in the first place.
"I think I'm strong against any of the candidates," Turner said. "I don't care who they run."
However, some analysts believe that without Barry's presence, party identification will assume a greater role in the election, hurting Turner. "The party label becomes important because there's no other competing consideration like there would have been in the Barry case," Thornton said.
Some Republican strategists dispute that view, saying that as long as Barry's court proceeding continues, both he and the city's Democratic establishment will be on trial. "Eventually the Democrats get the blame because Barry is one of them and not one of us," said one senior adviser to the Turner campaign.
Nevertheless, Turner is handling the issue of his adoptive party gingerly. The literature he hands to potential voters at campaign appearances does not mention the word "Republican," and Turner does not bring the subject up at candidate debates or in conversation with people he meets on the streets.
Nor does he shy away from it. "Do they really believe that every black in America ought to be a Democrat?" he said. "If people are concerned that I'm in the party of Lee Atwater, I say to them that I used to be in the party of George Wallace, the party of Lester Maddox.
"Voters in this town are sophisticated enough to look at the individual," not the party, Turner said.
Kenneth Ray, 30, a Metro custodian who was at the Fort Totten stop, said Turner's affiliation made no difference to him.
"He's still a politician," said Ray, who has generally voted for Democratic candidates. "As long as he's doing the right thing, I don't care whether he's a Democrat or a Republican."
Ray said he liked Turner for his law enforcement experience. "He's the ex-police chief, so he knows about what's going on in the streets of D.C., particularly in the black community," Ray said.
Turner's tenure as chief is likely to come under scrutiny as the campaign heats up, in part because the District's homicide rate reached record levels during that period. In addition, there was testimony in Barry's trial that D.C. police officers in the mayor's security detail may have turned a blind eye toward some of Barry's alleged criminal activities during part of the time that Turner was at the helm of the department.
For now, with much of the city's attention turned to the Barry trial, Turner is taking his campaign to the streets and neighborhoods of his native city. He is in many ways a natural campaigner, quick with a hug or a handshake for the many Washingtonians he knows or who recognize his face.
In more formal settings, Turner has not fared quite as well. Uncomfortable as a public speaker, he uses cue cards in forums where more polished candidates talk with ease about the host of issues confronting the next mayor. Sometimes, Turner states the obvious, as he did in response to a question about bilingual education that was posed at a recent Junior League forum at American University.
"Obviously, the language barrier is a big inhibitor to communication," Turner told the crowd.
Turner on the stump has voiced an ardently conservative brand of populism, railing against the "corrupting" influence of the welfare system and complaining that too many people settle for life in public housing when their goal should be ownership of a single-family house.
"Public housing and public assistance ought to be assistance of short duration," Turner said. Noting that some of his own relatives have been welfare recipients, he added: "We've got to change those attitudes. We've got to reach down and help them up."
Turner has been gradually raising his profile -- he has started attending the candidate forums he used to skip -- and has collected one-tenth of the $2 million he says he needs for a campaign that will include expensive television air time.
President Bush and officials of the Republican National Committee, who were involved in Turner's well-publicized switch to the GOP, have continued to lend their support to his mayoral campaign. Turner has met with Bush several times, and his campaign manager, James King, was one of the RNC's most senior black political operatives.