Any time D.C. Council member Frank Smith Jr. steps from his campaign office on the bustling corner of 14th and U streets NW, many of the problems troubling his constituents in Ward 1 are in sight.
To the east are the streets and stores battered by the sluggish construction of Metro's long-awaited Green Line. To the west is Adams-Morgan, with its mounting traffic and building congestion. Up 14th Street, scars of the city's 1968 riots remain. And throughout the area are signs of crime, illegal drugs and inadequate housing.
What's not as clear is how voters view Smith's work on those problems during the last eight years. Smith has collected more money and endorsements than his challenger in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, lawyer Richard Landis, but many community leaders say their faith in the two-term council member has dwindled.
Smith pays little attention to the criticism, which he regards as inevitable in representing the city's most economically and racially diverse area. Ward 1, which has about 80,000 residents, includes Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Shaw and LeDroit Park.
"My job is enormous," Smith said. "You have to understand many different people with many different interests. I've done that. The needs of the ward are growing, but I'm up to the challenge."
Smith, 48, who remarried this spring, has had a lengthy bout with leukemia, which he says is in remission. He considered running for an at-large council seat or for the D.C. delegate post, but said he agreed to run again in Ward 1 after leading Democrats there told him they had no one to replace him.
At first glance, Smith seems assured of an easy victory. He has raised nearly $40,000; Landis has $4,000. Smith has the support of key labor, tenant and business groups. He has beaten Landis easily in the past. And he said he doubts Ward 1 voters will want to risk losing his experience or ideas. "You need to show vision in government, not just fix potholes," Smith said.
He and Landis share many goals: sparking commercial growth on 14th Street and Georgia Avenue; finishing Metro construction on U Street; improving housing conditions; and ending the parking shortage in Adams-Morgan.
Smith and Landis raised the same issues the first time they clashed in 1986. This time, they're feuding over what progress has been made. But many Ward 1 activists say they aren't impressed with the debate. Landis's campaign doesn't have much fervor, they say, and there are signs that some of Smith's support is dwindling.
Across the ward, there are activists who say Smith is inattentive to neighborhood issues and preoccupied with leading the D.C. Baseball Commission.
Leaders from two groups -- the Ward 1 Democrats and a coalition of civic activists called the Ward 1 Council -- are not supporting Smith. So far, his fund-raising is off the pace he set four years ago, and a lot of the money is from donors who live outside Ward 1. There also are rumors that some community activists are searching for a strong independent candidate to challenge Smith in the Nov. 6 general election.
"We don't do things with Frank Smith, we do things despite him," said Dorothy Brizill, president of the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Coalition and not part of Landis's campaign. "Frank hasn't been there on the issues."
"I think Frank has lost touch with people's needs," Landis said. "His priority has been chasing this baseball fantasy."
Landis, 42, a lawyer and Democratic activist, has had bitter relations with Smith. During the 1986 race, Smith called Landis a "fake lawyer," and Landis sued for libel. They reached an out-of-court settlement. Yet now they're at each other's throats again.
Landis has questioned whether Smith still resides in Ward 1, suggesting that he lives in his wife's home in Ward 4. "I've heard complaints," Landis said of Smith's residency, a topic that has been debated privately in Ward 1 political circles for months. "He owes voters an explanation of where he lives."
Smith angrily denied the allegation and said his wife's home is for sale and that she is registered to vote in Ward 1. Then he offered a summary of Landis's campaign: "I haven't heard him say anything that makes much sense. He wants to pave school grounds for parking and he doesn't like baseball."
On the campaign trail, Smith stresses his experience. He boasts of creating housing and recreation programs, and of working vigilantly to have Metro finish construction on U Street. He says he has growing clout on the D.C. Council, noting, for example, that his teen-curfew bill had unanimous support until courts ruled it unconstitutional. He says his office has handled 12,000 constituent complaints. And he defends his effort to try to bring major league baseball back to Washington.
"Whenever I drive somewhere like Georgia Avenue, I see so many guys just standing around on the corner," Smith said. "They need jobs. They aren't going to be brain surgeons or pilots. But they could work at RFK Stadium."
Critics such as Brizill dismiss Smith's assertion. "How many hot dog vendors can you hire at RFK?" she asked. "It will not directly affect Ward 1. This is what you see over and over in his record."
Smith allies, meanwhile, say they do not mind his interest in baseball because he has helped increase police patrols and economic growth in the ward.
"Frank's a very hard worker," said Clifton "Skeeter" West, president of the Lower Georgia Avenue Businessmen's Association. "Baseball is what gets the headlines, but he's on top of the local issues."
Yet in Landis's campaign, Smith is portrayed as a politician so eager to gain citywide stature that he overlooks Ward 1 issues. "Frank has the money, but I can get the people," Landis said. "I'm betting that voters have been turned off by the way he carries himself."