Sharon Pratt Dixon was the first and only mayoral candidate to urge Mayor Marion Barry to resign after he was arrested at the Vista Hotel in January. "I urged him to resign," she said during a luncheon interview in March, "but I'd rather have our problems resolved by the voters than by the U.S. Attorney's Office."
And that is exactly what happened on Tuesday. A jury let Barry off the hook, but when the voters of the District finally had a chance to give their verdict on the sleaze at city hall they returned a resounding verdict of guilty. The disaffection with the status quo was so deep that all of the mayoral candidates associated with entrenched interests -- including the real estate and banking lobbies -- were defeated. Experience on the D.C. Council was a negative, not a plus. Voters wanted a clean sweep, and what is especially exhilarating about this election is that they showed they still know how to get it.
For once, the moneyed interests didn't succeed in buying elections. All of her opponents outspent Dixon by huge amounts. She spent $5.38 per voter, while the next closest fund-raiser to her, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, spent $15.76. The men in the race raised far more money than did the two women: John Ray, the front-runner and heaviest fund-raiser throughout most of the campaign spent $35.33 per voter. Walter E. Fauntroy with $34.43 and David A. Clarke at $29.89 were not far behind. The race for Montgomery County executive is equally inspiring for those who have despaired of ever having elections won on merit rather than cash: Sidney Kramer, the incumbent, spent $7.22 per vote, while Neal Potter spent only $1.32 per vote in his upset victory.
Potter's success should be particularly instructive to those who feel that incumbency is too great a hurdle for a challenger to overcome. And it should also be instructive to those county board members across the river in Fairfax who still don't understand that growth and gridlock must be controlled.
It is too early for the D.C. Board of Elections to determine the percentage of women versus men who voted for Dixon, but in the 1988 presidential election 60.9 percent of the voters were women and only 39.1 percent were men. The most heavily registered age groups were those between 35 and 44, which Dixon targeted along with women.
Women politicians across the country have wrestled with the difficulty they have in raising money. Most of the incumbents for state and congressional offices are men, although women have made remarkable gains in winning local elections, which cost less money. Incumbents enjoy tremendous advantages in fund-raising over challengers. The problem of fund-raising for women challengers is compounded by the fact that women depend on other women for help and fund-raising and they do not yet have the tradition of donating to campaigns that businessmen have had for years.
Dixon, who was the first candidate to announce for mayor, showed extraordinary courage from the outset. She was willing to go up against an incumbent who had a political machine and would be a formidable fund-raiser. When Barry, shortly before his trial, announced he would not seek reelection, everything changed overnight. She was in an open race, which is where women politicians know they have the best chance of winning.
The conventional wisdom in the women's movement about where women politicians have the best shot held up. It is clear, too, that credible women politicians can do very well when they campaign as outsiders against a decaying administration. Polls have for some time now shown that voters have overcome their initial suspicions about women in politics and, indeed, find them in general to be more trustworthy than male politicians. A lesson from the Dixon campaign is that the message and the candidate can still be more powerful than the money.
What Dixon has also done is something that women across the country should learn from: She knows that women have power and she wants them to use it. "We, as women, must not be afraid of power," she said last March. "Too many policies and programs affect our day-to-day existence. I think we court the attention and regard of men rather than give attention to our own needs.
"The power is within our reach. For some reason we have not stepped up to it. Men have not blocked us as much as we have blocked ourselves."
Dixon did the opposite. She stepped up to the plate when all the traditional power brokers were backing politicians already in power. "It's their way of maintaining access," she said that day. "They did not understand how desperately the city wants a break from the past."
She saw it before anyone else did. And when the voters finally got a chance to make that break, they did.