After 12 fiery years, after endless feuds, threats, crusades and angry memos, Rufus Calvin Lockridge, the powder keg of the D.C. school board, is again out hunting for votes. But this time the campaign trail is downright lonely.
There was a time when a Lockridge bid for reelection in Ward 8, home to the city's poorest residents, provoked a stampede of challengers who inadvertently helped his cause by splitting the vote. Now, as Lockridge bids for a fourth term, he has only one opponent, his bitter enemy Linda Moody.
"It makes me more vulnerable," said Lockridge, 57, who is the board's senior -- and still most unpredictable -- member. "But my support is stronger than ever. No one wants Linda Moody because she's never done anything."
Moody, 41, a real estate agent and parent activist, counters that since Lockridge has never competed one-on-one, he underestimates how angry voters are with the state of schools in Ward 8, which includes the neighborhoods southeast of the Anacostia River. "They're willing to vote for anyone but him," she said. "Because of Calvin's conduct, he has not been able to get much done."
The matchup between Lockridge and Moody figures to be the most caustic among five races for school board seats in the Nov. 6 general election.
Lockridge and Moody have planned no debates; they can barely stand to be in the same room. But they've wasted no time denouncing each other's record and character. It's a critical election, both for the two dozen struggling schools in Ward 8 and for the school system citywide because Lockridge has made his board seat the axis around which many school issues swirl.
He is one of the board's most powerful and independent members, regarded by some parents and teachers as nothing short of a hell-raising hero, ever on the warpath to improve the city's schools -- especially those in poor communities.
Yet to others, he is a bully, an egotist, an unrepenting deal-maker mostly interested in the political machine he has built here since leaving Chicago, where he was a political organizer, 17 years ago.
"I know some people don't like my style," Lockridge says. "But so what? I'm a firm believer in the philosophy 'by any means necessary,' and people around here know I get things done. I don't make excuses -- I deliver."
Nevertheless, Lockridge barely won a third term in 1986, and has spent much of the last four years dodging controversy. One of his closest friends, Michael Wheeler, has been convicted on drug distribution charges. Ballou Senior High School, the only high school in Ward 8, was for several years torn by strife that principals there said Lockridge created.
His alleged meddling in school affairs has brought criticism; Washington Post editorials have called him the "Frankenstein" of Ward 8 schools. Meanwhile, Lockridge is scheduled to be tried next month on charges that he punched the president of the D.C. Teachers Credit Union last spring; Lockridge denies it. But Moody doesn't buy it.
"We have a board member who is constantly hitting people," she said. "People are tired of that."
Several Ward 8 activists said enthusiasm is scarce for either Lockridge or Moody, who is a former PTA president at Ballou. Many residents, they said, are annoyed with Lockridge's temper, but doubt Moody has the experience to lead what is the school system's most beleaguered ward. "People think they don't have much of a choice," said activist Phil Pannell.
Aside from student achievement, which remains low, a key education issue in the ward this year is enrollment, which has dropped sharply. That means it's almost certain a school will be closed, a move parents always resist. Moody faults him for not consulting them about possible closings. "He does not communicate with people. It's a tremendous problem," she said.
Lockridge is undaunted by the criticism, and has quickly fired back. He notes that Ballou has been stable under Principal Richard Washington, a widely respected educator whom Lockridge pushed for the job. And he says that private aid is now pouring into other Ward 8 schools as never before.
He also is telling voters that Moody, who filed for bankruptcy in August, should bring order to her personal finances before tackling the school system's budget. "That does not relate at all to my candidacy," Moody replied.