On a warm recent evening, Kevin P. Chavous loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves and knocked on the door of 89-year-old Eloise Rice in a working-class neighborhood called Capital View.
She looked shocked.
"You know what I was just telling someone about you?" she asked the Ward 7 D.C. Council member. "I said, 'The only way you'll see him in this neighborhood is on that [campaign] sign out there.' "
A few houses later, an elderly man exclaimed: "Kevin Chavous! I haven't seen you around here in four years." Farther down the block, a young woman refused to shake his hand.
This was not the kind of welcome that Chavous had hoped for on a day when he was campaigning for a fourth four-year term. But like it or not, Chavous, 47, has been dogged by criticism from residents, activists and political rivals -- most notably Vincent C. Gray, his chief competitor in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary -- that he has lost touch with his constituents.
This sentiment has put Chavous in perhaps his most difficult council race since he upset incumbent H.R. Crawford in 1992. Once a rising star, Chavous has lost some support not just in his ward but also among the city's political establishment.
When the Democratic State Committee endorsed Gray last week, Chavous first dismissed the move as irrelevant. But Monday, Chavous blasted party Chairman A. Scott Bolden, contending that Bolden was unfairly playing partisan politics with his friend Gray.
At an AARP-run candidates' debate last month, Chavous, facing questions about his commitment, raised his voice and said: "The reason you do not see me at your front door is that I'm downtown [at city hall] doing my job."
In a 60-page package that he distributes to voters, Chavous details legislation he has pushed to open a new hospital on the grounds of old D.C. General and takes credit for facilitating a planned makeover of the run-down Skyland Shopping Center.
"I have a record that I am proud of," he said at the debate, eliciting a few "amen" calls from supporters.
But Gray said that Chavous is "deluding himself" if he thinks Ward 7 has benefited from his representation. Gray, who also won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, spoke of the need to develop a comprehensive economic development plan.
But some say Gray has no public service record on which to be judged. "I've lived in this community for 22 years and have never seen Vincent Gray before he started to run for council," said Kathy Chamberlain, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7 who supports Chavous. "It would be nice if he was active in the community."
On a recent afternoon, Gray, 61, drove through the ward pointing out blighted strip malls and the ward's lone sit-down restaurant, a Denny's. "It's like a cliche -- fast-food, hair, nails, check-cashing," he said.
"Kevin's always talking about strategies rather than services, about plans rather than implementation," added Gray, who was the director of the city's Human Services Department under former mayor Sharon Pratt. He is now executive director of Covenant House Washington, which helps needy youth.
Some residents have complained that Chavous spends too much time at his law firm and too little time pushing legislation that would improve the quality of life in Ward 7. While other areas of the city have boomed with retail and business development, they say their neighborhoods are still plagued by crime and poverty, as well as a glut of trash-strewn lots, low-rent liquor stores and fast-food restaurants.
Vincent Spalding, president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association, disagreed. He credited Chavous with fighting hard to get the city the power to use eminent domain to redevelop Skyland Shopping Center. "Kevin saw the needs and worked with the community to get that done," Spalding said.
Several other candidates are running in the Ward 7 primary: activists Mary D. Jackson, James Johnson Jr., Donna Daniels and Mia Hairston-Hamilton, who assumed the campaign from her son, Terry Hairston, a former school board member who was shot to death in May.
But Gray has emerged as the top challenger since he was elected president of the Ward 7 Democrats last year. Gray has raised more than $50,000. Chavous has raised more than $90,000.
Chavous once was part of the Young Turks, a group of new council members, including Harold Brazil and Jack Evans, who rose to power in the mid-1990s. The unsuccessful campaign against Williams in the mayoral primary left Chavous bruised, however. It was then that opponents first tried to label him distant and out of touch, he said.
He rebounded several years ago, taking chairmanship of the council's influential Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation. But Chavous's record in this crucial role is open for debate.
Supporters say he has pushed for reform through vouchers and charter schools, while critics have complained that nothing was accomplished during a months-long debate over school governance, when a proposed mayoral takeover was blocked by the council.
Gray disagrees with Chavous on vouchers, saying they take money away from public schools.
Some Gray supporters worry that the other challengers will siphon some of the anti-establishment vote. But Gray pointed to campaign signs with his name on them planted in yards near Chavous's house. "When your own neighbors feel that strongly that they will put a sign of your opponent in their yard, that's a powerful statement," Gray said.
Chavous offered a different analysis: Ward 7 has diverse neighborhoods and, some say, is split along social class lines between affluent neighborhoods in the south and poorer areas in the north.