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. And the pressure has begun to show.
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."
He boasted that he has renovated and reopened two schools, Randle Highlands and Kelly Miller, and brought two planned libraries to the ward, Deanwood and Francis A. Gregory.
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 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. "No one can quarrel with my effectiveness. Some might say they haven't seen me enough, and for that I'm sorry."
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, saying he would take activists and business leaders on a bus tour of the ward to collaborate with him.
Local AFL-CIO President Joslyn N. Williams said the city needs council members who make "a full-time commitment to working families to ensure that all of our citizens benefit from the city's emerging prosperity."
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.
"People say, 'You've been in office 12 years. Shouldn't there be more than just strategies by now?' " Gray said. "People are palpably angry. If I were him, I'd apologize to folks."
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. Some Deanwood residents were so frustrated last year that they dumped trash on Chavous's lawn.
"That's a reflection of how the citizens' requests and concerns have fallen on deaf ears," said John Frye, a Deanwood activist who campaigned for Chavous in his failed mayoral bid in 1998 but now counts himself in the Gray camp.
"Ever since the mayor's race, he just has not showed the interest in being a council member," Frye said. "He has not put the emphasis in constituent services and following up issues. Folks are sick and tired of it. They want change in the ward."
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. Jackson and Daniels said they do not agree with the politics of Chavous or Gray, saying they are against the use of eminent domain at Skyland because they fear black-owned businesses will be displaced.
But Gray has emerged as the top challenger since he was elected president of the Ward 7 Democrats last year. Pushed to run for the council seat by several activists who had backed Anthony A. Williams in the mayoral race six years ago, 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. Amid the turmoil, two leading superintendent candidates pulled out before a third, Clifford B. Janey, accepted the job.
Gray disagrees with Chavous on vouchers, saying they take money away from public schools.
"The school system is in shambles," said Frazer Walton Jr., head of the Kingman Park Civic Association. Chavous was "one of the main players. It's time to give someone else a chance."
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. "It's one of the hardest to manage politically," he said.
At the end of his campaigning in Capital View, Chavous stopped at the home of Betty Lewis, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. She answered the door wearing a "Chavous for Mayor" T-shirt from his 1998 campaign. As Chavous gave her a hug, she reiterated her support.
"Vince Gray has never done anything for us," she said. "I'd rather have a comfortable pair of shoes than a new pair that squeeze my feet."