Mayor Anthony A. Williams, stung by a voter revolt east of the Anacostia River that ousted three D.C. Council incumbents, said yesterday that his administration must do a better job of communicating its achievements and reaching out to residents who feel shut out of the city's economic revival.
Williams (D) rejected the notion that Tuesday's election represents a condemnation of his leadership during the past six years. But the mayor said he will reexamine his agenda in light of what he described as an outpouring of "frustration" from the city's eastern wards, paying particular attention to policies regarding affordable housing, minority-owned businesses and the distribution of city jobs to city residents.
"I think it'd be a mistake to just extrapolate grandly and say that this is a total, overwhelming rejection of the direction of the city. I think that's wrong," Williams told reporters during his weekly news conference. "But I also think it would be myopic and stupid and idiotic, certainly on my part, to just say, 'Oh, all we need to do is just adjust the drapes and the air conditioning.' Clearly, there is a message being sent here."
One day after voters dropped their bombshell on City Hall, Williams and other city leaders were trying to decipher that message. Some, including the mayor, said incumbents citywide should take the election results as a wake-up call from the disgruntled and the dispossessed. Others, such as D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large), argue that voters are simply displeased with the performance of individual politicians who were criticized for treating public service as a part-time job.
While they debated the election's political implications, the surviving incumbents began jockeying for position on a council with major committee posts suddenly up for grabs. Meanwhile, the most well-known of the Democratic primary winners, former mayor Marion Barry, plunged directly into the fray, declaring that, if elected to the council, any attempt to use taxpayer funds to pay for a Major League Baseball stadium would be done "over my dead body."
"Clearly, it's a new day," council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said as he hurried into his office shortly after noon. "There's going to be a lot of discussion about how we can become a cohesive government again."
Tuesday's election marked the second time in six years District voters have turned out three members of the 13-member council. This time, the mayor and others said, the shake-up seems to signal broad dissatisfaction, particularly in the largely African American communities east of the Anacostia River where rates of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment remain high.
Two of Tuesday's losers in the Democratic primary represented those communities. In Ward 7, incumbent Kevin P. Chavous lost to Vincent C. Gray, former director of the Department of Human Services. And in Ward 8, Barry, a charismatic populist with folk-hero status, crushed incumbent Sandy Allen.
In the third race, Kwame R. Brown, a former Clinton administration Commerce Department official who had never before sought elected office, scored a resounding victory over Harold Brazil, who had been serving in his citywide post since 1996. Brown, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood in Ward 7, would be the first person living east of the Anacostia to be elected citywide.
All three men will face Republican or Statehood Green Party opponents Nov. 2. But in the District, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1, the Democratic nominee usually prevails in the general election.
As they savored their victories yesterday, the three candidates vowed that help will soon be on the way for average families disgusted with the state of D.C. public schools and troubled by the skyrocketing cost of housing.
Brown, 33, said his priority would be passing legislation to force housing developers to set aside a quarter of new units for low- and middle-income buyers. Barry, 68, said he would propose a bill to guarantee summer jobs for every youth in the District. And Gray, 61, said he wants to improve health care for the poor and increase the number of vocational education programs throughout the city.
Of Barry and Brown, Gray said: "We have an opportunity to work together and talk about the needs of East Washington, instead of Wards 7 and 8, because the needs are very similar."
While the winners plotted a new trajectory for city policy, some incumbents seemed genuinely mystified by the upheaval. Two years ago, no incumbents were defeated, a fact that might have left many city officials feeling complacent, said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
"I am surprised," Mendelson said. "Clearly, there's something going on in the aggregate results. This is not a ward-specific result. There's something we're missing."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who ran unopposed Tuesday, quarreled with that analysis, contending that each race had its own dynamics. In Ward 8, for instance, Cropp pointed out: "Sandy was running against an icon. Nobody can compete with that."
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who also ran unopposed, said that if there is a broad message for the council, it might be a simple one. The incumbents -- veterans with a combined 34 years of council service and powerful committee posts -- together raised more than $700,000 and vastly outspent their opponents, he said.
"But this election makes crystal clear," Fenty said, "that you can't become so powerful that you stop paying attention to the voters."
If council members start listening more closely to their constituents, Fenty predicted, the council's course will change.
"I don't think we would pass legislation to give money to the Corcoran Gallery," he said, referring to legislation that dedicates sales tax receipts to expanding the downtown museum. Nor, Fenty said, would the council "pass taxes to fund a baseball stadium."
Williams, for his part, said he sees no reason to back away from his promise to build a stadium by taxing major businesses because the whole city would benefit from a major league team. And the District should continue "creating a climate for investment in our city," he said.
The mayor also defended his record on social programs, noting that he has added beds to homeless shelters, poured money into a trust fund for affordable housing, and fixed several problematic agencies that spent years in the hands of court-appointed monitors. The Department of Corrections, for instance, is free of court oversight for the first time in 33 years.
Williams said he is frustrated that some voters don't give him credit for those accomplishments. But "perception is reality," he said.
"There's a whole group of people for whom Marion Barry gives voice who don't feel adequately represented," the mayor said. "And the lesson of [Tuesday] is they need to be better represented."
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, David Nakamura and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.