Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.
It was a warm Thursday in May 1974 when Clifford Alexander, a tall 40-year-old with long sideburns, walked to the front of the City Council chambers in the District building and launched his offensive.
"Rents have skyrocketed during Walter Washington's tenure," he intoned. "Code enforcement has been lax." A crowd of about 90 people nodded and applauded energetically in the air-conditioned room.
Two days later, the District's appointed mayor, Walter Washington, responded at his own campaign kickoff with the most demeaning word he could muster. The shorter-and-stockier man called his his much younger and lesser known opponent "somebody."
"Somebody says, `Where have you been?' " shouted Washington, 59, wearing a dark suit and striped tie, to a jubilant, sweat-soaked audience in the Masonic Temple at 10th and U streets NW. "My answer to that is `Open your eyes. You'll see this city is on its way to getting together like no other city in the country.' "
It was fairly innocuous stuff, politically speaking, especially compared to the vitriol being tossed around in the national arena. Impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon had begun that week on Capitol Hill. But this was the century's first mayoral campaign in the District of Columbia, and the very novelty of two distinguished city residents vying for votes was enough to bring out constituents in droves.
The race would last four months. The candidates shook young women's toes at a yoga demonstration on the Southwest waterfront, turned Sunday mornings at neighborhood churches into Bible-thumping campaign stops and kicked at overturned garbage cans in Southeast alleys. The two newcomers to electoral politics courted their city with the innocence of first love. They discarded more and more of their lawyerly reserve the closer they got to the Democratic primary, Sept. 10. They hurled verbal spitballs at each other, but never quite convinced anyone that they meant any harm.
The contrast with what was happening that same summer in the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court could not have been more jarring. The administration of Nixon, who had signed the home-rule law making the election possible, was disintegrating in a torrent of venom.
But in the churches and living rooms and meeting halls of the District, it was a happier time for democracy. Those who were there remember it as a thrilling, clean fight to start a new era of self-government. Nervousness and excitement grew as the race became closer than anyone expected, and analysts wondered if they had misread the largely untested electorate.
The fuzzy warmth that surrounds memories of the 1974 campaign may also stem from the office's subsequent downward spiral. Marion Barry was elected mayor four years later and served a total of four terms, creating an image of bloated budgets, cronyism and self-indulgence that left a deep stain. Congress turned many of the city government's powers over to a financial control board; the 1998 election of Anthony A. Williams coincided with the restoration of some of those powers and the prestige the job had 25 years ago.
Washington and Alexander, still reside in the city and remember those days fondly. They are not alone. Strangers still stop them to say how much they liked that first race.
"I remember the building of enthusiasm in that campaign," said Alexander, 66, in an interview at the Capitol Hill office where he advises companies on how to create a diverse work force. "I remember the enthusiasm of the people."
Walter Washington, 84, sat at the dining room table of his town house on T Street NW, shuffling the campaign clippings he has collected for his memoirs. "I think it was a high point," he said. The people working in both campaigns "came out of honest backgrounds and they ran an honest campaign. . . . I think both Cliff and I wanted to see the best for citizens."
But in the beginning, as District officeholders and political activists adjusted to the idea of a real election for mayor, many people thought it was going to be a bore. The mayor was going to win.
Walter Washington's life had been entwined with the city since the days in the 1930s when he was a big man on the Howard University campus. He knew everybody. He was widely credited with saving the city from a bloodbath during the 1968 riots. An opinion poll showed Washington area suburbanites had come to support the notion of D.C. home rule principally because of the largely scandal-free and efficient administration he had led since being appointed mayor in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Alexander was one of six candidates challenging the mayor. He had the advantage of a splendid reputation in the civil rights community, having served as Johnson's chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was telegenic and well-spoken. But he was a relative newcomer to Washington, and his degrees were from elitist Harvard and Yale.
Years later, admirers of both men see more clearly how alike they were. Washington and Alexander shared a deep affection for LBJ, the Democratic Party and the City of Washington. Both had successful marriages to extremely accomplished women. Washington's daughter and Alexander's son and daughter all grew up to be college professors.
Both men were skilled administrators who loved solving problems and making friends, although Alexander, less comfortable in the limelight, was initially at a disadvantage in the flesh-pressing department. The younger man had to push himself to ask people for their vote, while Washington shook hands and patted backs with a ward-heeler's flair.
At the beginning of the campaign, one political expert told Alexander he probably had only 10 percent of the vote. It did not appear at first that he would win much more.
A month into the campaign, both candidates attended the Fifth Annual Southwest Festival of the Arts, and their contrasting styles were immediately evident. Washington had shed his dark suits and on that Sunday wore a striped sports coat, handing his tie over to his plainclothes police escort. Alexander, who knew how prominent lawyers dressed on the weekend, wore a bright yellow polo shirt and green slacks.
When Washington had served as then-New York Mayor John Lindsay's housing director, he often accompanied his politically attuned boss on walks in the city. Those walks taught him how to greet people in a campaign. Aides walked ahead of him, funneling festival visitors toward their man. "You react to people so that instantly they begin to relate to you," Washington recalled.
At the festival, Alexander hung back, passing up several chances to introduce himself to people. When someone recognized him, he stood and chatted, but that was it. A month before, he had told a reporter he thought working the crowd was "phony."
Washington's grasp of D.C. geography, gained during his years as city housing director, was legendary. Washington Post editors would ask him to show new reporters around town. He knew every alley, how to move from one quadrant to another quickly and how to negotiate the bizarre angles of the street grid. On Sundays, when churches were stuffed with potential voters, he knew how to cover the territory. "You could take R Street from Ninth Street to 13th Street, and you've got four churches running," he said.
By contrast, one of Alexander's favorite venues was the basketball court. He had played in high school and college, and whenever he saw a court in use he would, with his usual politeness, ask to join. This worked well, and became a favorite method for winning the confidence of soldiers when he later became secretary of the Army, but he remembered one awkward moment in 1974 when he realized he had to behave like a politician.
While he was moving toward the basket with the ball, a large arm swatted him back. "It was a cheap shot," Alexander said, "and I was going to go after him, but then I thought, `hmmm, that doesn't make a lot of sense.' "
As the summer wore on, Alexander became more comfortable pushing himself in people's faces and became more aggressive making political attacks. He blamed Washington for a decline in the number of women in top D.C. government jobs. He urged the mayor to accept a $1,000 limit on campaign contributions. He called for the appointment of a black police chief and suggested that police officers and firefighters should be required to live in the city. Many voters found these ideas interesting and persuasive.
In early August, just as Nixon was resigning, a Georgetown University poll revealed, to the surprise of many, that Washington and Alexander were in a dead heat. Both had about 40 percent support from likely Democratic voters, whose Sept. 10 primary would decide who was mayor in a city where Democrats ruled.
Washington shrugged it off. "We took our own kind of poll in the streets," he said. "I was heartened by the response that the people gave to me."
The Alexander campaign, however, was electrified. The staff perfected a campaign device -- the neighborhood walk and motorcade -- that brought the candidate into all 137 city precincts. Alexander and his wife, Adele, perched on two rickety folding chairs on the back of a pickup truck, waving to people on their porches and then alighting to shake hands.
"Number one on the ballot, number one for the people, the people's choice!" the loudspeaker roared, as the candidate, in loafers, slacks and polo shirt, dashed back and forth across the street. Scores of children appeared, encircling him, grabbing his knees, begging for campaign buttons.
At one stop he joined in a softball game and hit a 250-foot line drive far over the center fielder's head. At another, the once standoffish Alexander hovered like a car salesman over one wavering voter, imploring her to let him bestow a "Vote Alexander Mayor" sticker. "I'll put it on your purse for you," he said with a grin.
"Uhhh, well . . . " the woman said.
"Awww, come on," said Alexander.
In a mid-August poll by Peter D. Hart, Democratic voters said they thought Washington offered the best hope of helping the elderly, getting more federal aid and selecting a qualified police chief. But Alexander won their confidence for his perceived ability to improve city services and upgrade the public schools. Older voters gravitated to Washington, younger ones to Alexander.
In the end, that commitment from older Washingtonians and the strong support from churches made the difference for Washington.
He won by 4,000 votes out of 93,000 cast, or 53 percent to 47 percent. Alexander waited until the next morning to concede.
Washington easily won the general election in November, and governed for another four years before losing to Barry in 1978. A Post editorial thanked him for "a new spirit of understanding that proved instrumental in achieving the self-government this city had sought for so long."
Alexander's admirers asked him to run again in 1978, but by then he was Army secretary. He said he would not leave the Carter administration when he was making so much progress in improving opportunities for minorities.
Washington has declined to say much about the four terms of Marion Barry who, unlike him, rose to office after becoming a seasoned vote-getter as an elected school board and D.C. Council member. It was suggested to him that the recent election of Anthony A. Williams, like Washington a career public servant who had never run for anything, might have signaled voters' desire to return to the straightforward, results-oriented policies practiced by the District's first elected mayor.
Washington, sitting in his pale gold dining room, smiled at that and thought a moment. "Could be," he said.