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Washington's Polite Quintet

Given the wild swings of the political pendulum in the annals of District history, I suppose it's a trifle churlish to complain that the current field of candidates for mayor are a bit too...quiet.

But there it is and here we are. I sat on a panel of questioners at yesterday's mayoral forum sponsored by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and spoke to a good many business leaders in the audience after the session, and the overriding concern that many of them shared was that the five Democrats running to succeed Tony Williams lack energy, imagination, passion and fresh ideas.

In the candidates' defense, they've been on this treadmill of forums and debates--three or four a week in some weeks--since last fall. They're tired and they look and sound it. There are still four months to go before the Democratic primary, which usually decides the D.C. mayoral race. (Though it might not this time. No, the Republicans don't have any fresh face to offer, but there are persistent reports that someone might run as an independent in November--either a prominent Washingtonian who didn't want to deal with the crowd in the primary, or one or two members of this quintet who might lose in September and go on to recast themselves as an independent in the general election.)

So what's the problem with the choice among council chairman Linda Cropp, Ward 4 council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 5 council member Vincent Orange, former boxing commissioner Michael Brown, and former phone company executive Marie Johns?

They don't particularly differ with one another on the issues. They get along so nicely in public that voters are having a hard time making useful distinctions among them. They don't seem particularly passionate or insistent on any policies or direction for the city. And they're so cautious and measured in their public presentations that voters find it hard to see through the rhetoric and into the contours of the real divides in the District--serious questions about gentrification, class, race, economic development, affordable housing and the abiding mystery of how to make the schools good enough to attract and keep middle class families in the city.

Some examples: When Alex Orfinger, publisher of the Washington Business Journal, pushed the candidates to answer a series of Yes/No questions, they tended to agree with one another on just about everything.

Would they help the city's bars and restaurants by postponing the final phase of the District's new ban on smoking? Nope, not a one of them would. Would they build a new central library on the old convention center site downtown? Yep, all would. Would they favor a mayor-controlled school board? Nope, only Orange would. Would they pledge not to raise any business taxes during their time as mayor? All said no except Fenty.

When Orfinger asked the candidates which ownership group they support in the contest to control the Washington Nationals, Cropp went first and ducked the question, saying only that she wanted a locally-based owner with lots of minority participation in the bid. Whereupon the other candidates basically said "Me too!" (Except Orange, who ducked the question even more flagrantly.)

What do these five stand for? They want better schools, but in two hours, I didn't hear a single proposal other than generalities about making the schools, um, better. They want economic development, but they don't want to hurt people who already live here. They want to expand the tax base, but they understand and wouldn't want to cross the neighborhood activists who block many efforts to build retail and housing projects that might add to the tax rolls.

Not one of the candidates would take a stand on behalf of the thousands of residents--voters!--who are begging for help in battles against politically powerful churches whose members--many of whom drive in from the suburbs-- double- and triple-park on weekends, clogging city streets.

Everybody wants to make it easier to get city permits and everybody wants to attract new residents to the District, but there was not a word about how any of this gets done. The three candidates who've served in the city government for years sounded just as critical and frustrated by the District's incompetence as did the two outsiders, and the two outsiders sounded every bit as defensive of city workers as are the three who work in that government.

It's still early enough for one or more candidates to realize that the winner of this race will be the candidate who leaps ahead of the pack with ideas, energy and a believable message about how to resolve some of the divisions in the city, rather than simply getting by with lip service to all of the competing factions in town. Someone in this pack will figure out that Marion Barry and Tony Williams, despite their obvious differences both superficial and philosophical, both exuded a sense that they cared deeply and intended to do certain things.

"Don't they care?" an executive with one of the city's largest health companies asked me after the debate. "What are they running for? What do they feel they absolutely have to do in this job? I didn't hear any of that."

But wasn't there any good news in the debate? Yes, there was. Several of the candidates who in the early stages of this campaign seemed less than fully informed are getting much better, much more fluent in the details of city policies and problems, especially Fenty, Brown and Johns. Johns' speaking style, which was numbingly corporate in the early going, is becoming more user-friendly, though she is still light on emotional connection with the audience. Cropp still sounds like the Bob Dole of the race, dotting her answers with legislative lingo and references to "this body," by which she means the D.C. Council, not her physical being.

And if you're the kind of politics-watcher who believes that the best-organized campaign may well be a sign of the candidate who will be most capable in office, then you may want to know that the winner of the Most Campaign Signs Surrounding the Debate Venue sweepstakes was Vincent Orange, by far. On the other hand, there's Orange's new radio spot, which may be the worst campaign song ever recorded. (I'd link to it, but it's not on his campaign site.)

But don't take my word for this stuff--go see the candidates for yourself. Tonight, there's a forum at Trinity University in Northeast. And tomorrow there's one sponsored by a neighborhood group in Edgewood Terrace, 635 Edgewood Street, NE
9th Floor, Crawford Hall, from 6-9 p.m. For information, call 202.289.2111.

By Marc Fisher |  April 25, 2006; 7:24 AM ET
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Mark, you're so right. At one recent forum, Fenty seemed almost asleep; Cropp seemed busying trying to be on every side of the issues; Johns seemed bright and corporate, but she doesn't seem to connect to where I live. So far, something's missing there. Does she ever have to call a cop or wonder that to do when there's trash all over the place? Maybe it's something like that.

Brown seemed personable, smart and smooth but less and less subtantive the longer he went on, and Orange -- well, I just didn't get his appeal, frankly. He's almost substantive one moment, almost silly the next.

And the candidates just don't seem to want to differentiate among themselves, as if they're looking for opportunities to sound like they're all the the same. Maybe they're really one amoeba-like organism with five heads!

The questioners I saw also have not grasped the fact that the results leave many voters in a fog. They don't forcefully demand that the candidates differentiate themselves from the rest of the group. Maybe there could be more questions directed at individual candidates -- and their specific stands or perceived failings and liabilities.

Keep hammaring at your theme here, Mark. As things now stand the mayoral race is disappointing to the point of being almost scary. Lord knows why these people are running. It's mystery to me. There ain't no fire in the belly here.

Posted by: hieronymous | April 25, 2006 11:44 AM

I think on the whole that you are right on about the tedium of the Debates and forums thus far. I remember when Tony Williams ran in 1998 and there were over 100 forums and he looked like he was asleep at half of them.

It is not really a great way to judge candidates and they seem to all try not to make headlines rather than make them. But every once in awhile there is one made and it does make a candidate stand out.

In the debate yesterday Fenty made his no new tax pledge and it did generate a headline. It is a clear difference with the other candidates and should be welcomed by the business community who have been heavily taxed for everything in the District.

In a previous debate Linda Cropp and Vincent Orange came out for the new Hospital and Fenty said not without a Certificate of Need- that is/was a clear difference.

the Washington Post reported yesterday that the voters are unhappy with Linda Cropp for giving away the City in the baseball deal- that is an issue which has separated soem of the candidates and is resonating with voters.

Vincent Orange's jingle is I agree mind-boggleing but it does make him stand out. Not quite in the way he wants too I'm afraid.

I think as the candidates release their issue papers in the comming months we will begin to see more clearly where all the differences are.

The quiet of the campaign at the moment is that all the candidates are trying to raise money for the final media push of the campaign.

My fear is that this campaign will get more nasty. I heard yesterday that Max Berry, Linda Cropp's finance chair, is blatantly lying to people as he is trying to raise money and get support for Linda. He is telling people Adrian has been disbarred and is a crook. Clearly total lies and not smooth for a man like Berry so involved in DC politics. But I guess he is so afraid that he won't be able to pull any strings for his friends anymore at City Hall if Fenty wins that he will say or do anything to keep his influence. That is sad for both Berry and the people of the District.

I hope that all the candidates will tell there supporters to keep this race clean and honest. The people of the District deserve no less. They may get bored with the candidates but lets at least not have the candidates or there supporters get into the gutter.

Posted by: concerned citizen | April 25, 2006 12:57 PM

Well the City has changed since the last race. The demographics have changed, and the canidates need to know what voters want. I guess they should know by this point, but I can't blame thenm for being cautious before speaking. They should of learned that when they were dealing with the stadium deal.

Posted by: John | April 25, 2006 4:31 PM

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