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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