Marie Johns and the Sound of a Pinpricked Balloon
Marie Johns was, for a time, what passed for the exciting alternative in the D.C. mayoral campaign. The former phone company executive started out her race for mayor as a captive of corporate rhetoric, a political neophyte whose every utterance was a painful journey into the bland vocabulary and contorted sentences of the business management world.
But Johns learned quickly, and in a matter of weeks, she was making her way around the city with a fresh collection of stories about Washingtonians she had met and about the fears and anxieties she'd discovered in a city torn apart by race, class and the whirlwinds of change.
She was always haunted by the spectre of Sharon Pratt Dixon/Kelly, the former mayor who also presented herself as a real world executive who would come into office and teach the bureaucrats a thing or two about how to manage. The comparison was wholly unfair, Johns protested, with some merit.
But as Johns failed to raise money or break through the media notion that this is a two-way contest between Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp, the outsider's campaign has begun to sputter. Loudly. Her finance chairman has fled the reservation, signing up with Fenty. And Johns' 8 percent showing in the last Washington Post poll seemed a death knell to many in her own campaign.
But Johns carries on, and yesterday she visited us at the Post for lunch. I came out of the session feeling that the candidate is deflating before our eyes. Which is too bad, because she is smart, dedicated and wants to conduct a campaign of ideas and issues. Johns says that her only hope now is to win the endorsement of this newspaper. I have no idea when that endorsement will be published or who the editorial board will choose to support; we in the news department have no contact with the editorialists on such matters and we like to keep it that way.
But I'll eat my ballot if the Post endorses Johns. Not because she's not the editorial page's kind of candidate. But because the perception that this is a two-way race is not a concoction of journalists, but an accurate reflection of what all polls--both by candidates and by news organizations--show, and a reflection as well of the sounds and sights on the streets of the city.
Why didn't Johns catch on? She says many of the right things, she has a natural appeal across racial and class lines, and as a neophyte, she recalls the original appeal of Tony Williams. But unlike Williams, Johns really has no intimate experience with the city government; remember, though Williams was the classic anti-politician, he had done a bang-up job as the District's chief financial officer. He knew the city bureaucracy inside and out.
Johns, like so many candidates all around the city, focuses much of her campaign on education. If the schools stay lousy, the city has no chance, she says quite bluntly. But her proposed solutions sound too much like what we've heard year after year: More help for dysfunctional and uninvolved parents, more technical education, use the recreation centers and libraries to assist the schools. Ok, nice ideas, good ideas. But would they stand a chance ot making a real change in what happens in the classrooms? No.
And Johns doesn't go the extra step: She doesn't talk about a mayoral takeover of the school system, such as has happened in New York, Chicago and some other big cities that finally had it with chronically underachieving schools. She doesn't dare to talk in any detail about clearing out deadwood and incompetent teachers. She seems, in the end, too safe.
"We need a culture change in the government," Johns told us, and that sounds great, but the only proposals that followed were about telling workers that they need to meet higher expectations. Not exactly wielding the broom.
Several of us tried to get Johns to take sides between Cropp and Fenty, but she wasn't biting. She smacked Fenty around a bit: "He's one heck of a campaigner and that's what he does.... But being mayor is more than that. It's more than getting a Supercan delivered." Ouch.
And she gave equal time to dismissing Cropp. Johns made a point of mentioning that Cropp was president of the D.C. school board back in the 80s, a role that Cropp glosses over in her appearances and on her website. And Johns hits Cropp for having legislative rather than executive experience.
But when I asked which of the two she would support were she not running herself, Johns said, "I can't answer that." Why not? "I know too much."
Sadly, Johns looks outward when asked to explain her failure to connect with voters. Why hasn't your campaign caught fire? "Because I haven't had more articles in The Washington Post," she said. Oh, please.
And then, in a voice more tired than inspired, she talked about being "very proud" of her "solid eight percent of support against two very well-known candidates."
So, is it over? Johns said she still thinks she can win if the Post endorses her. And then she added: "If I can't make the case effectively to the voters, so be it."
And what happens to the city if the next mayor doesn't fix the schools and take the steps she proposes to take?
"We will continue to have crime emergencies, a widening gap in health care, and unrealized talent" going to waste because the city's schools serve young people so poorly, Johns said. "We will become a city of the very wealthy, and the very poor and very little in between."
That's a truth we already see too plainly every day.
By Marc Fisher |
August 22, 2006; 7:54 AM ET
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