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Native Intelligence
Is 'nice' what we need in a mayor?
(Published May 2, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Fifteen years ago Linda Cropp ran for the first time for D.C. City Council against Charlene Drew Jarvis in a bruising battle. Jarvis crushed her. In her second try in 1990, she won an at-large council seat against what many described as minimal opposition. After the untimely death of David A. Clarke in March 1997, the council chose her as acting chairman.

Cropp has won every race since then, virtually unopposed. In contrast to some of her colleagues, she is characterized as warm and personable and, for a seasoned officeholder, has remarkably few enemies. While the next primary election is 15 months away, D.C. voters need to begin asking themselves if those are the qualities that the city needs in its leaders.

In 1997, Cropp was seen by many in the business community as a healthy antidote to the previous council chairmen, John Wilson and Dave Clarke. They used the chairman's job as a bully pulpit to advocate for the city's most vulnerable. Some council hearings were open shouting matches, as differences of opinion were loudly debated. Those hearings had a theater-like quality to them. But for many residents, Wilson and Clarke were seen as fighters for the "average Washingtonian."

Cropp's ascension to the position changed the tenor of the council hearings. She insisted that legislative differences be ironed out in closed-door sessions (a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the District's open meetings law) and mandated that all legislative matters be completed on time. Making "the trains run on time" and "trying to bring people together" are her strengths, according to one children's advocate, who added that "we have never gotten a real sense of what she stands for and what her vision is for the city."
Another one of her admirers described Cropp's status as "kind of sad," adding that the council chairman "has all the personal parts to be a good mayor - sense of humor, charming, personable. Everything Mayor Williams never had, she has in spades - except the desire to really make the city better, not just make the trains run on time."

Recently, Cropp has become the stealth candidate of some folks in the Williams administration who don't think the mayor will seek re-election and believe Cropp would continue the mayor's current programs. (What they are really saying is that they think their jobs would be safe in a Cropp administration.)

Some of the more politically active insiders say Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty seems like someone who would "shake up things downtown." They are quick to criticize Fenty as too young to be mayor, but he has moved ahead and built a citywide political organization - and doesn't seem to be shrinking from the prospect of running against Cropp or any other council colleagues, such as Jack Evans, Vincent Orange or David Catania.

Evans has become the perennial mayoral prospect. He always raises huge sums of money and maintains a healthy campaign war chest. He has been open about wanting to be mayor since he arrived in the District. He says he is running again in 2006. Many of Evans' Ward 2 constituents say he doesn't have a chance of being elected, unless baseball-loving suburbanites suddenly gained a vote in D.C. Even some of his supporters say Evans is too hot-tempered (some call it "passionate") and that he "flies off the handle just like Mayor Williams."

The voters who are satisfied with the direction the city has taken in the last few years would quickly vote for the mayor if he ran again, or just as easily for Cropp, says one political strategist. One Cropp detractor says that "she is personally, hugely electable, but she is known more for her personality, not for her legislative accomplishments. She has never been a friend to moderate-income residents in the District. She has never shown a passionate side and, unfortunately, is an advocate for the inequality now fostered by this [Williams] administration."

Cropp was clearly exhausted after the uproar at the end of last year over her effort to change the Major League Baseball deal. Some called her brave. Others, including many local sports reporters, were outrageous in their name-calling and vicious attacks on the chairman. Many bloggers were unrelenting in their name-calling. Those were the kind of attacks that make any public official question whether it is worth continuing in public life.
The jury is still out on whether Cropp was a heroine to try to better the deal or simply a politician trying to make points with the majority of residents who opposed the public financing of a new stadium. In either case, Cropp has not had a serious electoral challenge since 1988, so it is unclear how she would fare in a hotly contested race.

Lately, according to some political observers, she has been seen at a number of community events throughout the city - the kind of rounds she generally does not make on a regular basis. It has led many to assume she will run for mayor. But Cropp and her husband Dwight, who is a professor at George Washington University and a former city official himself, have served the city for many years. It may just be time for the next generation to serve.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator