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Let the debate begin

Despite strong support, Patterson faces council challenge

(Published July 1, 2002)

By BENJAMIN DUNCAN

Staff Writer

Four years ago, Ward 3 City Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson’s road to re-election was clear and unobstructed – a political cakewalk.

She faced minor competition in the 1998 Democratic primary, with one challenger who garnered just 8 percent of the vote, and she ran unopposed in the general election.

Though the incumbent is still favored to retain her seat, the presence this year of what many consider to be credible Democratic and Republican challengers means that another victory is far from guaranteed.

The lack of serious opposition in 1998 has many Ward 3 residents, Republicans and Democrats alike, itching for a more competitive political showdown this time around. Patterson won the primary in 1994 in a hotly contested race, when she defeated incumbent Jim Nathanson.

"I feel very seriously that it’s a blessing when we have some challengers, because maybe something good will come up in debate," said David Bardin, who chairs Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F.

This year, Patterson will face Erik Gaull in the Democratic primary. Gaull resigned from a $93,000-a-year position as director of operational improvement in the Executive Office of the Mayor last year to mount a challenge to Patterson. He concedes that she will be difficult to beat, but said he remains optimistic that he can win.

"I recognize that it’s going to be an uphill climb, but I’m working incredibly hard," Gaull said. "People all over the ward are recognizing that I’m a serious contender."

Gaull noted that Patterson failed to win the endorsement of the Ward 3 Democratic Party organization at a recent meeting. Patterson said she still won 70 percent of the vote, just 5 percent shy of the count needed to gain an endorsement, which she said is a sign that she has plenty of support within the party. Thorn Pozen, president of the Ward 3 Democrats, said Patterson’s inability to win the party’s endorsement signals that the primary should be competitive.

While employed by the mayor’s office, Gaull worked with various agencies to improve service delivery around the city. Before that, he worked at TriData, a consulting firm in suburban Arlington that collaborates with local governments across the United States and Canada on issues such as improving ambulance operations and firehouse locations.

Gaull said he has received numerous calls from Ward 3 residents offering their support – something that’s convinced him he can win.

"People are telling me that they’re ready for a change," he said. "People have been contacting me instead of me trying to contact them."

Gaull said residents have complained bitterly to him about Patterson’s lack of communication with constituents, saying that she is never available to discuss the problems facing Ward 3.

"Citizens say, ‘The one time I called her office, she wasn’t available to talk,’" he said.

Patterson defended her relationship with her constituents, saying that her availability has always been strong.

"I can tell you that my door is open and my phone is always answered," she said.

Ted Dibiase, an ANC 3E commissioner, said Patterson is highly respected by the majority of Ward 3 residents.

"I think the consensus is that she’s one of the best city council members that we have," he said.

Dibiase, an assistant U.S. attorney, praised Patterson’s work on education as well as her leadership as chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, citing a series of oversight hearings she held to improve the training and accountability in the Metropolitan Police Department.

"I think that her experience on that committee has been very helpful," he said.

The winner of the Democratic primary on September 10 will face a challenge from Republican Erik Rojo in the Nov. 5 general election. Rojo spent 31 years in the Army (18 on active duty) before retiring in 1998 as a colonel in the Army Reserve. He worked in the U.S. Department of Energy for four years during the Reagan administration, two years of which he spent touring nuclear weapons facilities around the country, recommending ways they could be protected from possible terrorist attacks. He currently runs a consulting company called Magination Associates, which helps American businesses set up operations in foreign countries.

Rojo said he grew tired of watching incumbents in the District running unopposed, something that motivated him to toss his hat into the ring this year.

"My basic position is to run as a candidate so that citizens have choices," he said. "We seem to have too many elections in this city that are one-sided."

He said he plans to make education spending an important issue during the campaign, saying that the city needs to do a better job of allocating resources. He said the District has the third largest education budget of any city in the country, yet still has significant problems with the quality of its public schools.

"If we get proper accountability of where the money is going, we’ll know why we’re spending so much for so little," he said.

While Rojo acknowledged that he is still at a nascent stage of his campaign, he said that he has managed to pique the interest of Ward 3 residents who hope to see the Republican Party put up more of a fight in this election. Even Bardin, a Democrat who identified himself as a Patterson supporter, said the race would benefit from more aggressive Republican opposition.

"The worst thing for this city is that the Republican Party does not compete effectively," Bardin said. "It deprives the city of a democratic process."

One issue that Ward 3 ANC commissioners from both sides of the political aisle said they would like Patterson to address is the matter of putting more private schools in Ward 3. Some residents complain that the addition of new private schools in residential neighborhoods creates a number of logistical headaches for people, including increased traffic congestion and a lack of access to what used to be public property. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anne Heuer, a Republican who represents single-member district 3D, said Patterson has never dealt with the issue definitively.

"She hasn’t really taken a stand on this," Heuer said.

Patterson said each case needs to be examined separately, but that she has generally supported the creation of new schools.

"I’m a very strong supporter of schools, period," she said. "I think the families in my neighborhood want more choices closer to home."

Gaull said schools that obtain special exemptions from zoning codes in residential areas should be forced to compensate the city financially, especially in cases where the city would be losing tax revenue by selling public property to private institutions. He said city officials should be asking the schools, "What are you doing for the city in return?"

Gaull harshly criticized Patterson’s position on term limits. In 1994 the District held a referendum on term limits for city council members that passed with 62 percent of the vote. Last year, the city council voted to overturn the referendum, a measure Patterson supported.

Patterson said her strong personal feelings about the issue compelled her to vote in favor of the repeal.

"I think term limits are such a fundamental individual rights issue that it was important for me to exercise my rights as an individual on that issue," she said.

Yet Rojo, who strongly opposes term limits as well, said the council should never have nullified a law that was clearly supported by a majority of voters – an opinion shared by Gaull.

"It’s not a question of whether you’re for or against term limits," Gaull said. "It’s a question of whether or not people on the council have the right to overrule the will of the voters."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator