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Underhanded politics

(Published July 3, 2000)

"Tony Williams is running right into a buzzsaw and he doesn’t see it."

"There’s no difference between Tony Williams and Marion Barry — both of them will do anything to get what they want."

"What could the mayor possibly be thinking?"

That’s how three opponents of the school board referendum recently characterized the mayor’s single-minded determination to win what appeared to be an all-or-nothing fight over a school governance issue that almost everybody acknowledges probably won’t mean much in the grand scheme of improving the quality of education offered to children enrolled in our public schools.

All of the people who made those comments were cheering on Tony Williams as he took over the mayor’s job 18 months ago. They wanted him to succeed. They had high hopes that he could bring people together to fix many of the problems that have plagued our city for years.

They were expressing a deep sense of disappointment, disillusionment, bewilderment and even betrayal over the mayor’s decision to stand with the monied powerbrokers — and against the people who gave their all to bring Tony Williams to power.

The stark post-election map initially posted on the Web site of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics — showing how the city’s 140 precincts voted June 27 in black and white — really said it all. (The map has since then been toned down, with red and blue replacing the racially provocative image.)

The mayor’s referendum campaign lost in 66 percent of the District’s voting precincts. Of the total vote for the so-called "hybrid" school board, 30 percent came from affluent, predominantly white Ward 3. Another 28 percent of the pro-referendum votes came from predominantly affluent, white voting precincts in Wards 2 and 6.

It’s the worst message Mayor Williams could possibly send to the working-class voters who stood behind him, the people whose hearts and minds he won with his no-nonsense pledge to make the "trains run on time" and to rid the city of cronyism.

This campaign and the election’s outcome were the embodiment of many D.C. residents’ greatest fear — that the white, monied interests in the nation’s capital and its suburbs are indeed the city’s "ruling class."

Say it ain’t so, Tony.

Either the mayor ranks among the most inept judges of political advice and fails to learn from his mistakes, or he’s an astute politician who knows exactly what he’s doing to the racial and social fabric of our fair city.

Neither picture is pretty. But neither were the underhanded political tactics employed by the mayor’s pro-referendum forces to almost ensure passage of a proposed home rule charter change — including, but not limited to, behind-the-scenes negotiations, a manufactured "emergency" that created a special election for an issue that otherwise legally belonged on the Sept. 12 ballot, a secret campaign fund, and the convoluted justification for using taxpayer funds to tell the public how to vote.

For Mayor Williams to stand a chance of improving the quality of the District’s public schools, he knows he needs the support of all those parents east of Rock Creek Park who just said "no" to his reform plan. They’re the people who have been complaining of being "left out" of their children’s schooling. Unfortunately, the mayor’s campaign just left them out again.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator