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Native Intelligence
Even Barry could collect signatures
(Published July 15, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

I have never been a gracious winner when calling it right in political prognostications. I really hate being correct when highlighting weaknesses in the American political system and not its strengths. One could say gleefully "I told you so," but I'm too saddened by what has happened in the launching of the mayor's re-election bid in the past two weeks.

Last month, my column admonished Mayor Anthony Williams for paying people to obtain signatures qualifying him to be placed on the ballot. I said paying people to do their civic duty corrupts the political process. I said it was awful to monetarily reward people for good citizenship. I urged the mayor to grab a clipboard, even if it was symbolic, to go out and ask citizens for their signature - tell people you deserve a second term, ask for their vote of confidence, sweat a little. But, noooo…! Now another ethical albatross around his neck could do permanent damage to his political reform image.

The mayor's campaign submitted petitions with potentially thousands of invalid voter names and some even forged. The last time election fraud of such magnitude occurred was in 1994. Four campaign workers falsified signatures on a petition sheet for a D.C. council chairman candidate. A jury gave them time in jail. The chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections, Benjamin Wilson, sent a message of serious consequences when "an attempt is made to undermine the electoral process." That case now pales against the magnitude of the offending Williams campaign.

"Tony Dearest" was quick to say he was disgusted with such goings on. But, Native Intelligence recognizes a pattern. When ethics are violated the mayor does not take responsibility. He finger points at his staff and vows heads will once again roll.

Obtaining petition signatures isn't brain surgery. It takes people who have strong legs, a strong commitment to their candidate and a minimum of smarts to check the validity of each signature. A little suntan lotion and a bottle of water are helpful as well. But sources say the mayor's campaign never got rolling. One mayoral supporter even said "there was no there…there." People told me other candidates were present at recent public events, but the mayor's campaign was non-existent. I guess a dearth of challengers enervated the Williams campaign attitude toward the whole process. Whatever the case, the easiest part of the political campaign has become a disaster and a major embarrassment for the mayor.

Critics say it has the taint of cronyism some Williams supporters identify with the old Marion Barry era. But Barry's campaigns never screwed up something as simple as getting voters' signatures.

The first time Williams ran for mayor, a grass-roots group of volunteers obtained 9,000 signatures, 7,000 more than he needed, in just a few weeks. Gwen Hemphill, a co-chair of the mayor's campaign, says "it was different the first time around. There was excitement and energy. This time, he is an incumbent with $1.4 million and no one wants to work for free."

Who says no one is civic-minded and willing to help, if asked? Most of the members of the D.C. Democratic State Committee who support the mayor were not even asked to obtain signatures. Even in key neighborhoods in Ward 3, where Williams enjoys popularity, his circulators were not in view.

Now I suspect there are D.C. voters who think I am harping on a minor issue, but it is really more representative of the attitude of the entire campaign and really speaks volumes about the mayor's supporters. In the next few weeks, we will see the usual head rolling we expect from this mayor and another group of nameless, faceless people who know little about the District probably will come in to run his campaign. He has already brought in a professional public relations firm to do damage control, but it may be too late for his campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

Sources say the Williams petitions are such a mess that it looks as if he may not have 2,000 valid signatures to have his name placed on the Sept. 10 primary ballot. The real questions for Mayor Williams are "How do you get your honor back?" and "How do you regain credibility when your campaign - and you - look so tainted?"

There is some talk that Williams could run as an independent if he is disqualified as a Democratic candidate. He does have the time to do so, if he is capable of obtaining the necessary 3,000 signatures by Aug. 28 to get on the November ballot.

What is really sad is that regardless of the outcome, the mayor is permanently tarnished in spite of any progress that has been made in the city. This is not an issue of political differences; it is not his ramming the 2012 Olympics down citizens' throats. This isn't building a baseball stadium downtown that ignores citizens' concerns. It isn't a controversial, new convention center. It is much worse.

The mayor comes off, at the very least, as inept and, at best, a person who does not respect democracy.

He has shown over the past four years a disdain for the cumbersome aspects of democracy, preferring instead to blame others for his shortcomings. Why do we have low voter turnout in the District?

For those citizens who think the District has buried the perception of our city as the laughingstock of the nation under Marion Barry, Williams has kept the joke from dying. No well-produced singing commercials can erase that image.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator