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A NEW LANDSCAPE

Mayor's problems prompt rivals to reconsider

(Published July 29, 2002)

By BENJAMIN DUNCAN

Staff Writer

In early July, before allegations of forgery threatened the validity of thousands of signatures on his campaign petitions, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was considered a lock for re-election. He had the power and prestige of the incumbency working in his favor, as well as a campaign war chest of $1.4 million with which to mow down the opposition.

But with the mayor denied ballot status as a Democrat for the Sept. 10 primary, the possibility that a member of the D.C. City Council will step up to challenge Williams has become a factor in the race.

Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, said the mayor’s petition debacle is leading him to reconsider his earlier decision to sit out this year’s mayoral election.

"If he’s not on the ballot, it changes the dynamic quite a bit," Chavous said.

Chavous said he decided initially not to challenge Williams for the Democratic nomination because he didn’t want to run a campaign based on the mayor’s political shortcomings. But he acknowledged that the rapidly evolving landscape of the race has convinced him to keep his options open.

"As it stands now, I’m not planning on running, but this has turned out to be far more fluid than I expected," he said before the Board of Elections and Ethics voted July 26 to keep the mayor off the ballot.

Chavous previously ran for mayor in 1998, but lost to Williams in the Democratic primary.

Another name on the city council that has been tossed around in the weeks since the mayor’s petition problems emerged is David Catania, R-At Large. While the Republican Party failed to put forth a candidate for the primary, Catania – or any other Republican – could win the GOP nomination if a simple majority of voters writes in his name on the Sept. 10 ballot.

The councilman has said previously that he doesn’t intend to run for mayor this year, but one Republican insider said Catania would likely reassess his immediate political future if Williams wages his re-election campaign as an independent.

"It would obviously be necessary for Mr. Catania to examine the situation and say ‘Is it too early for me?’" the source said.

Catania currently is running for re-election to his council seat and faces what his staff referred to as a "serious challenge" in November. Sources close to Catania said this has been a significant factor in persuading him not to pursue a run for mayor thus far.

"Mr. Catania, as an active candidate for an at-large council seat which is being contested, cannot afford to divert resources from that campaign," said Ernest Olivas, Catania’s chief of staff.

While no member of the city council has announced the intent to challenge Williams, several lesser-known citizens have been working hard during the past couple of months to launch campaigns of their own. A former D.C. City Council member, an activist from the D.C. Statehood Green Party and a local performance artist are among the list of candidates vying for the top political prize in the District.

On the Democratic side of the race, eight residents, including Williams, submitted petitions to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to run for mayor. Of those candidates, three were dropped from the ballot for failing to obtain the required 2,000 signatures. Williams was denied a spot on the ballot July 26 by a unanimous elections board. Board members said widespread forgeries acknowledged by the mayor’s campaign, coupled with campaign officials’ refusal to answer questions regarding their signature-collection methods, led them to conclude that the 2,235 valid signatures contained on the mayor’s petitions may not have been obtained legally.

Douglas Moore, James W. Clark, Osie L. Thorpe and a woman who calls herself Faith are still on the list of Democratic candidates set to run in the primary. Norman Neverson, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, said Moore – a former city council member and now a Methodist minister – would be the most likely person to win the nomination if Williams was unable to get on the ballot.

"If I were looking at the race in terms of who’s in the arena in terms of public recognition, I would have to say that Douglas Moore has the best chance," Neverson said.

Moore, Clark and Thorpe were all unavailable for comment. Faith, a woman known for – among other things – blowing a trumpet at community meetings, said she is running to ensure that the District’s black population is protected from powerful corporate and political forces that aim to diminish its presence. She cited gentrification and upscale economic development as the biggest threats to the city’s black residents.

"People are hungry, homeless and the rents are being raised in the black neighborhoods," she said.

She also said that, if elected, she plans to dramatically increase funding for various art programs around the city.

One aspiring mayoral candidate who tried to get on the ballot as a Democrat but failed to collect enough signatures is Tricia Kinch, a woman who worked as a volunteer in Williams’ 1998 campaign. She said she’s trying to gather the 3,000 signatures needed to run as an independent.

Kinch, who quit her job as a public relations specialist at the Federal Communications Commission to run for mayor, said her past support for Williams waned after the mayor failed to deliver on several campaign promises and turned away from the people who worked so hard to ensure his victory in 1998.

"He kind of acted like he got into office on his own," Kinch said.

Kinch said she wants more money devoted to affordable housing for low-income residents, increased funding for public education and a new public hospital for the city.

The D.C. Statehood Green Party is also backing a candidate this year, former environmental consultant Steve Donkin. Donkin was unavailable for comment. His party’s spokesman, Scott McLarty, said that while Donkin has little chance to win the race, he hopes to shine a light on Williams’ strong ties to big business leaders.

"They trample on the rights and stability of D.C. residents and line the pockets of Williams’ cronies," McLarty said.

McLarty said Donkin is going door-to-door in an attempt to engage D.C. voters at a grassroots level.

While most of the candidates planning to challenge Williams said they recognize that the political odds aren’t in their favor, many of them said that both the mayor and the media have greatly exaggerated the depth of Williams’ support around the city.

Even Councilman Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4, said Williams would be especially vulnerable if forced to run as an independent.

"I think there are a lot of residents who will vote differently and hold onto their party affiliation," noted Fenty, who said he would support Williams either way.

Kinch said that the mayor is far from invincible, regardless of whether he runs as a Democrat.

"He doesn’t enjoy the kind of widespread support he would like us to believe he has," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator