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Williams campaign still faces petition questions

(Published July 29, 2002)


Staff Writer

A politically weakened Mayor Anthony A. Williams rallied his supporters as the week began, with serious questions and potential criminal charges against some of his nominating petition circulators still hanging.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which unanimously overruled the registrar of voters on July 26 to throw out the mayor’s tainted nominating petitions and deny Williams a place on the Democratic primary ballot, is scheduled to reconvene at 10 a.m. Aug. 6 to consider referring allegations of election fraud to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, during a campaign swing through the city on July 28, Mayor Williams defended his decision not to order senior campaign aide Scott Bishop Sr. to cooperate with the elections board’s investigation of forged signatures and other petition irregularities committed by his campaign staff.

The mayor also defended his decision to preserve Bishops’ campaign job and $7,000 a month paycheck, despite Bishops’ refusal last week to answer questions from elections board members. Bishop responded two days late to the board’s subpoena on July 26, after the board threatened to seek an arrest warrant and contempt order from D.C. Superior Court.

Elections board Chairman Benjamin F. Wilson cited acknowledged forgeries and the refusal of Bishop and other campaign workers to defend or explain the procedure used to collect voters’ signatures on the mayor’s petitions to gain ballot access as the prime reason for rejecting Williams’ submission.

Bishop and his son, who helped circulate petitions for the mayor’s campaign, both asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions posed by the elections board and DC Watch, a watchdog organization that challenged the validity of the mayor’s attempt to get his name listed on the Sept. 10 primary ballot.

"He’s got constitutional rights," Williams said of Bishop. "I urge everyone to cooperate, but I can’t compel that.

"Why is he still on the payroll? Because the man’s got a family to feed," Williams went on. "Why should the guy at the bottom be the one to take the hit when this was an administrative failure from the top?"

Williams replaced part-time campaign manager Charles Duncan and acknowledged apparent widespread forgeries on his nominating petitions soon after D.C. Republican Party officials alleged massive election fraud by the mayor’s campaign in mid-July. Bishop has been described as having coordinated collection of signatures on the mayor’s petitions.

Williams denied that his failure to push Bishop harder to cooperate with the elections board was part of a deliberate strategy to slow down the board’s deliberations. If the board had failed to reach a decision by the legally mandated July 30 deadline, Williams might have earned a ballot spot by default.

"I know that’s what some people would like to think, but no," Williams said.

Williams spoke as he toured a Dupont Circle farmers’ market as part of Sunday’s day-long, citywide effort to reach out to voters. The mayor also made campaign stops at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a Safeway in Hillcrest, a Home Depot in Brentwood neighborhood in Ward 5 and sites in Adams Morgan and Friendship Heights.

The day of campaigning, which happened to fall on Williams’ birthday, was billed as a "listening" tour during which the mayor would solicit voters’ opinions on what he ought to do following the elections board’s decision – whether he should appeal that decision in court, or accept it and run either as an independent candidate or as a write-in Democrat.

"It’s my birthday. I got thrown off the ballot," Williams ruefully told a woman near Dupont Circle. "That’s my present."

Even early in the day, Williams already seemed to have decided at least the question of whether to launch a legal appeal.

"What I’m hearing is, ‘Drop it and move on,’" he told a reporter.

And he explained to a shopper at the Dupont Circle farmers’ market, "Plan A is the appeal, but overwhelmingly, it seems to me, we’re hearing, ‘Move to Plan B.’"

"So now we’re basically on Plan B," he said.

Most voters Williams encountered seemed to favor him running as a write-in candidate on the Democratic primary ballot – an idea that seemed to hold some appeal for him. Doing so would also allow the mayor to keep what remains of his $1.4 million campaign war chest, which the Office of Campaign Finance has said he may need to return to contributors if he leaves the Democratic Party to run as an independent.

"You’d better start handing out ball-pens," Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F member Helen Kramer told Williams. "It’s too risky to run as an independent – the Democratic Party activists will be sniping at you the whole time."

"You’re right, they sure would be," Williams agreed readily. He added, "The mayor out in Long Beach ran as a write-in, and she won. Did you know that?"

In a brief interview, Kramer called herself a Williams supporter. But, she said, "I’m flabbergasted at the way his campaign manager snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

Another Ward 2 resident, Judy Byron, also urged Williams to run a write-in campaign.

"You need to go door-to-door and win back our trust," she told Williams. "You’re a Democrat. I think that would energize the city."

But another resident, who declined to give her name, urged Williams to run as an independent, without offering a reason. "I just think you should run as an independent," she told the mayor.

Some residents Williams encountered had other matters on their minds.

"What should I do?" Williams asked Jennifer O’Neil.

O’Neil replied that the mayor needed to "fix" the Department of Motor Vehicles and then recounted a "horrible" experience she said she had the day before while trying to register a new car.

"We want to put it all online and make it much easier," the mayor gamely replied.

Ward 5 resident Joyce Meadows, who said she lives two-and-a-half blocks from the site of the recent controversial Grand Prix auto race, sharply told Williams she was unhappy with his administration’s handling of the race.

"That race doesn’t enhance the value of anyone’s neighborhood," she said in a later interview. The mayor, she asserted, "is not helping us, he’s just trying to help his own image. If he’s going to do us this way, I’m going to campaign against him – violently so."

In other interviews, voters expressed a range of opinions on Williams’ petition problems and his political future.

"I’d vote for him," said Ricky Bullard, a courtesy clerk at the Good Hope Marketplace Safeway where Williams campaigned. "He’s been very supportive as far as the seniors are concerned." Bullard said he lives in a LeDroit Park home for seniors and disabled persons.

Cathedral Heights resident Steven Newman called the ballot controversy "just a distraction" and said he plans to vote for Williams in September. "The election board made the wrong decision," he said. "He should be on the Democratic ballot."

Ward 7 resident Christopher Peterson expressed a more radical opinion than most residents who were interviewed. "I don’t think he should run again," Peterson said of the mayor. "If he gets in office for another four years, a lot of the youth programs that were established will get further rescinded. The youth will get pushed further and further out on the streets," he said, "and 90 percent of them will end up in jail."

A man interviewed outside the Alabama Avenue Safeway who said he lives in Ward 7 but declined to give his name, said he is not a Williams supporter. "I don’t like him, and I wouldn’t vote for him," the man said.

Asked why he doesn’t support the mayor, he shrugged and said, "I haven’t seen anything he’s done in Ward 7."

The Rev. Kenneth Brown of Urban Outreach Ministries said he generally supports Williams’ efforts as mayor. "I feel badly about the situation," said Brown, who lives in Ward 7. "I’m amazed he let himself get into a situation like that. He’s the victim of someone’s inefficiency working under him."

But, he added, "We can’t wink at the rules. I don’t think he should make light of the law, of the decision that was reached here. He shouldn’t come across as arrogant. He ought to be more humble," Brown said. He said few of his parishioners support the mayor – "and that’s the attitude that loses him support in my neighborhood."

Generally, more voters expressed support for Williams in the city’s western wards than its eastern ones – something apparently not lost on Williams. The mayor, without a hat, for almost two hours braved a blazing sun that sent others scurrying for comfort as he toured and shook hands around Dupont Circle.

But though his schedule put him at the Alabama Avenue Safeway from 1 p.m. until 2:30 p.m., Williams spent only about 20 minutes at the store – cutting a birthday cake, posing for pictures, taking a quick stroll down a store aisle – and then hurried off again in his large black Lincoln Navigator.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator