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Formidable challenge

Williams, Wilson wage historic write-in effort

(Published September 2, 2002)


Staff Writer

What was initially expected to be an uneventful mayoral race this fall, with no major opponents stepping up to challenge Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his million-dollar campaign war chest, seems to have entered the political equivalent of "The Twilight Zone."

D.C. voters are now presented with a peculiar situation, following the July 26 Board of Elections and Ethics ruling that kept the mayorís name off the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot due to petition irregularities.

For the first time since the District gained limited home rule in the late 1960s, the two candidates widely judged to be the popular favorites for the Democratic mayoral nomination will not be named on the ballot.

Both the incumbent mayor and Anacostia minister Willie F. Wilson are running as write-in candidates against four lesser-known candidates Ė James Clark, Faith, Douglas Moore and Osie Thorpe Ė whose names will be listed on the ballot.

Wilson formally entered the race as a write-in candidate on Aug. 9, followed by a campaign kickoff rally on Aug. 12 in front of D.C. General Hospital. Since his announcement, many political activists who oppose Mayor Williams have gravitated toward supporting Wilson.

And Wilson, the pastor of 7,000-member Union Temple Baptist Church, received a major endorsement Aug. 29 when former mayor Marion Barry began campaigning with him. Historically, due to an overwhelming majority of D.C. voters being registered Democrats, the winner of the Democratic primary has gone on to be elected mayor in the November general election.

Facing a formidable challenge, Mayor Williams has sought to redefine his campaign.

"I went from thinking that my face was on Mount Rushmore to feeling like I was hanging off Mount Rushmore," the mayor told The Common Denominator, reflecting on the elections boardís ruling.

"At first you start campaigning and you have a tendency to try to be what youíre not. Then you got to settle into who you are," he said.

Williams feels more confident about his record of the past four years and is looking forward to what still needs to be addressed.

"We made a commitment to bring more investment to the city. Weíre doing that. We made a commitment to restore respect and credibility to the city. Weíve done that," Williams said. "If you look at where we are today versus four years ago, thereís been significant progress."

Wilson disagrees.

"I donít think the residents of D.C. can afford four more years of this mayor," he said.

Wilson, who was a Williams supporter in 1998, announced on Aug. 12 his own intention to seek the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate, citing what he felt was Williamsí neglect of certain parts of the District, particularly those neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Williams acknowledges the success of downtown development and stands by his record. Income generated by the downtown, he explains, produces tax revenue the city can use in other neighborhoods. He cites both how he promoted development downtown while also creating affordable housing.

"Iím proud to be the first mayor thatís funding the Housing Production Trust Fund and brought housing downtown thatís produced 12,000 units of affordable housing," he said.

Williams notes that while the most visible development has occurred downtown, he has been working to bring investment and more housing east of the river. Two D.C. government facilities, the Department of Employment Services and a 911 call center, are being located east of the river. Williams promised, but has not yet produced, two supermarkets there as well.

"Projects take time to mature," he said. "Because theyíre still in the planning and design stages and the contract formation stage and all that, people donít see the actual building so they feel that thereís a lot of talk."

Although the District lost its bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, Williams said he remains committed to developing and improving the Anacostia waterfront.

"Thatís my baby," he said.

Conversely, Wilson believes downtown development both neglects most of the Districtís other neighborhoods as well as forces lower-income residents out of the city. While he acknowledges the benefits of a redeveloped downtown, he believes the growth needs to be spread evenly across the city.

"It obviously helped. My problem is that there has not been a balance," Wilson said. "Itís one thing to build buildings, but we also need to link communities to building people."

Increasing property values downtown has led to an expansion of gentrification in the surrounding areas. Wilson points to cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Boston, where housing prices are prohibitively high for most individualsí incomes. He fears the District may join in the reputations of those cities.

"It is a policy that will end in the financial ruin of the D.C. government," he asserted. "Financially, it is unsound to have all high-income residents, middle-income residents in these cities."

Wilson points out that most jobs in the District are service and federal government jobs that pay close to minimum wage. These workers are essential to the Districtís economy and are most threatened by rising property values.

Outside of neighborhood development, both candidates also cited education as one of the most important issue of this election.

"The biggest issue facing the city overall, longstanding, is education," Williams said.

Williams said he wants to see libraries and recreation centers open during the school year in the same way that they are during the summer. He also said that working to make schools serve as neighborhood centers was a beginning step.

Williams seeks to focus on the years children spend prior to entering grade school.

"This is my goal: every child who enters first grade should have been in kindergarten and, in those first four years, also been in some kind of structured program where theyíre getting early training and nurturing," he said.

Wilson feels, with regard to education, that students are being asked to perform well without having the tools for success. Primarily, an adequate supply of books and computers are unavailable to students in the cityís public schools, he noted.

"Thereís no way I would tolerate not having enough books in our schools," Wilson said.

Wilson said he would turn to citizens and the private sector to ensure that all D.C. students have books. He also wants to seek more donations of computers from local companies.

"Iím a problem solver and I donít think we have an administration now that knows how to solve problems," Wilson said.

The candidates also are focusing on the condition of health care in the District.

The closure of D.C. General Hospital last year generated sharp criticism of the mayor, much of it from Wilson. Williams defended the closure, discussing how he believes the city has benefited.

"I think it was a very, very difficult decision, but I think it was a right decision," Williams said.

In the old system, Williams said, most money went to hospital administrators and not to those working at the hospital. Additionally, many patients who were using the facility were not D.C. residents.

"We have a system now where every low-income person in the city can have a health plan, and over 30,000 do now," Williams said.

He champions the choices and options given to individuals regarding their health, but notes the system needs to be improved and expanded to cover the working poor. Williams also acknowledged that the health care system needs to address diseases endemic to the District, such as substance abuse, diabetes, hypertension, as well as reducing the infant mortality rate and the incidence of HIV/AIDS infections.

On the closure of D.C. General, Wilson said he fears that individuals are falling through the cracks, and he suspects that some are dying due to a lack of adequate medical care. He believes that the closure of the hospital led to overcrowding at the other D.C. hospitals, which has an adverse effect on the health of D.C. residents.

"I hear residents telling me they have to go to the emergency room of these hospitals and wait all night long," said Wilson. "Many people are falling through the cracks."

Wilson wants to reopen the hospital in order to provide sufficient medical service to lower-income residents without health care coverage.

When asked to evaluate his job as mayor, Williams was positive about his accomplishments.

"I would say that Iíve made a number of commitments to work with and build upon the ideas and wishes of citizens out in the neighborhoods, and I think that Iíve done that. I think Iíve done a great job as mayor," he said.

Similarly, Wilson is also confident and assured in his platform and leadership.

"As mayor of this city, Iíll set direction," Wilson said. "Iíll set policy. Iíll put my ear to the ground and listen to what the citizens want, and then I will go out, hire and motivate the best experts I can find to lead the various departments of this city under my direction and under my policies that I have set for them to implement."

Three other persons have declared as write-in candidates for the Sept. 10 primary, according to election officials.

Democrat Mark Harmon, a tennis instructor and musician from Northwest Washington, said he decided to run as a write-in candidate for mayor because heís "a good listener, and ... a good problem solver."

While Robert Pittman was, at press time, the only declared write-in for mayor on the Republican ticket, voters may still write in other names. At-Large Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, who lost to Williams in 1998, said last week that sheís being "encouraged" to run a write-in campaign for mayor.

In Ward 5, Democrat Lawrence J. Mullin also is running a write-in campaign for the ward council seat.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator