Four years after this city celebrated the end of the mayoral reign of Marion Barry, legendary for being jailed for cocaine possession, the popular Mayor Anthony Williams is up for reelection. But thanks to his own campaign's mistakes, Mr. Williams won't be on the ballot in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. Instead, there will be, among others, a former exotic ballet dancer and a man once convicted of biting a tow-truck operator.
Williams, a bow-tie-wearing Ivy League graduate, has, by most reckonings, added some dignity to the office since he was elected in a landslide in 1998. He's doubtlessly lifted the city government up from the morass of cronyism and scandal that marked the era of Barry (who was actually reelected after his jail term), and he's submitted a balanced budget four years in a row. But a humiliating disqualification during the nomination process this summer means he's been relegated to write-in status, and his downgrade has pushed other candidates into the race.
Now, Williams must use his vaunted conciliatory skills to persuade voters to add his name on their ballots. The whole affair, meanwhile, has the nation's capital starting to fear it may again be known for its farcically inept local politics.
"We set the bar very low for mayor in this city," says local political commentator Mark Plotkin, who's no fan of Williams. He surmises that the mayor was elected and probably will be reelected at least in part because he doesn't embarrass the powerful people in this economically and racially divided (though overwhelmingly Democratic) town. "If the DMV works, and garbage gets picked up, then the well-off part of the city is happy."
A few weeks ago, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics found that more than half of the 10,102 signatures on the mayor's nominating petition had been forged. This, allegedly, was the work of a few wildly incompetent campaign workers, who'd listed names that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Robin Hood, and Billy Joel. The D.C. Court of Appeals confirmed the ruling that barred the mayor from the primary ballot, and fined him $277,700 for petition fraud.
Since then, the pro-Williams forces have had to cobble together and wage an energetic campaign for his write-in candidacy. Posters throughout the city ask voters to "Do the WRITE thing," while in letters to constituents, the mayor takes the opportunity to "personally apologize for the poor judgment and inexcusable actions of my early campaign organization."
The letter also begs voters to "please write in 'Anthony Williams' on the Mayoral line on your ballot."
Many will: Elissa Royal, a freelance copy editor, says, "What happened is stupid on such a monumental level, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt."
Mr. Plotkin notes, "Most people are distressed that [the petition fraud] shows ineptitude, but he isn't Marion Barry and benefits from the comparison."
Nonetheless, Williams's once rock-solid shot at reelection has become shaky enough to encourage his colorful competitors. The most bizarre is Faith (no surname), a septuagenarian, bugle-playing, former dancer who's making her sixth run. She sings her platform to whoever will listen, and admits, "I've never gotten any votes because everyone thinks I'm crazy."
Faith is on the ballot along with three others, all of whom may be more likely to win the lottery (even if they don't play) than the primary. A more viable threat is another write-in candidate, the Rev. Willie Wilson, a pastor for more than 25 years at the 7,000-member Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, a mostly African-American area of the city.
Mr. Wilson's flock includes many of Barry's old faithful, and his website biography boasts that "Rev. Wilson led Mayor Marion Barry in the most spirited political resurrection in the history of American Politics, when he was reelected mayor after going to jail and being widely written off and denounced."
It's an accomplishment that doesn't and isn't meant to impress voters in Washington's wealthier neighborhoods. But the vocal minister has roused the city's large black community enough to send Williams, who is also African-American, pumping hands all over town.
Because of Wilson's entry, this race is revisiting Washington's familiar push and pull between its two major constituencies. While the city didn't flourish under Barry, he offered voters who felt disenfranchised the image of someone who'd stand up to the powers that be. His relations with Congress were disastrous, however, and led the federal government to create a control board to manage the District's finances.
Williams, by contrast, is a diplomat. He doesn't want to fight as much as find reasonable compromises for the city, including the business community.
Supporters never expected his leadership to be threatened in the primary, but in two weeks, his campaign staff plans to be at the polls offering voters self-inking rubber stamps with the mayor's name. They fear that Williams might be mistaken for Wilson.