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Handicapping the Mayor’s Race

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The Primary Election

On September 15, the voters in the Democratic primary will go to the polls and select Anthony Williams as their party’s nominee for mayor. That’s not a guarantee, but it’s the way to bet. The Washington Post poll published on August 30, 1998, showed Williams receiving 38% of the Democratic vote, more than twice that of his nearest competitor, Kevin Chavous. Other polls, such as one commissioned by Williams’ own campaign, show him with a commanding lead of 48%.

Elections in Washington, DC, are won by a plurality; a majority vote is not required to win, and there are no run-offs. Therefore, unless disaster strikes the Williams campaign or the Chavous campaign is blessed with a miracle, Williams is the closest thing to a sure bet in politics.

Williams was completely unknown in Washington politics until three years ago, when he was appointed by the Mayor and the Control Board to serve as the Chief Financial Officer. He only moved into the city of Washington after he was appointed as CFO. Since his job as CFO required him to present a range of options for the Mayor, City Council, and Control Board on program funding and taxes, his personal positions on most issues are unknown to the voters, and his opponents can attack him by claiming that he advocated any of the unpopular options that he presented. He put together a campaign operation and raised more than $425,000 in campaign funds (as of August 10) in just a few months, after being drafted to run by a group of reform-minded citizens. And even he describes himself as an unphotogenic nerd.

Williams is also running against three well-known members of the City Council — Kevin Chavous, Harold Brazil, and Jack Evans — who have planned their Mayoral campaigns for years, and who have long records of working in DC politics. How is it possible that he was able to leapfrog over all three of them with such seeming ease?

The Williams phenomenon is not a new one in DC politics. In the 1990 Mayoral race, a nearly unknown first-time candidate, Sharon Pratt Dixon (who married soon after she won the Mayoral election, and assumed the name Sharon Pratt Kelly), won the Democratic primary over three well-established City Councilmembers, whom she characterized as the "three blind mice." Then, as now, a large number of District voters were convinced that the established politicians and political institutions had failed, and were ready to take a chance on a "none-of-the-above" candidate, if that candidate had a credible chance of being elected.

In Williams’ favor, he can claim that, unlike his opponents, he had a job to do in District politics — producing realistic and reliable financial reports and fiscally responsible budgets — and that he accomplished that job. He can also reasonably claim that he stands the best chance of reestablishing the District government’s credibility with Congress, and therefore of regaining the degree of home rule that the city lost when Congress created the Control Board.

The fact remains, however, that most voters have no idea what kind of Mayor Williams would be, or what his priorities would be. It’s simply that they prefer the unknown to the candidates whom they know better.

The General Election

In the general election, the winner of the Democratic primary will face two candidates who are unopposed in their parties’ primaries: Republican Carol Schwartz and Statehood Party nominee John Gloster, as well as several minor independent candidates.

Normally, the Democratic primary decides the election in Washington; only 7.2% of registered voters are Republicans. However, this year’s election could be an exception to that rule. While the Statehood Party, advocating statehood for the District of Columbia and a liberal agenda unchanged from the late 1960’s, is a minor factor in the race, Carol Schwartz may make a very good showing — and could possibly win — the race for the Republicans.

Schwartz is an anomaly in District politics, a white Republican woman who is personally popular citywide. Though she is a longtime member of the Board of Education and the City Council, many voters exempt her from the disdain that they have for Councilmembers, because she can claim that as a member of the opposition party — and usually the only Republican on the Council — she wasn’t responsible for the Council’s actions, and opposed many of them. Though her Council record is weak — in this Council term, she authored only two bills that were passed by the Council — she can argue that he record proves that she, like Williams, is an outsider to the political establishment. She can also counter Williams’ strongest claim to the Mayor’s office by arguing that as a Republican herself she would have even more credibility with a Republican Congress than Williams would.

It’s also possible that Schwartz could attack Williams more convincingly that his Democratic opponents. Sharon Pratt Dixon presented herself as a reformer, an opponent of Marion Barry and of the governmental corruption and favoritism that he represented. By contrast, Williams has sought out and embraced many of Barry’s longtime supporters — boxing promoter Rock Newman, the Reverend Willie Wilson, DC bureaucrat Joe Yeldell, former Councilmember H.R. Crawford, former Convention Center Authority Chairman Luanner Peters, and former Barry field operative Marshall Brown, among others — whom good government and reform-minded voters dislike most. Williams’ Democratic opponents courted these same Barry supporters, so their criticism of Williams for having succeeded where they failed is not believable. But Schwartz, as a Republican, never had a chance to be supported by the Barry crowd, so she could more believably make the case that she is the real reformer, and that Williams simply promises to balance the books and make more efficient the same old system of corruption and favoritism.

Schwartz ran for Mayor twice before against Marion Barry. In the last mayoral election, in 1994, she got 42% of the vote in the general election. Most observers interpret this astoundingly high percentage for a Republican in Washington as a vote against Barry rather than for Schwartz. But Schwartz interprets it differently, as a positive vote for her as a popular politician who transcends party politics. And Barry was a much stronger politician and more popular candidate than any of the potential Democratic nominees. Schwartz can predict that she should do better against any of these weaker candidates than she did against Barry.

To Schwartz and her supporters, the general election will be a horse race, and she’s in the running.

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