- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

The D.C. mayoral candidates are stuck on E in the dictionary, throwing around words such as education, empowerment, economic development, engagement and experience. All to tout vacuous phrases and policies that come up empty, early.

Judging from two candidate forums in venues representing the disparate populations of the city, the five candidates seeking to replace outgoing D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had better put a lot more than E for effort and pack more beef in their fledgling campaign enchiladas.

Early handicappers said that the Democratic mayoral primary in September will be a two-person race between D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and Ward 4 council member Adrian Fenty.

Some pundits even suggested that Ward 5 council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., businessman Michael Brown and retired utility executive Marie Johns were non-starters, wasting their time. Disinterested voters are still hoping for a dark horse to appear from the shadows to raise the candidates’ bar.

As this current “experience” versus “energy” campaign is evolving, it is presenting some early surprises, given comments from listeners at the raucous Ward 8 forum at the Washington Highlands Library on Saturday, as well as at the sedate candidate forum hosted by Women of Washington, Leadership Greater Washington and the Greater Washington Urban League at the Four Seasons Hotel yesterday.

A cursory, unscientific review of a number of people indicates that the forceful Mrs. Johns impressed some participants and piqued their interest with her educational emphasis. A more polished Mr. Orange surprised some with his command of statistics, dates and data. A few, leaning toward the youthful Mr. Fenty, said they were unimpressed by his generic statements about providing “leadership … that is engaged with the community.” One Ladies’ Luncher at the Four Seasons said Mrs. Cropp “seems to be all over the place,” as she lists her accomplishments as council chairman.

Though they clearly have solid, strong supporters, neither Mrs. Cropp nor Mr. Fenty should count on packing boxes in their current Wilson Building office digs anytime soon.

Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown and Mrs. Johns are demonstrating that they are not going to be dismissed so easily. Each presented initiatives, mainly designed for young people, to address the issues resonating with Ward 8 voters, such as the lack of affordable housing, the lack of vocational education, the lack of quality schooling, the lack of accessible health care and the lack of jobs.

Time and funds, with the next campaign-finance reports to be filed within a week, will tell a better tale.

On Saturday, however, it was not a good day to be an incumbent, even if you invoked the exalted name of Marion Barry at every opportunity.

The feisty folks jammed into the three-hour session were as hot as the basement meeting room. And the so-called front-runners were visibly shaken and forced out of character by the angry residents who were “just not feeling them,” as they say on the south side of town.

The serious-faced Mr. Fenty rose and placed his hands on his hips several times and asked the heckling crowd to just let him finish a sentence. The usually cool Mrs. Cropp also was brought to her feet. With her finger-punching gestures, her head bobbing, her hair waving and shouting like one hot Sistagirl, she countered the charges that she was “just a surrogate for the mayor,” more interested in building the baseball stadium than fixing schools. That $700 million public edifice at the expense of new schools and a new hospital is not very popular here.

One emergency medical technician, Victoria Nance, became so excited that she went beyond the microphone stand, stood directly in front of Mrs. Cropp and passionately shouted, “The next time I’m doing CPR and trying to [work on] a patient, I’m taking them to the stadium because there is no hospital down here.”

“Y’all are all council members now. Why do you have to be mayor to get things done?” Ms. Nance asked.

The crowd was also upset about the amount of attention being paid by reporters and the current mayor to the emergency response to New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum’s death versus “the people who are dying in the street every day here.”

One woman directed her question about collecting tolls from commuter traffic to “the new people,” meaning Mrs. Johns and Mr. Brown, because “it must not have been an issue for the council members that’s already there.” The glaring exception, of course, was Mr. Barry, who sat smiling in the front row or greeted well-wishers while the candidates attempted to speak. If these folks had their druthers based on their expressed support, the Ward 8 council member would be elevated to his former post as mayor despite his latest addiction challenges. He is, after all, the only council member to make that upward move.

Across town yesterday at the ritzy Four Seasons, the incumbent council front-runners (except for Mr. Brown, who did not attend) did not fare a whole lot better under terse questioning by WJLA-TV (Channel 7) anchor Maureen Bunyan, who attempted to force concise answers about moving the city forward to benefit all residents.

As usual, the candidates took the opportunity to make grandiose speeches instead of answering the pointed question on the table.

The surprise here is that the business community is not certain about which candidate to support for mayor at this early juncture either. It appears to be waiting for one candidate to really catch fire. None has.

Though all but Mr. Fenty have been friendly to the business community or a part of it in the past, none of the candidates can be pegged as definitively pro-business as they fumble to garner supporters in the demographically changing District, a divided city that is still faced with many of the same old problems.

To meet that double-edged challenge, this group of mayoral candidates must move beyond the easy E’s in the alphabet soup of political rhetoric.

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