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SIMMONS: The political bedfellows get even stranger

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OPINION/ANALYSIS: 

The Rev. Willie Wilson is an old-school black Southern Baptist minister - the kind of preacher who casts aspersions upon sin but embraces the sinner.

So people who've never heard Mr. Wilson preach or watched him walk the talk were taken aback when he endorsed an openly gay D.C. Council candidate named Clark Ray on Wednesday.

The alliance is a sign of the changing times in Washington, where gays, clergy and conservatives noisily stand together this election year.

Sure, the typical issues remain atop urban dwellers' wish lists. But there's also an uneasiness among many men and women who praise the Lord.

They aren't feeling particularly welcome these days. Not after the legislature passed a same-sex-marriage measure and the mayor, who is no regular churchgoer, staged his signing of the law in a house of worship.

But it's election season, and that means the wannabes and those already holding office have to reconcile their agendas in face-to-face meetings.

Knocking on doors to solicit votes can be liberating for a candidate and educational for voters.

Consider Mr. Ray, a Democrat who worked for both Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a fiscal conservative, and current Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a tax-and-spend liberal. He employs a provocative ploy when introducing himself to voters.

When out and about, Mr. Ray actually carries a photo of his Democratic primary opponent and asks the woman or man of the house a simple question. They, in turn, usually ask him whom he's running against. Mr. Ray then whips out a photo of Phil Mendelson, who has served on the council since 1999.

"Over 90 percent have no idea" who the lawmaker is, Mr. Ray, who is making his first run, said in an interview Wednesday at Denny's Restaurant in Northeast Washington.

Mr. Ray cited a "disconnect" between voters and politicians who come around only at election time.

"That's what I think I'm fighting," he said, "that disconnect."

The top contenders in the mayor's race felt that disconnect Monday, when they were called to the Lord's house for a mayoral forum sponsored by the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of D.C. & Vicinity.

Mr. Fenty, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and small-business owner Leo Alexander knew the event was a must-show. After all, the organization represents 200 houses of worship and tens of thousands of voters in congregations large and small. Mr. Wilson's church alone has an estimated 2,000 members.

The candidates know that to be victorious, they have to win over faithful flocks, gays, blacks and the downtrodden - the needy residents who don't pay income taxes but get to the polls when it matters.

The secular vote alone can boost pols' chances, but the needy in Washington have come to expect more than a "howdy" come election time. And that's especially true in black Washington, whose middle class grew under three consecutive Marion Barry administrations.

It's why a true conservative hasn't a fighting chance to become mayor, lawmaker or congressional delegate. It's why four Republicans have launched campaigns in an unprecedented four wards - where the wheels of power squeak the loudest.

Washington is a giving and forgiving city, but the shifting demographics of the past decade - demographics that make gentrification sound like a dirty word and where class has trumped race as a lightning rod - are forcing new alliances and new allegiances.

The common causes cited by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ray - such as HIV/AIDS, school reform and helping seniors and youths alike - bear that out.

"I know to many on the outside this [is] a strange alliance," Mr. Ray said.

Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, called Mr. Ray "my brother."

That speaks volumes on behalf of Mr. Wilson, who often is labeled a "homophobe," and the D.C. electorate, which used to be known as "Chocolate City."

 

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Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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