- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Even if they don’t know how or why it became a tradition, politicians in the District know they’d better head to the Palisades for its annual Fourth of July parade.

“The 21 years I’ve been here, it’s been going on,”said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, who has served as a lawmaker since 1991. “I’ve skipped vacations. I skip everything just to get to Palisades.”

His colleagues offered similar anecdotes as they assembled their teams on Whitehaven Parkway in Northwest moments before marching up the western edge of the District. City leaders said they wouldn’t dream of missing the event, and many them attended even before they assumed public office.

“It’s got a patriotic quality about it,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray, wearing a white polo shirt, jeans and sneakers and greeting residents before the parade.

The Palisades Citizens’ Association has organized the parade with the support of local businesses since 1966, according to its website. It has also been a favored tradition for city politicians, who benefit from one-on-one engagement with a friendly crowd - something that is particularly helpful during an election year such as this one, in which six council members are up for re-election. Some of them should coast to victory, while others will face strong challenges from minor-party candidates.

While the mercury inched toward 90 degrees on Wednesday, the event that several attendees described as a “reunion” also offered a reprieve from a hellish week of power outages caused by Friday’s fierce thunderstorm.

“You just show up,” said Bryan Weaver, a D.C. activist who is leading a high-profile effort to ban direct corporate contributions to local political campaigns. “It’s small-town parade in the middle of the nation’s capital.”

Adam Carter, a lawyer who lives in the Palisades neighborhood, said the event appears to be a dream come true for city leaders.

“I’m not aware of any other parade like this that’s so open to all and welcome to all,” he said. “This is where you can be guaranteed to have a large audience and generate some political good will - all for a bag of candy.”

Nonetheless, the D.C. political scene has been put to the test in the last year. Harry Thomas Jr. is sitting in a federal prison in Alabama for stealing more than $350,000 during his time as Ward 5 member of the council. He resigned and pleaded guilty in January.

Last month, former council Chairman Kwame R. Brown resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and a misdemeanor campaign-finance violation from his 2008 race for re-election as an at-large member of the council. And Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign is still under investigation after two aides admitted in federal court to paying a minor candidate to stay in the race with the hope he would continue verbal attacks on then-incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, who has served since 1997, said he would be interested to see how parade attendees react to city politicians in light of the recent turmoil.

But if anyone decided to rain boos along the route, they were hard to find. Families lined the sidewalks and cafes along MacArthur Boulevard to cheer on their leaders and grab candy, beaded necklaces and novelty items such as the green rubber balls that bounced into the audience, courtesy of council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, who is expected to cruise to re-election in November.

“The route is always polite,” council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said, noting that “mayor for life” Marion Barry was well-received here in the midst of high-profile scandals decades ago.

But it’s kind of complicated. Parade attendee Jim Symons, of Woodley Park, enjoyed the parade with wife Sheila Harrington, their daughter Eileen Symons and their dog, Mr. Darcy. Asked if he feels admiration for city leaders, he said, “Some of them.”

Even if problems swirl around City Hall, July 4 was not the day to dwell on them, Mr. Symons and other parade watchers said. In fact, the ethical cloud over the city could be used to drum up some fun.

Mr. Weaver’s team rode through the parade route with a tongue-in-cheek float featuring oversized dollar bills and a boombox blasting songs about money, while petitioners gathered signatures to get Initiative 70 - the ban on corporate contributions - onto the ballot.

When Brown resigned, the council voted in Mr. Mendelson as chairman because they viewed him as a stabilizing force. On Wednesday, he queued up for the parade with a clipboard of nominating petitions in hand ahead of a special election to fill the final two years of Brown’s term.

Mr. Mendelson is expected to win the race handily unless someone launches a serious challenge to him. Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, has not publicly ruled himself out, but has insisted he is focusing on his bid for re-election as an at-large member this November.

Fellow at-large incumbent Michael A. Brown, an independent, marched in the parade, as did a pair of energetic challengers in the at-large race - Mary Brooks Beatty, the Republican nominee, and David Grosso, an independent who is launching an aggressive campaign to get on the November ballot.

Mr. Orange, decked out in a festive tropical shirt and smiling for photos as he assembled his team along the parade route, said he has attended the annual event for well over a decade.

“Yes, I’m up for re-election, I’m the Democratic nominee. I’ll shake hands and say, ‘Vote for Vince,” he said. “But this is about celebrating the 4th of July, especially after the storm, and enjoying this calm, beautiful atmosphere.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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