D.C. voters made their wants clear: new leadership

September 13, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- They threw the rascals out. That, plainly, was the meaning of Tuesday's record-breaking primary election in the District of Columbia, which promises a wholesale change in the city's political leadership, analysts said yesterday.

In the race to succeed Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., the Democrats picked Sharon Pratt Dixon, 46, a lawyer and former utility company executive, to face Republican nominee Maurice T. Turner Jr., a former D.C. police chief, in November.

Experts divided over whether Mrs. Dixon would be seriously challenged. Some, citing the Democrats' lopsided, 9-to-1 advantage in party registration, called her election a foregone conclusion.

But others noted her relative lack of campaign experience and that she would be the city's first female mayor. Anticipating a well-financed Republican effort to capture the mayoralty of the nation's capital, even some of her strongest supporters sounded cautious.

"This is not a done deal. We have a lot of work to do," said Lynn Cutler, a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, on which Mrs. Dixon served for 12 years.

The surprise victory by Mrs. Dixon, a first-time political candidate who promised to "clean house," was by no means the only evidence of deep voter disenchantment with the city's present elected leadership.

"The most fundamental message, which came through loud and clear, was that the voters were interested in a change," said Russell Owens of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Walter E. Fauntroy, the district's non-voting member of Congress for the past 19 years, finished dead last in the mayor's contest. In predominantly white Ward 3, Mr. Fauntroy, who is black, polled just 118 votes out of 16,818 cast, or less than 1 percent.

Nadine P. Winter, a fixture on the City Council for 16 years, was unseated by a political neophyte, former lobbyist Harold Brazil, 43. Four other City Council members, who sought to advance to higher office, were also rejected; two of them, however, will retain their council seats.

The slow-growth sentiment that cost Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer his job in the adjacent Maryland suburbs on Tuesday also was felt in the district, where the favorite in the mayor's race, council member John Ray, was hurt by his close ties to real estate interests, Mr. Owens noted.

That anti-development mood, combined with the broader repudiation of the city's current administration, is a potential threat to Mayor Barry's attempt to win an at-large City Council seat in November as an independent. Mr. Barry, who is yet to be sentenced for a misdemeanor cocaine possession conviction, has been closely associated with real estate developers throughout his career.

"Barry needs to worry," said Mark Plotkin, a Democratic activist. "And political analysts like myself have got to take back the quotes we gave a month ago that it would be an easy road for him."

Also on Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who moved to Washington from Chicago last year, was victorious in his first non-presidential primary. Mr. Jackson finished first by a wide margin in a five-way Democratic race for "shadow" senator. The victor in the November election will lobby Congress on behalf of D.C. statehood.

With the city facing a budget deficit of $100 million and the mayor's drug trial fresh in memory, Democratic voters turned out in record numbers to pick candidates with little or no experience in local government.

Though all the major winners were black -- reflecting the city's predominantly black population -- there were sharp differences in the way their victories were put together, a sign of the city's continuing racial divisions.

The two biggest winners were women who ran as reformers: Mrs. Dixon and Eleanor Holmes Norton, nominated to be the district's non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.

Mrs. Dixon, a former vice president of Potomac Electric Power Co., was strongly and repeatedly endorsed by the Washington Post. That, said analysts, helped remove doubts about her competence among white voters, who provided her margin of victory on Tuesday. She won only one predominantly black ward and ran third in the rest of the black community. Her biracial vote coalition, ironically, paralleled the one Mr. Barry put together when he first won the mayor's office as an outsider in 1978.

By contrast, Mrs. Norton ran up her victory margin in the black wards but was beaten badly in the white community. Late last week, it was revealed that the Georgetown University law professor and head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Carter administration had failed to file D.C. income tax returns for the past eight years. Mrs. Norton blamed her husband for what she said was an oversight.

Following those reports, Mrs. Norton's support fell in the city's white wards. Her main challenger, council member Betty Ann Kane, who is white, carried the white vote by a 2-to-1 margin.

Mrs. Norton's heavy support in the black community -- she outpolled Mrs. Dixon among blacks -- led analysts to speculate that some blacks, especially female voters, may have rallied to her candidacy in response to what they regarded as a racially motivated smear campaign. Other experts said the revelations may have come too late in the campaign for voters to take them fully into consideration.

Still another factor may have been the absence of an alternate choice for voters troubled by Mrs. Norton's tax problems. Of the four major candidates in the race, hers was the only "new face" on the political scene.

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