Ray hopes D.C. voters fed up with current mayor, disgusted by ex-mayor

September 04, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If there were a three-time-loser law in politics, John Ray would be out of luck.

Mr. Ray is best-known as a downtown lawyer, at-large council member and nice-guy politician who just didn't have the right stuff to win election in three previous tries for mayor of the District of Columbia.

But as this city's Democratic primary campaign heads toward its final week, Mr. Ray finds himself elbowing a rehabbed and reborn Marion S. Barry Jr. for a place atop the polls.

Mr. Ray, however, remains an unremarkable figure in the eyes of most voters. The 16-year council member readily acknowledges that his standing in the polls probably says as much about the liabilities of his two major opponents, Mr. Barry and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, as it does about his own popularity.

"I'm certainly in the category of being the alternative," Mr. Ray said. "Those are the two people who dug the hole we are in."

Mr. Ray, 51, lacks the charisma, political guile and common touch of Mr. Barry. And he exhibits neither the sternness nor steely toughness of Mayor Kelly. But after enduring 12 years of Mr. Barry's cavorting mayoral style, and suffering what many have seen as the broken promise of reform offered by Ms. Kelly's term in office, worn-out District voters may be ready to turn to Mr. Ray.

Voters are slowly tuning in to his promise to focus on improving the machinery of government. He wants to hire more police officers, pick up more trash and make the government more efficient. But most of all, his supporters seem fed up with the other candidates.

"He is picking up the disillusioned Kelly supporters and the anyone-but-Barry voters," said Howard Croft, chairman of the urban studies department at the University of the District of Columbia. "He doesn't have much of a political identity, and that has been a liability for him in the past. But in this election, he is turning that into an asset."

A Washington Post poll published last week showed Mr. Ray to be favored by 33 percent of the city's registered Democrats, while Mr. Barry was the choice of 34 percent, putting the two front-runners in a statistical dead heat. Ms. Kelly, 50, whose stunning political fall shows no signs of abating, was favored by 14 percent of the respondents.

As the campaign enters its final days, Mr. Ray is emerging as the candidate in the best position to win the primary, which traditionally has been tantamount to election here because 78 percent of the registered voters are Democrats. (However, Councilman Bill Lightfoot is regarded as a possible, well-financed independent candidate in the November general election if Mr. Ray loses the primary.)

Mr. Ray is strongest among white voters and upper-income residents of all races, groups that historically vote in the largest numbers in the District and who see Mr. Barry, 58, as a scoundrel because of his flamboyant history of womanizing, drug and alcohol abuse, and perceived mismanagement of the city.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barry, who was elected to the City Council in 1992 after serving a six-month prison sentence on a misdemeanor drug conviction, enjoys rock-solid support from young, poor and working-class voters -- groups whose numbers are swelling, but who are less-than-reliable about going to the polls.

In addition, Mr. Ray seems well-positioned to capture voters who may abandon Mayor Kelly once they decide that she has no dTC chance of re-election, because Mr. Barry is an anathema to many of them.

But even with those factors on his side, Mr. Ray concedes he is nervous about his poll numbers and his seemingly less-than-enthusiastic support -- which is understandable given his long history as a failed mayoral candidate.

In 1990, he was the acknowledged front-runner until Ms. Kelly, then a political novice, came from far back to defeat him. In 1978, he aborted his candidacy to support Mr. Barry for mayor. And in 1986, he was trounced in the Democratic mayoral primary.

"Every election has its own characteristics," Mr. Ray said. "A lot of it depends on timing."

Clearly, Mr. Ray thinks his time has come. At a recent meet-and-greet session with about 20 upper-income white voters a downtown apartment, Jeffrey Newcomb, the host, introduced Mr. Ray as a politician whose moment has finally arrived.

"Last time, we elected a mayor who we thought would be the answer," Mr. Newcomb said. "But we found out that she definitely is not the answer."

Then, turning to Mr. Ray, he added, "So we have here a new hope."

In his talk, he pounded on the themes that he had emphasized throughout the campaign. On his lack of charisma, he said: "This city, for so long, has been caught up in personalities as mayor," he told the gathering. "But we've had personalities. Now, people are looking for substance."

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