In Washington, the shoo-in for mayor isn't on the ballot

Blunders by his campaign put incumbent in peril

July 28, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The mayor of the nation's capital was supposed to cruise to re-election - no hassles, no rivals, no sweat. But instead, Anthony A. Williams finds himself with a problem that no one ever imagined the popular incumbent would have to face: how to survive the humiliating blow delivered to him by his own campaign.

A bungled petition drive that was supposed to qualify Williams for the Democratic primary has led instead to charges of fraud that have bumped the mayor off the Democratic ballot. In the coming days, Williams must decide whether to launch a legal fight to get back on the ballot, run as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary, or offer himself as an independent in the general election.

Washington's elections board ruled unanimously Friday night to keep Williams off the ballot in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, arguing that forgeries and irregularities among the more than 10,000 signatures collected by campaign aides threw into question whether there were enough legal signatures for a place on the ballot.

The episode is at the very least an embarrassment for Williams. At worst, it could invite challengers into the race.

"I'm having so much fun I can't stand it," Terry Lynch, a community activist and frequent Williams nemesis, said last week. By Friday night, he had dubbed the fiasco "Petitiongate."

But many supporters are unfazed by such talk, doubtful that Williams is in danger of suffering much more than a bad headache. To this point, the Democrats have not put a challenger forward, and the Republicans don't even have a candidate.

Williams, 50, known as the straight-arrow answer to his embattled predecessor, Marion S. Barry Jr., spent yesterday rallying campaign workers and calling local political players for advice about what to do.

Yesterday, Williams' aides huddled behind closed doors and considered their options. Would voters get confused by a write-in campaign that required them to personally inscribe the mayor's name on the Democratic ballot? Advisers proposed handing out pencils at polling places with "Anthony Williams" printed on them, so their votes would not be disqualified because of any misspelling of the mayor's name.

Another alternative is for Williams to run as an independent in the November general election. In that case, he must ditch his Democratic Party registration by Aug. 12 and collect 3,000 signatures of district voters for nominating petitions due by Aug. 28.

But that could throw the mayor's $1.4 million campaign fund in jeopardy (the mayor might have to offer refunds to donors who thought they were giving to a Democrat) and damage, at least temporarily, the mayor's party ties in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

A legal fight?

Meanwhile, some aides are itching for a legal fight, pointing out that the elections board ignored a name-by-name review by the city's registrar that found Williams had obtained 2,235 valid signatures - more than the 2,000 required by city law to secure Williams a place on the Democratic ballot. Some aides believe that the mayor could fight the election board in court even as he launches a separate petition drive as an independent.

Today, Williams will conduct a round-the-city tour, visiting nearly every ward to control the damage with district voters.

It's slim pickings this year for anyone who doesn't want Williams. Only a few unknown candidates are on the ballot for the Democratic primary (including a woman who goes solely by the name "Faith" and regularly blows a trumpet at city government meetings). The deadline for entering the Democratic and Republican primaries in the city was July 3.

Now, potential challengers are said to be considering their options to run as independents or to mount write-in campaigns, including several Democrats on the D.C. Council who once toyed with the idea of running but sat out the race because of Williams' formidable fund raising and general aura of invincibility.

But challengers would likely face an even tougher road than Williams - like the mayor, they too would have to find a roundabout way of getting on the ballot, but they would probably not have the same amount of money and name recognition.

That reassures Williams' supporters.

"Even with all this mess, he'll probably still win," said Donald Murray, a local civic organizer who helped draft Williams, the former chief financial officer for the district, as a mayoral candidate in 1998. "The reality is if there were stronger challengers, they would have gotten out here before."

The problems began earlier this month, when Republican Party workers reviewing Williams' ballot petitions spotted forged names of celebrities such as Frasier TV star Kelsey Grammer, domesticity queen Martha Stewart, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - as well as the deceased, such as actor Dudley Moore.

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