D.C. mayor appeals ouster from Democratic ballot

Incumbent plans to run as write-in candidate if he loses court fight

July 31, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The mayor of the nation's capital tried yesterday to repair his wounded image - and save his candidacy - by appealing an embarrassing ruling by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that has kept him off the Democratic primary ballot.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is seeking to reverse last week's decision by the board after thousands of questionable signatures were found on his nominating petitions. At the same time, Williams said he would begin an aggressive campaign as a write-in candidate for the Democratic primary just in case he loses the court fight.

"There is a great deal of support for my re-election, a great deal of support for me to serve this city, and I'm going to go out and I'm going to prove it," Williams told supporters at the D.C. Convention Center.

Last week, the elections board ruled that the petitions nominating Williams for the primary were riddled with forged signatures and other evidence of fraud. So the board kept Williams' name off the ballot, turning the mayor's uncontested primary election into a public-relations fiasco.

Fight for political life

The bow-tied former government accountant was supposed to rescue the capital from the controversies of the Marion Barry years by trading charisma for efficiency, and the petition scandal threatens to return Washington to its familiar role as a butt of jokes. Here is a mayor fighting for his political life when he doesn't have even a single serious opponent because of a ruling by a board he appointed.

Williams is seeking to contain the damage. He used his announcement yesterday as a call to protect Washington's voting rights. He argued that he was representing the will of the 2,235 voters who legitimately signed petitions nominating him but whose names were thrown out when the board found 8,000 signatures suspect.

Williams also used the moment to showcase himself as a Democratic fighter. He said he would rather run as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary - considered dicey because votes could be thrown out if the candidate's name is misspelled or otherwise not letter-perfect - than pursue another option should he lose his appeal.

The mayor and his aides had discussed, but discarded, the idea of his leaving the Democratic Party to run as an independent in the general election - a move that could have forced Williams to return his $1.4 million in campaign donations.

At times yesterday, the strain of the ordeal seeped through the mayor's optimism, his voice occasionally cracking as he read from his notes.

"I've learned a lesson, painful as it is, that democracy and its rules are too important to neglect," Williams told the crowd, which included city employees who tried to buck him up with hoots and hollers. "Now, with enthusiasm and energy, you'll see me working hard for each and every voter in the Democratic primary."

The problems in the petitions - which included forged signatures of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, home-and-garden expert Martha Stewart, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and stars from the TV show Frasier - were discovered by Republican activists thumbing through the petitions filed for the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.

Condemns fraud

In response to the abuses, of which Williams says he was unaware, the mayor condemned the fraud committed on his behalf and hired a new campaign manager.

Williams said he would not pursue his legal case, which seeks to reinstate his name on the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot, beyond the D.C. Court of Appeals. He predicted that the court would rule by early next week, though community activists who plan to fight his case say it could take longer.

Dorothy Brizill, who heads D.C. Watch, a government watchdog group, said she plans to contest Williams' case in a filing with the appeals court. She argued that a legal fight fails to restore integrity to the district government because it appears to back up a fraudulent petition drive rather than acknowledge and correct it.

"To try to overturn the decision of the Board of Elections means that you don't agree with the Board of Elections, which means you're supporting wholesale forgery and election fraud," she said. "At some point, you have to be bigger than your own individual interests."

Lawrence Guyot, an activist who has backed Williams in the past, said the mayor should not defend a single signature in a tainted petition drive.

"The fruit of a poison tree," Guyot said, "is poisonous."

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