D.C. mayor in write-in battle

After petition debacle left Williams off ballot, he gets serious new challenge

August 22, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It has been a rough summer for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He was thrown off the Democratic primary ballot. His campaign was fined $277,700. He has to run a tricky write-in campaign in a race he was supposed to win effortlessly. And now a fiery challenger is creating chaos by reviving old complaints about his leadership.

It's times like this a guy needs his mother.

"Let's go forward and heal this city," Virginia Hayes Williams implored a recent gathering of senior citizens. "Whatever my son is doing wrong, let him know. But please, don't kick him out of office."

A campaign that was assumed to require all the effort of a lazy summer stroll is now sweating buckets. Williams is spending this sweltering season stumping across the city, spending thousands of dollars and deploying an army of election workers, maternal and otherwise, to rescue his campaign from mistakes of its own making.

"Would I appreciate everybody's support? Absolutely," the mayor said on a campaign outing the other day. "That's why I'm going to campaign tirelessly and relentlessly in every part of this city."

What seemed at first like a fascinating tale of little consequence -- the debacle involving thousands of invalid signatures on the mayor's nominating petitions, including celebrity forgeries -- suddenly has Williams in a serious fight for re-election.

After all, the mayor was such an overwhelming favorite that he faced no major opposition from fellow Democrats and the D.C. Republican Party isn't even fielding a candidate against him.

But the only way to get on the Sept. 10 primary ballot is by submitting petitions bearing the signatures of 2,000 registered voters, and the city's elections board barred the ones filed by Williams. In response, the mayor chose a risky alternative: relying on tens of thousands of voters to write in his name on their own.

Now comes the mayor's latest test: the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, a prominent preacher mounting a last-minute challenge, also as a write-in candidate.

The Wilson campaign is a long shot, but the Baptist minister appears to be winning support in lower-income and mostly African-American communities east of the Anacostia River. Wilson, who like Williams is black, contends that the mayor ignores the needs of the city's poor while catering to the agenda of the largely white Washington establishment.

Now, Wilson is trying to tap into the old political base of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.

"Who brought Marion Barry back from the dead? Me!" Wilson said while working the crowd at a street festival along struggling Minnesota Avenue, promoting his role in Barry's political comeback after a 1990 conviction on a misdemeanor drug charge. "Who brought seven busloads down to the polls and gave him another chance? Me!"

Williams, 51, who helped rescue the city from debt as chief financial officer in the late '90s, enjoys formidable support in well-to-do Northwest Washington. Voters give the mayor credit for the strides of his first term -- the downtown revitalization, the real estate boom, the city's improved reputation.

Even so, the ballot woes have frustrated some supporters.

"I'm a Democrat, and I'm very disappointed in Williams," said Jill Tuncay, 40, a D.C. legal assistant. "I'd consider voting for a Republican against him."

Now the mayor must leap into passionate campaign mode, not the bow-tied Yale graduate's strong suit. At a meet-and-greet event scheduled to last an hour at the Dupont Circle Metro station, Williams arrived a half-hour late, shook hands for 25 minutes and spent the last five standing on the sidewalk occupied with his wireless e-mail device.

Voters contrast Williams' street smarts with those of Wilson, 58, pastor of a politically active, 7,000-member church that serves the working-class enclaves east of the Anacostia River. Wilson, a longtime spiritual and political adviser to Barry, has drawn on Barry's election themes, even adopting the four-term mayor's signature green-and-white campaign colors.

"The people love me," Wilson said, strutting down a gritty street. "The difference is they know I care."

For now, the Williams team is mostly ignoring Wilson, who at one point was a political ally. The mayor has refused Wilson's request for a one-on-one debate, saying he would participate only if the four little-known candidates on the Democratic ballot were also included.

Much of the campaign's resources are going into simply making sure voters fill out the write-in ballots correctly, including spelling the mayor's name right. The campaign will distribute self-inking stamps so voters don't have to write Williams' name. The Williams team has sent out two rounds of fliers to educate voters about the write-in ballots, with their peculiar requirement that voters fill in an arrow next to the write-in candidate's name if they want their votes to count.

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