The Name Game
Reta Lewis is looking for votes in Columbia Heights, but it’s not going well. Lewis’ latest target, a woman sitting outside the Metro station, isn’t just refusing to vote for her for mayor—she’s started insisting to a campaign worker that Lewis is corrupt.
She doesn’t seem to realize that Lewis is standing in front of her in a bright red pantsuit that matches her campaign colors, or is a woman. “What good is he?” the prospective voter says.
Lewis walks away. She might have better luck using her plaintive introduction on other people: “Can I shake your hand?”
Every candidate faces the mundane humiliation of asking strangers for their votes, and not every conversation Lewis had went so badly. But Lewis faces a problem that rivals Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, and Tommy Wells don’t: Nobody seems to know who she is.
For some reason, D.C. mayoral races are irresistible to specific kinds of fringe candidate: some bizarrely entitled, others barely coherent (and some of them both at once). They’ve been having a moment since 2011, when mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown revealed that at least some members of Mayor Vince Gray’s campaign thought he was worth funding off-the-books to attack then-Mayor Adrian Fenty at debates and forums.
Lewis isn’t the second coming of Brown, though. She most resembles former TV reporter Leo Alexander, who ran a distant third behind Gray and Fenty in 2010. She’s not well-known enough to be considered a serious candidate at the outset, but her resume makes her more credible than just about everyone except whoever will actually win. It’s tempting to count her out, since she won’t win unless the race is completely upended.
But first, she’ll need people to realize that she exists.
Unlike Bowser, Evans, and Wells, Lewis isn’t a fixture on Channel 13. Despite living in the District for 35 years after moving here from her native Georgia, she’s spent most of that time circulating in federal Washington’s hemisphere. When a Vietnam veteran on 14th Street asks why he’s never heard of her, she explains that she’s been serving, too.
After working as the chief of staff in the District’s Department of Public Works in the early ’90s, Lewis started working in 1993 as a special assistant to then-President Bill Clinton, and she managed to emerge scandal-free. Lewis’ post-Clinton resume includes stints at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and on the Obama-Biden transition team.
Most recently, Lewis landed a position as Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. It sounds like a nice way to pass the time—in one column, the Washington Post singled out Lewis for extending a taxpayer-funded trip to Brazil.
Lewis didn’t just enjoy a cushy job from the Clintons, though—she apparently takes her slippery, ’90s-style triangulation from them, too. Asking Lewis about issues left LL questioning both her knowledge of the issues and his own sanity.
On the living wage bill passed by the D.C. Council last month, which looks destined for a mayoral veto, Lewis explains that you have to balance workers’ needs with business and consumers. Lewis refused to say whether she would veto the bill if she were mayor. “This is not an either-or world,” Lewis says. Except when you’re the mayor wielding a veto, it pretty much is.
Sometimes, she’ll say something that sounds nice without actually revealing anything. (On whether Lewis thinks she can win: “Voting is personal, it’s personal to the person.”)
When LL asked her what she thought of Wells’ bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, which is expected to pass the Council in the fall, she praised Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent decision not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. LL pointed out that’s not the same as her having an opinion on decriminalizing marijuana; Lewis accused LL of downplaying Holder’s change of heart.
Lewis had a similarly short answer on her opinion of the string of Gray campaign workers who have pleaded guilty: “In our system, we are here to serve.”
That’s cryptic. Does Lewis want to say more?
Nope. “In our system, we are here to serve,” Lewis says again.
Lewis is trying to learn more about the District in a series of off-the-record roundtables with experts she’s dubbed “A Conversation With Reta.” But then, does the District want a mayor who’s playing catch-up?
“It’s absurd that she would get into the race and not have an opinion of the scandals that have plagued the District for the past two plus years,” says political consultant and NBC4 columnist Chuck Thies.
If Lewis’ ambiguous campaign style is frustrating for reporters, though, it’s been surprisingly successful for fundraising. Lewis raised $75,283.06 in the latest campaign report filing, which falls about $200,000 short of what Wells, her next closest competitor in fundraising, collected. But Lewis isn’t just trying to beat Wells—if she’s going to stand any chance, she needs to raise enough money to blanket the city in ads and mailings to overcome voters’ lack of familiarity with her. Still, it’s an impressive sum for a candidate few observers had heard of before she entered the race in early July, especially when she only had been raising money for less than a month.
Lewis is benefitting from the far-flung Clinton political network, too—just a little more than 35 percent of her donations came from within the District. Among the Clintonites making donations: former White House chief of staff Mack McClarty and Nancy Jacobson, a former Democratic Leadership Council adviser and now a centrist extraordinaire at No Labels.
There’s a model for Lewis’ jump from federal to local government in the District. Unfortunately for Lewis, it’s not an encouraging one. In 1982, Patricia Roberts Harris, Jimmy Carter’s one-time secretary for Housing and Urban Development, tried to wrest the mayorship from a then-struggling Marion Barry. Despite an early lead in the polls, Harris eventually bombed against the mayor-for-life, winning only 36 percent to Barry’s 58 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Harris is just a footnote in the District’s political history, but one that Lewis should know well, since she lead Harris’ advance team. Still, it’s not clear if she learned the lesson of Harris’ campaign—even if they don’t like their politicians, District voters dislike outsiders even more.
Given the long odds facing Lewis, it’s tempting to suspect she has motives besides wanting to be mayor. Running in 2014 could leave her with more of the name recognition she sorely lacks now, which could position her for a future Council race. Lewis denies that she has her eye on any office in the Wilson Building besides the mayor’s. “I have one goal in mind,” Lewis says. “That is to earn the right to be the mayor.”
Lewis would be better off if she was just running to become better known. Before her time in Columbia Heights is up, she’s confronted by yet another voter who’s suspicious of her. His reservations come, in part, because he’s never seen her on TV.
“I ain’t never seen your face before,” he tells her.
“Well, I’m out here showing my face,” Lewis replies.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery