Loose Lips

The Name Game

LL_Lewis-1
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.

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6925.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Payer4820

    If Lewis really wanted to serve, she could serve the City in a volunteer capacity. She cold assist at any of the numerous organizations in Washington that need volunteers, such as the Red Cross or Martha's Table.

    Or she could run for Advisory Neighborhood Commission. As an ANC Commissioner she might actually learn something. But that's also volunteer.

  • DC=DistrictofCorruption

    LL should refrain from writing personal observations as fact when you lack historical knowledge. Not too long ago, District voters overwhelmingly elected an "outsider" mayor from the federal pool -- Tony Williams, a real dark-horse candidate wearing a bow-tie. Stick to the facts. Ms. Lewis' refusal to elaborate on her campaign may have more to do with your "gotcha" questions rather than her being deliberately evasive or nonresponsive. While this city certainly needs more qualified candidates to enter these races, few people will subject themselves to repeated abuse. I applaud Ms. Lewis' courage to get out there. We need more women willing to put themselves out to start a conversation -- even if they don't have public name recognition. It's a very good start.

  • Jacques

    @DC: While Williams had spent a lot of time in federal service, he was also coming off of three years in the very public role of CFO for the District, so while he may have been a political outsider, he was certainly much more familiar with (and to) the movers and shakers and voters of D.C.

  • drez

    TW was locally famous and respected.
    Outside of top level Federal Dem (especially Clintonite) circles, Ms Lewis is nearly unknown.

  • SEis4ME

    It's rather clear that Lewis has her eye on something else and using this race to increase her relatively unknown public profile. She has no chance at winning.

    Lewis is not in good position to pick and choose which softball questions she responds to. And we already have a woman running...an actual CM with much better name recognition. There is no reason to support Lewis over Bowser who has at least demonstrated that she has a knowledge and love of local affairs.

    This is nothing more than a vanity campaign.

  • ldh

    Did LL ask Reta Lewis if she even knows how many Wards there are in DC, or who the Councilmembers are? I would be surprised if she knew any of these basic details about the city.

    It's an insult to those (who aren't me, by the way) who have committed time and talent for many years to this great city.

  • dwiktor

    Williams was not an "outsider" to the city. He certainly was not from here but he had been working in the CFO's office and knew the city in a way few others do. I would not put him and Lewis in the same classification. I will keep an open mind on her but I will eventually want her to have opinion about local issues.

  • Lots of variables

    I like that Reta and Bowser will split votes, just like Evans and Wells. The big question is where will the $ flow if Gray doesn't run. You can never say DC politics are boring!

  • Hillary

    Hands off my gal, Loose Lips.

    Who do you think you are, Maureen Dowd?

  • noodlez

    @LOV- UMMM BOWSER AND LEWIS WILL NOT SPLIT VOTES.
    IF LEWIS GETS 1% SHE SHOULD CONSIDER THAT A BLESSING.

    HER CAMPAIGN IS A WASTE OF TIME AND MONEY. THE CLINTON PLAY UP DOESN'T WORK HERE IN WDC. JUST ASK MICHEAL "BASKETBALL" BROWN. THE "OUTSIDER" PLAY IS ALSO A LOST CAUSE. IT AMAZES ME HOW FOLK GET SO CAUGHT UP WITHIN THEMSELVES THAT THEY BELIEVE THEY CAN CONVINCE HARD WORKING PEOPLE THEY ARE NOT FULL OF BULLSHIT!

    IM SORRY MS. LEWIS BUT YOU NEED TO TAKE YOUR BAMMA BRIGADE BACK DOWN GEORGIA WHERE YOU CAME FROM.

  • sticktoyourguns

    I would vote for Lewis anyday before Bowser but I would vote for someone else before either of them.

  • Lots of variables

    Well, I'm guessing that Reta and Bowser are the most appealing to certain DC voters. And considering that 35 percent of her money came from DC, I assume those folks will at least - or you'd hope! - vote for the lady.

    Also, noodlez, weren't you the one who said Gray won't veto the living wage bill? I think your track record as a DC insider is about to become a bit more suspect.

  • Sebastian Townview

    Reta Lewis has not been close to DC city politics or operations since her time at DPW in the early 1990s. That's a LONG time ago.

    I wonder if Lewis does not share opinions on local issues because she doesn't understand those issues, and believes ambiguous answers are safer. How much knowledge does she have about the massive divide between rich and poor in DC or workforce issues or TANF or crime or gentrification or anything local? I tend to root for outsiders - they bring a different perspective - but candidates need to have points of view backed by knowledge, and stand up for those viewpoints.

    I suspect her lack of knowledge will be revealed most clearly during candidate forums.

    I truly do not understand why Reta Lewis thinks she has a snowball's chance in Hades of becoming Mayor.

  • Barry Morase

    What is a Special Assitant to Bill Clinton? I bet Bill Clinton didn't know this woman and she didn't have any contact with him. I sick of people and their make believe titles.

  • http://citypaper sly

    Mr. Morase, you are right.

  • noodlez

    @LOV-WHAT VOTERS ARE YOU REFERRING TO?

    ALSO MONEY DONT MEAN A THANG IF YOU DON'T HAVE THAT DC SWING. 100% OF HER MONEY CAN COME FROM THE CITY! HOW EXACTLY DOES THAT TRANSLATES INTO ENOUGH VOTES FOR HER TO WIN? YOUR COMMENT DOESN'T ANSWER ENOUGH QUESTIONS JUST LIKE HER AND HER CAMPAIGN!

    AS FOR WAL-MART AND MAYOR GRAY I STILL HOLD OUT HOPE THAT A COMPROMISE WILL BE FORTHCOMING.

    ONE CITY.

  • RealDC

    Geez, another wanna be local politician with more ego than talent. Ms. Lewis do us all a favor and do your homework, if not, stop wasting your time..... and ours.

    The real funny thing is that this mayoral race is WIDE open and she would have a shot if she puts some WORK in. Bowser, Wells and Evans are DUDS!

  • LaughingatYOU

    @ NoodleZ ... "IT AMAZES ME HOW FOLK GET SO CAUGHT UP WITHIN THEMSELVES THAT THEY BELIEVE THEY CAN CONVINCE HARD WORKING PEOPLE THEY ARE NOT FULL OF BULLSHIT!"

    You know what amazes me even more? how the voters in DC can get so caught up in BS and keep electing Marion Barry *shrug*

  • noodlez

    @LAUGH-REALLY? REALLY? MAYOR FOR LIFE IS YOUR FALL BACK?

    PUNT THE BALL BECAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH IT.

  • LaughingatYOU
...