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COVER STORYSept. 8, 2006

Promises to save the schools…aging pols cannibalizing the few higher offices in the city…generational clashes on the campaign trail: Must be primary time in the District of Columbia.

By James Jones

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Blighted Cropp

Can the D.C. Council chairman’s mayoral campaign be any weaker?

How much does mayoral contender Linda Cropp weigh these days? Has she shed a pound or two this summer?

Though such questions sound like barroom chatter at some U Street watering hole, they actually go to the heart of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary. The race has five major candidates, with Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty leading the pack in most polls and Cropp in second place.

Shortly after Cropp launched her bid, the 58-year-old chairman of the D.C. Council was asked if she worried about keeping up with her younger opponent, the 35-year-old Fenty. The Ward 4 councilmember was already generating buzz by engaging in an unprecedented door-knocking blitz of the city.

The question was whether Cropp could pull off a stoop-hopping campaign of her own. She declared to a group of reporters that by the end of the campaign, she’d either curse Fenty for making her walk up and down so many stairs or thank him for helping her lose weight.

With just days left in the primary race, Cropp was recently asked where her feelings fell on the curse-thank continuum. “It’s both,” she replied. “I’m both cursing him and thanking him.”

It was a fitting response for a politician who, throughout her 26-year career, has been preoccupied with avoiding conflict. When asked at a Ward 8 mayoral forum to describe her leadership style, Cropp replied, “I like to lead by consensus.”

Well, the consensus is that Cropp has grafted her legislative MO wholesale onto her mayoral campaign. When you base a career on nothing but conciliating among your council colleagues, you’re not left with a lot of bullet points for your mayoral mailers. On the key matters of her nearly 10-year reign as council chairman, Cropp has sat right in the middle of things, literally and figuratively.

She helped craft a compromise to reconfigure a D.C. school board that is half-appointed, half-elected, after the mayor pressed to take over the school system.

When top-flight school superintendents steered clear of the District because of the city’s confusing school governance structure, she backed the so-called education collaborative, a body that includes the mayor, councilmembers, and board members but has no authority.

Even during the baseball debate that thrust her into the mayoral contest, Cropp’s position was so muddled that many voters still aren’t clear on whether she almost screwed up the deal or saved baseball for the city.

And on one of the pivotal issues of her campaign—pounding the pavement, that is—Cropp again made nothing but compromises. She’s never come close to matching Fenty’s street-by-street barrage. Her failure to walk the streets is a big deal, reflecting her unwillingness to reach beyond the familiar confines of the D.C. establishment. Her message falls squarely in the middle of the road as well, consisting of lukewarm recitations of her record. She’s opted to win the election by reaching consensus one meet-and-greet at a time.

When talking with prospective voters this summer, Cropp has emphasized her experience and familiarity with the workings of the D.C. government. As of Labor Day weekend, the message hadn’t moved them. Cropp is reluctant to discuss her message, saying it’s strategic information she’d rather not share with the Fenty camp. She would only say that on the campaign trail, “People started asking: ‘What is the difference?’ It’s clear to me I have to explain why I am best prepared to be mayor.”

The day Cropp launched her candidacy, she offered up a counter to Fenty’s fleet-footed juggernaut, some visible evidence that her campaign would rival Fenty on the Energizer Bunny front. She tapped longtime D.C. political consultant Marshall Brown to run her field operation. If Cropp needed an inside track to undercut the Fenty strategy, Brown was the right choice.

Brown is the kind of guy who demands relentless energy from his candidates and believes in visibility-enhancing outings above all else. Political observers snickered at the idea of Brown directing Cropp into the streets every evening for months on end.

Even so, Brown assured reporters that his candidate would follow roughly the same canvassing game plan that brought Fenty and Brown’s son, Kwame Brown, into office—namely, blitzing street corners and front doors. “You know I wouldn’t have signed on without her agreeing to that,” he says.

The Brown plan has been implemented in a different way in Cropp’s conciliatory environment. When Cropp canvassers head out, the candidate isn’t usually in tow. Plans to walk the streets every night were never seriously considered, quickly scaled back, and replaced with more civilized meet-and-greets in private homes.

“We canvas practically every weekend, both Saturday and Sunday,” says Cropp campaign spokesperson Ron Eckstein, who adds that the schedule is scaled back at times because of rain or extreme heat.

Fenty, meanwhile, has pounded the pavement nearly every single night for months. “Linda did not knock on as many doors as Adrian Fenty,” admits Cropp campaign manager Phyllis Jones, who adds that in the spring, the council was still conducting business while Fenty was out campaigning: “She did the job she was paid to do.” Cropp “put in many hours directly reaching out to the voters,” says Jones. “Linda Cropp does not believe she should neglect a job to campaign for another one.”

Kwame Brown offers up a dose of reality about the front-porch portion of the campaign. “Let’s be clear—Linda’s an older lady,” he says. “There is no way she can knock on every door in the city, especially when she is doing the work of the council.” Brown is a co-chair of the Cropp campaign.

Somewhere along the line, Marshall Brown’s hopes for an energetic campaign were pushed aside. But Brown says he’s OK with Cropp’s Teva mileage. “We’ve done the Metros, been waving on street corners, and knocked on enough doors—all of that,” he says. “But everybody involved with a particular part of any campaign wants more time from the candidate.”

Fenty’s emergence on the D.C. political scene—and the test run for his mayoral jaunts around town—came in 2000, at the expense of longtime incumbent and business-elite darling Charlene Drew Jarvis. At least she can claim to have been blindsided by the now-familiar Fenty script of knocking on every door, planting yard signs, and working 24/7.

Jarvis offered the losing strategy for everyone to see: Count on money from your downtown business pals and lean on the support of the District’s aging political establishment to carry the day. She was wrong, ending her political career as a delusional dancing fool in the showroom of Georgia Avenue’s Curtis Chevrolet on primary election night 2000.

When Kwame Brown decided to run against incumbent Harold Brazil in 2003, he sought counsel from political consultant Tom Lindenfeld. Lindenfeld was frank with the neophyte politico: The way to knock off Brazil would be a long, grueling, on-the-ground campaign that expands the Fenty 2000 model to every corner of the city. “I told Kwame, you get 20,000 yard signs out, you win,” says Lindenfeld.

Brown was up for the challenge. He was young and eager with little to offer voters beyond a fresh face, lots of hustle, and the ability to listen. He trounced Brazil, who campaigned on a “keep the good times rolling” theme. The support of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, tons of business cash, and the backing of the city’s political establishment did nothing for Brazil.

These days, Lindenfeld is Fenty’s most trusted political strategist. He’s helped chart a familiar shoe-leather strategy for his candidate.

The Cropp playbook is blind to history. Despite its early ambitions of going door-to-door, it embraces the losing strategies employed by Jarvis and Brazil, with a strong dose of vanilla rhetoric thrown in for good measure.

Many old-line political bigwigs have flocked to Cropp, including fundraising maven Max Berry and former city administrator Elijah B. Rogers. Three of her council colleagues and former councilmembers are in the Cropp camp. Her campaign manager, Phyllis Jones, resigned as the council secretary to join the fight. She’s piled up a bevy of endorsements and raised a huge campaign war chest from the usual pro-business suspects, including the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and megadeveloper Herb Miller.

The result is a campaign overflowing with hangers-on who believe that a long legislative record and establishment support can produce a citywide win. Her closest advisers, therefore, are a lot like Cropp herself—prisoners of the Wilson building and its vernacular for defining political success. It’s no wonder that this team is coming at voters with a message that spawns more Fenty devotees each day.

During a recent Cropp campaign stop at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill, Paul Gardullo, an undecided voter watching his 6-year-old daughter on the playground, volunteered to hear the candidate’s pitch.

Cropp’s sales job rambled on without a pause for nearly three minutes. Among the language employed to win his vote: a pledge to “strengthen the State Education Office,” develop “a comprehensive policy on education,” and “bring the same type of solutions to the education system as I have as chairman of the council.” Cropp wrapped things up by pointing out, “I’ve been part of the leadership of the city for the last 26 years.”

Gardullo offered a polite “thank you” to the candidate as she moved on for another monologue in front of a different parent. “I’m not convinced,” he said after the encounter, adding that he didn’t know much about Cropp’s activities as chair. The first he’d really seen of Cropp during the campaign was in what he called “negative campaign ads on television.”

At a much-hyped one-on-one debate televised on NewsChannel 8 on Aug. 28, Cropp’s wonkish streak was laid bare under the stage lights. When host Bruce DePuyt asked Cropp an open-ended crime question, she deployed her trademark bureaucratic spiel. “I think there’s a two-pronged approach that we have to take. One is a long term–short term. The other is prevention and enforcement.” All over the region, voters’ eyes were straying to the screen crawl. By the time Cropp got to her plans to use D.C. reserve police officers more effectively and create better coordination with the 54 federal protective services agencies, she couldn’t be heard over the squeak of District refrigerator hinges.

The standard Cropp speech is loaded with references only a true devotee of D.C. cable Channel 13 could appreciate. During a canvassing jaunt last week, Cropp stopped Michigan Park resident Deborah Harper on the sidewalk to explain why being mayor requires more than just knocking on doors.

Harper is the perfect Cropp target: She has a Fenty sign in her yard but admits she hasn’t really decided who to vote for. So Cropp hit her with the best any government junky could offer: “I led 10 straight balanced budgets, met with Wall Street to improve our bond rating. We are now at an A+ rating as opposed to junk-bond status when I first came into office.”

Harper doesn’t know much about how bond ratings work. She’s more concerned about the murders in her neighborhood. “I guess it all means something,” she says.

Cropp shrugs off the suggestion that voters might get bogged down in the details. “You have to let them know how the legislation impacts them,” she says. As for her fondness for reciting legislative accomplishments in person as well as in her literature, Cropp goes into spin mode. “I have a very long record with a lot of stuff in it.”

Maybe Cropp is out of practice. It’s been a long time since she was forced to gauge the electorate. She lost a close 1988 race for the Ward 4 council seat against Jarvis and finished third in an ill-fated quest for the council chairmanship in 1994.

But mostly, the Cropp political résumé lists a series of nonevents. She won an at-large seat handily in 1990, then took 70 percent against token opposition in 1994. Her ascension to the council chairmanship in a 1997 special election after the death of Dave Clarke was a breeze—she won 89 percent—and topped 90 percent of the vote in 1998 and 2002 democratic primary contests.

When asked whether her worry-free electoral life over the past decade has hurt her on this year’s campaign trial, Cropp said her slow start didn’t have anything to do with rust. “I think it was the length of the campaign more than anything else,” Cropp says. “And the fact that I had serious responsibilities.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

It’s no surprise that Cropp has chalked up a record campaign war chest. Business loves her. There is no shortage of lawyers and developers ready to host her meet-and-greet/fundraising parties. With all that cash, the candidate was expected to launch an unprecedented ad blitz that would certainly reach more homes than Fenty and his faithful ever could.

Yet all the money in the world won’t buy what campaign geeks call “earned media.” Judging from a sampling of recent Washington Post campaign stories, Fenty is routing Cropp in the race for “earned media.” To wit:

• The Post’s Aug. 31 Style section feature depicting Fenty as superman, tying his triathlon training regime to his door-to-door campaign. Money offering from Post reporter: “He is not trying to create the image of a young, energetic candidate; he is a young, energetic candidate.”

• The Post’s July 16 front-page comparison of Fenty’s and Cropp’s campaign donors boosted his man-of-the-people appeal and painted Cropp as a slave to downtown business interests. Money offering from Post reporter: “By almost every measure, Fenty seems the populist outsider.”

• An Aug. 4 piece by business columnist Steven Pearlstein debunks criticism of Fenty’s inexperience. The column’s headline? “Fenty May Well Be a Born Manager.”

• Ditto for devoted Cropp basher Marc Fisher. On Aug. 24, his column head couldn’t have been worse for the plodding Cropp camp: “Fenty Emerges as an Action Hero.”

• When Cropp unleashed radio ads highlighting Fenty’s failures as a lawyer, the Aug. 18 Post headline made Cropp seem vicious: “Cropp Attacks Fenty in New Radio Ads.”

Why the early endorsement from the news side of the Post?

Any explanation must begin with Cropp’s careerist embrace of the Royal D.C. Council. For years, the council chairman has surrounded herself with the accouterments of a Wilson Building sovereign, including an arms-length relationship with the press. Before staking out her claim to the executive suite, Cropp was famously unresponsive to reporters’ inquiries.

Here’s how the drill would go: Reporter begins work on a piece about the council or some piece of legislation. Realizing that the story wouldn’t be complete without comment from Cropp, reporter calls her office in search of comment. Call gets routed to Cropp spokesperson. Spokesperson asks what the subject is, deadline, and so on. In the end, reporter may get a moment on the phone with Cropp—or may not. If Cropp does deign to respond, the interview yields perhaps one line of marginally interesting material.

Most of Cropp’s best work has gone on behind closed doors. For years, she insisted on the utter secrecy of her pre-legislative-session breakfast meetings. No reporters. The council, she would always say, was discussing only “administrative” issues and thus didn’t need to open the proceedings to the press. She could never explain why, if they were just administrative issues, she needed to close the sessions. She finally caved after WTOP radio threatened a lawsuit.

This summer, Cropp ended one of the breakfast sessions when she saw that a Washington Times reporter was taping the action.

Contrast that media record with what Fenty offers: First off, a cell phone number. The local reporter who can’t get in touch with Fenty is a very bad reporter. Telling your editor, “Hey, I couldn’t reach Fenty” should be a firing offense.

Fenty’s openness fostered a lot of glowing press even before the mayoral race began. For example, he scored mentions in 974 Post stories from 2001 through early 2005.

Cropp caught on very late in the game. Earlier this summer, reporters around town were complaining that they couldn’t reach Cropp for their stories on the campaign.

In May, Mayor Williams issued a very public endorsement of Cropp. The occasion should have been a crowning moment, a launching pad for a re-energized Cropp effort that had seemed to be stuck in the mud. Yet Williams, never exactly a political master, helped drain all suspense from the event: For months, he had been hinting at his leanings and bashing Fenty.

Standing in front of the refurbished Tivoli Theatre, with construction cranes in booming Columbia Heights as a backdrop, Williams delivered a torturous twist of logic on Cropp’s behalf. He attempted to convince the media hordes that Cropp is the real candidate of change. The mayor explained that he was elected as a true transformer when the District was nearly bankrupt. The way Williams saw it, Cropp is the continuation of his “legacy of change” in the city.

It didn’t fly, and Cropp still struggles to find the right words to describe how she represents anything more than a bland continuation of a regime that has always carried an inspiration deficit. By the time a July Post poll detailed that a strong majority of voters had tired of Williams and that even bigger numbers were looking for a new direction from a District leader, Cropp had acquired firm credentials as a defender of the status quo.

But even Cropp knows that’s a loser’s label. “Of course there is going to be change when I win,” says Cropp. “A change of style, a change of focus,” she says. “The question voters have to ask is: Is it positive change or not?” CP