My first political lesson

Sam Smith 

For some four decades I argued for an elected district attorney and comptroller in my hometown of Washington DC. This wasn’t just an intellectual argument. When I was 12 I took part in my first political campaign, a successful effort to end 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia with the election of Joseph Sill Clark as comptroller and Richardson Dilworth as district attorney.

Though both were patrician in name and bearing, in Clark the quality went through to his soul. With Dilworth it stopped with his tailored suits. He was an ex-Marine with a quick temper and a townie accent, who never ducked combat or favored equivocation. After the pair had shaken the GOP regime by winning the offices of comptroller and district attorney, Dilworth got the first chance to run for mayor, with Clark succeeding him and then moving to the Senate.

Dilworth’s mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor’s home and told his listeners: “Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please.”

At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.

Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?”

The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth’s liberalism and, in particular, his association with Americans for Democratic Action. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink’ where “Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks.”

Dilworth’s initial reaction was to call Meade a “liar” and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: “The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism.”

But that wasn’t enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: “If you want to debate publicly, I’ll go before any organization you name. I’ll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”

“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.

Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth had won and as I read the big black headlines, I thought it was my victory too.

Which is why I was so pleased to learn that Washington has approved by ballot referendum an elected attorney general, albeit not – as is most wisely in the case – chosen in a year when the mayor isn’t up for election. It would also help to have the city’s inspector general elected and, while we’re at it, to have a constitutional amendment to make the U.S. Attorney General an elected position as well.

Since it’s taken four decades for Washingoton just to get where it is on the matter, however, I supposed the national AG election will have to wait awhile, but anyone living in a corrupt city that doesn’t have elected District Attorneys and comptrollers should definitely get the idea rolling.

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