All was well during the D.C. Council’s routine breakfast meeting last week—an informal huddle on Tuesdays before some legislative sessions—except for the spinach quiche, which looked dry as hell.
An empty seat at the head of the table, usually occupied by former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, was a glaring signal of a new normal for the D.C. Council. After the body’s most business friendly lawmaker resigned in disgrace for his cozy connections to monied interests, Evans’ colleagues are still left to sit in the stench of his scandal.
It appears that stench has raised the hackles of some members.
As the breakfast discussion turned from emergency legislation that would prevent the closure of Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy to a more trivial matter, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie got a little riled up.
At issue was his recent Sense of the Council resolution, which is simply a statement from the Council in support of a particular position. In this case, McDuffie was proposing support for the Federal City Council’s Langston Initiative, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman expressed some concerns, as she often does.
A little background: The Federal City Council (FC2) was founded in 1954 by then-Washington Post publisher Philip Graham. It’s currently run by former Mayor Anthony Williams and counts among its board members many wealthy, powerful, and politically connected individuals. (City Paper owner Mark Ein sits on the body’s executive committee.) FC2 is considered one of the most important voices for business interests and economic development in D.C.
The Langston Initiative is the FC2’s effort to take over operations of three local golf courses—Langston Golf Course, Rock Creek Golf Course, and East Potomac Golf Course—which are on National Park Service land. NPS put out a request for proposals last summer asking for bids to run and maintain the courses.
At the breakfast meeting, Silverman, the Council’s resident instigator, questioned why the body would weigh in on a federal procurement. They haven’t seen the other bids, she argued, and does the FC2 have any experience managing golf courses? (They don’t, but they’ve hired someone, according to Maura Brophy, the FC2’s director of transportation and infrastructure, to oversee the Langston Initiative.)
Silverman suggested that McDuffie’s resolution amounted to the Council “putting our thumb on the scale” of a federal procurement process in favor of a group of well connected people who have easy access to councilmembers. She then invoked the name of Rusty Lindner, the CEO of the Forge Company and a member of the Langston Initiative’s planning committee, who played a supporting role in the Jack Evans ethics scandal.
McDuffie, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development, did not care for that one bit.
“One of our colleagues just resigned in shame,” a peeved McDuffie said to Silverman. “When you do that in the context of a bill that I introduced, I think it’s very well to be in context for me to think that you’re associating our efforts with a single board member, very controversial board member.”
“Yes, and I said the optics aren’t good,” Silverman interrupted, to McDuffie’s further annoyance.
“Everybody can ask questions, and that’s fair enough,” he said. “But when you do it the way you just did it, maybe I’m a little sensitive about this, but I think we need to be mindful of some of the examples in the context of a conversation that I had.”
McDuffie clarified that his goal was to improve the courses’ conditions and expand access to them for kids and parents in the surrounding community who “don’t even see Langston Golf Course as an opportunity … and that’s important.”
Langston is one of the country’s first integrated golf courses and was a “mecca of black golf on the east coast,” Ernest Andrews, a professional instructor at Langston, told City Paper last year.
McDuffie did not agree to a formal interview for this story. Instead his spokesperson emailed a statement nearly as dry as that spinach quiche.
“The very existence of Langston Golf Course is because golfers of color in the District wanted equal access to facilities, and it is important that history is not lost in the National Park Service’s outsourcing of these facilities,” McDuffie’s statement says. “I am proud to have introduced the Council resolution in support of the Langston Initiative, which passed with overwhelming support of colleagues, because of its commitment to local engagement and increased economic opportunity focused on District residents.”
Silverman raised similar concerns from the dais later that day, drawing a measured response from fellow progressive Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who supports the FC2’s application and McDuffie’s resolution, and an agitated response from Chairman Phil Mendelson, who nearly came out of his seat as he defended McDuffie.
“It’s a wrong message to say to folks that the Council of the District of Columbia cannot advocate on an issue,” Mendelson said. “We can advocate and if the decision by the majority of the members here is that we want to advocate for that initiative, then it’s completely appropriate. And if I’m sounding a little annoyed, I am.”
The resolution passed with 10 “yes” votes. Silverman voted “no” and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau bravely voted “present.”
The Council may be rid of Evans for now, but the snippy Langston Initiative debate is a reminder that Evans’ scandal still looms large in his colleagues’ minds. How the Council should navigate a post-Evans world is a matter of perspective.
While Silverman would err on the side of making an insinuation in search of a scandal, Mendelson prefers a quieter, more collegial relationship.
“I think we do a disservice to the institution when we suggest to the public that we’re being corrupt or our colleagues are being corrupt in putting our thumb on the scale,” Mendelson says. “Words have meaning, and [the public says] ‘This is outrageous! They’re trying to steer a contract!’ It’s just unnecessary. It hurts the institution.”
“[The scandal is] gonna be with us for a while, but it plays itself out in different ways,” he continues. “I don’t think Councilmember Silverman’s position would have been different absent the scandal, but because of the scandal she was using loaded rhetoric from the scandal.”
Mendelson says Silverman’s comments about McDuffie’s resolution hurt her relationship with some colleagues, and he notes her distinction as the councilmember who is least likely to vote in line with the rest of her colleagues, according to an analysis of 128 divided Council votes.
“And this didn’t help,” he says. “It was part of the same behavior.”
Silverman insists that she, too, has the Council’s best interest at heart. If she has to rub some dirt on a fellow legislator, so be it.
“I’m very focused on rebuilding the public’s trust and making sure Council doesn’t appear like we are just doing what big business says for their benefit,” she says. “We need to make every decision in the public’s benefit. Private interests are not the same as the public’s.”