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Back in the early 1980s, the nascent days of cable television franchises, then-D.C. Council member John A. Wilson was holding a council hearing. The subject of x-rated programming came up. Would cable television include adult x-rated fare?
Looking out over the council chamber, and with only the slightest impish grin, Wilson remarked, “I want to see ‘all’ that America has to offer.”
Wilson had a lot to offer the District. A former civil rights worker, Wilson had won the Ward 2 Council seat during the first council elections in 1974. A social liberal and fiscal moderate, he was elected chairman of the council in 1990. But his bouts with manic depression led him to commit suicide by hanging in 1993. A life and career cut short.
In 1993, Wilson had been considering running for mayor in 1994. He would have been a formidable candidate against his friend, the disgraced former mayor Marion Barry (who went on to win a fourth term.) Wilson might have dramatically changed the course of city history.
Wilson comes to mind this week because he is not in the new WETA documentary Washington in the 90s, which premiered Tuesday night. The hour-long documentary—the latest in a series that started with the 1960s—captures the 90s flavor of local politics, crime, culture, and music. Narrated by NBC4 anchor Doreen Gentzler, it recalls the city’s descent into near bankruptcy, and the beginning years of rebirth and repopulation of a Capital City that had seen better days.
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Wilson’s early death in the decade narrowed his chances of being more than a video clip in the new work. But we should not forget John Wilson. He was intent that the Council, largely seen as a minor player in city politics, be a co-equal branch of government.
“John was the first chairman who talked about the council as an independent, separate, equal part of the government,” one former Wilson confidante tells City Paper. He made it so with staffing, budgets, and strategic political clashes with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Wilson’s foresight has made the council to this day a far stronger counterbalance to the mayor.
Wilson and his staff were among the first to recognize the coming internet world. The D.C. Council site—dccouncil.us.gov—has a us.gov designation because it went online before the mayor’s office created dc.gov. “That was his vision for the council, be equal to or ahead” of the mayor’s office, the aide says.
In the early 1990s, had Wilson lived, D.C.’s football team likely never would have left the District. Wilson intervened in conversations with crusty owner Jack Kent Cooke after Cooke and Kelly fell out over both style and substance. But Wilson wouldn’t live to retain the ‘Skins—his favorite team.
Today, Wilson’s lifelike portrait by renowned artist Sammie Knox fills the entrance foyer of the John A. Wilson Building, the seat of the District government. The Beaux Arts building was renamed for Wilson in 1994 and underwent a $68 million renovation in the late 90s.
For anyone who talked with Wilson, he had two favorite phrases.
“I don’t know, I don’t know…” was his weary way of saying he hadn’t made a decision, but likely disagreed with you.
“The fact of the matter is…” was a sure signal he was calling an issue discussion to a close.
Twenty-five years after his death, the fact of the matter is we’ll never know what might have been. It probably would have made a hell of a documentary.