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It’s with no small amount of sadness that LL bids farewell to 2011. What a wonderful year for reporters covering District politics (though a pretty lousy year for politicians being covered)! The bounty included three elected officials coming under federal investigation, a sunglassed Don Quixote almost derailing an entire administration, a near dysfunctional D.C. Council whose internecine bickering rose (or fell) to new levels, and a council chairman whose tacky tastes in taxpayer-funded SUVs was the gift that kept on giving. There was no lack of stories to cover, and like most great things, it feels like 2011 is leaving us too soon.
But before we say goodbye, let’s acknowledge the people, places and things that made 2011 so great by giving them made up awards. Herewith, the Loosies:
Lifetime Achievement Award
No star shined brighter in 2011 than Brown, who went from also-ran mayoral candidate to practically a household name in D.C. But Brown’s popularity, of course, is not the kind to write home about. “Don’t fuck it up,” was Mayor Vince Gray’s pep talk to Brown at the beginning of the year (according to Brown), when the guy who mustered only 209 votes for mayor landed a cushy $110,000-a-year city auditor’s job. Boy, did Brown not listen to that advice. By February, he was fired for—among other things—not knowing how to use Microsoft Excel and making inappropriate advances on an intern. His dismissal was bad timing for the mayor, who had defended Brown’s hiring just the day before. But what came next was even worse. Brown went to the Post with an electronic paper trail of text messages and phone records and a story no newspaper would likely resist: that he’d been improperly paid cash and promised a city job on the 2010 campaign trail in exchange for attacking then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. That front page news eventually led to a circus council hearing where Brown cemented his status as one of the District’s biggest oddballs by refusing to take off his sunglasses during the many hours of his combative testimony. That was, so far, the apex of Brown’s infamy. Neither the council nor a follow-up investigation by U.S. House Republicans have found any evidence linking Gray to potentially illegal campaign tactics, but a probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office is still ongoing. The year brought even worse news for Brown, though. His bike was stolen while he met with the FBI, and he’ll be on trial in February on charges he drove a car without a valid license. These days, LL couldn’t blame him if he wished he never attended a single mayoral forum in 2010.
The “Don’t Go In There!” Award for Disaster Forecasting
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown all but flushed his once-promising political career down the tube with an ill-advised decision to put taxpayers on the hook for not one, but two $2,000-a-month Lincoln Navigators. The unseemly and very well-documented episode not only cemented Brown’s reputation as financially irresponsible; it gave him a permanent nickname. But LL wants to give credit to the D.C. government employee who saw the whole thing coming, and, Cassandra-like, watched it all fall out exactly as he predicted. Michael Biggs, a former supervisor at the Department of Public Works, took orders from Brown’s staff on the Navigator. Here’s an email Biggs wrote to one of his subordinates long before Navigatorgate went public: “You need to make damn sure that you are able to show exactly everything from a to z, and who said what and when concerning this Navigator issue for Chairman Brown. One day someone is going to come back and dig into this. I want to make sure that we can tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on the purchase of this vehicle and the waste and abuse of taxpayers money.”
The “Poisoned Apples for the Teachers” Award for Coverage of D.C. Public Schools
If you wanted the first close look at whether the dramatic improvement of test scores under former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee might have been just be too good to be true, you had to look beyond the Post.
The “Paperwork Wardrobe Malfunction” Award for Accidental Transparency
When the Ward 2 Council candidate filed a list of campaign contributors with the Office of Campaign Finance, she accidentally included an internal campaign list of people she was hoping to hit up for money—along with little notes about some of them. The notes weren’t exactly diplomatic (though Greig said a volunteer wrote them): “Super wealthy,” “owns law firm,” and “Homosexual McKinsey.” Greig, who works as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, withdrew from the race shortly after the list went public. Her erstwhile campaign manager, Ken Archer, took to local smart growth hub Greater Greater Washington to blame the whole episode on dirty tricks by incumbent Jack Evans; LL is sure Evans was glad to see a would-be rival bail out, but he puts all the blame for this one on Greig.
The “Going Down With the Ship” Award for Delusions
Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.’s defenders
Take the mountain of evidence produced by the D.C. attorney general showing that Thomas spent more than $300,000 in city funds earmarked for “youth baseball” on an Audi SUV, golf trips, and a meal at Hooters, among other things. Add to that the fact that Thomas has produced no rebuttal to the A.G.’s story but quietly agreed to pay the city back. Then recall that the IRS and FBI recently got a warrant to raid Thomas’ house, seizing his new SUV and a motorcycle. And in the world of D.C. politics, what do you get? A core group of supporters who think Thomas has been unfairly targeted by the authorities because he’s black. “It’s been a witchhunt,” one supporter told WJLA after the feds raided Thomas’ home. “This is no more than a lynching from the Klan.” For his part, Thomas hasn’t tried to discourage the idea that he’s the victim in all this. He recently took to Twitter to quote Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” As proof of a racial bias, Thomas supporters say, look at the disparate treatment between Thomas and Jim Graham, the white Ward 1 councilmember who went unscathed after his chief of staff was caught taking gifts from the taxi industry. The white guy gets a pass, Thomas loyalists argue, but Thomas gets all sorts of jacked up. The facts, however, belie this claim. The FBI probably spent a small fortune gunning for Graham, with multiple criminal informants, secret video and audio tapings, and an undercover agent trying to ply the councilmember with a free trip to Miami. In the end, they couldn’t get their man. The Thomas, case, however, was giftwrapped and dumped in the feds’ lap by the attorney general. Not to pursue it would have practically been a crime. Besides, the U.S. Attorney for the District, Ron Machen, is black (and a fraternity brother of Thomas’). And the headline “federal agents raid D.C. councilmember’s house” is news no matter what race the councilmember involved is.
The “How You Like Me Now?” Award for Quick Image Improvement
The one-time Ward 5 councilmember entered 2011 as a three-in-a-row loser for elected office in D.C. He’s ending the year in a lot better shape. Orange won a special election in April for an at-large council seat by capturing the support of the black voters who still decide elections; since then, he’s not only managed to stay free of any ethical taint (despite being the favorite politician of city contractors), but has somehow positioned himself as a champion of ethical government reforms. Only in the District, dear readers, would a former lobbyist for the hated local power company manage to win himself that reputation.
The “That’s What He Said” Award for Unnecessary Corrections
Ward 7 Council candidate and newly zealous local Republican Ron Moten
The irredentist Fentyite was only trying to express enthusiasm, in his typical understated manner, when he told LL this summer: “What I get erections from is helping my people.” But Moten couldn’t leave well enough alone, and accused LL of taking his quote out of context. “I wasn’t saying, like, a physical erection,” Moten complained to LL, when asking for a correction to the original story. Once again, for the record, LL is not and has never been aware of the state of Moten’s tumescence.
The “Dish Best Served Cold—Or Hot, Really” Award for Speedy Retribution
Despite the lingering stink of the Navigator scandal and the revelation that he’s under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Brown still had the chutzpah to strip Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells of the chairmanship of the public works and transportation committee. Why? Well, Wells did investigate the Navigator brouhaha, but most of the rest of the council say he had it coming for being an unreliable colleague and thinking too highly of himself. (Of course, the D.C. Council being the font of bravery that it is, few of them were willing to make those claims with their names attached.) Shortly after his demotion, Wells said, “I’ve been one of the most effective councilmembers.” See what they mean?
The “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” Award for Consistent Whining
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham
There are few things more reliable in D.C. politics than Graham complaining about negative news coverage. Write a story that’s anything less than flattering of Graham, and your bosses are sure to hear from him. Hell, just asking Jimbo uncomfortable questions is enough for him to start firing off emails or phone calls complaining to the powers that be. Ask Graham, and he’ll probably tell you he’s the long-suffering victim of a malicious media out to get him. Ask any reporter that has had to deal with Graham, and you’ll hear that he’s got skin so thin a slight gust would leave a bruise. This year, Graham had plenty of occasions to whine after the news broke that his former chief of staff, Ted Loza, had once offered him an envelope full of cash on behalf of an undercover FBI agent. Graham turned the money down, but didn’t report or discipline Loza, who is now serving time in federal prison for accepting gratuities from players in the taxi industry. Court and FBI records in the Loza case have left plenty of unanswered questions about Graham’s behavior in past years. Did he use undercover FBI money to buy gift cards for a Thanksgiving giveaway without reporting the donation? Did he knowingly take free cab rides from one of the main conspirators, as that conspirator told the FBI? Graham’s response to these inquiries isn’t to answer them, but to assert that the mere act of asking is evidence that he’s being treated unfairly. And with that, LL’s editors are already waiting for an angry email from Graham complaining about this very award.
The “Hell Hath No Fury” Award for Quick Reversals
The D.C. taxi industry
Cabbies got behind Gray’s mayoral campaign in a big way in 2010. In return, they were expecting the new mayor to be more accommodating of their wishes for a rate increase and other demands. When Gray didn’t move fast enough to their liking, the cabbies not only started badmouthing the mayor in public, but even called him out on the front page of the Post, saying he witnessed possible campaign finance law violations—committed by taxi drivers themselves! The cab lobby didn’t much like the council’s late December pitch for “improvements” to the industry, either. LL expects campaign donations from the hacks—and more importantly, free rides to the polls for supporters of candidates they favor—to be up for grabs in next year’s elections.
The “Your Petty Legislative Body Doesn’t Frighten Me” Award for Taunting the D.C. Council
Gray’s pick as the city’s temporary human resources director was a complete disaster. Banks signed off on high salaries and plum jobs for kids of Gray allies that helped mar her boss’ first few months in office. But things really got messy when Banks testified under oath before a D.C. Council hearing. Banks denied having anything to do with hiring the son of the former director of the Department of Employment Services. When the council produced emails showing otherwise, Banks dismissively replied: “You can’t prove that what I’m saying is not true.” Indeed, even though Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said Banks’ testimony was “shot through with perjury” and referred her to the U.S. attorney, the feds have so far shown no interest in pursuing the case.
The “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism” Award for Alliteration
“Cannons of Crap”
The phrase was used by a member of a mysterious Vince Gray support group in an email to fellow supporters after some of them talked to the Post about Gray’s political problems (and thus disclosed the existence of the group to the rest of the city). Full quote: “Do you really think that the Washington Post needs [to] use us as additional fodder for its cannons of crap incessantly aimed at Mayor Gray?”
The “Speeding Back to Maryland” Award for Brief Wilson Building Careers
Gray’s former deputy chief of staff lasted all of ten days on the job, after D.C. Watch’s Dorothy Brizill outed her for voting in a District election while living in Maryland. It’s hardly a capital crime, but Pringle paid the price for an administration that’s had one too many scandals in its short existence. The job she was hired to do for those quick two weeks? Fixing the mayor’s public image. Oh well.