City Paper is not for tourists
Ever since Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was arrested last July 4, untangling a web that would involve contracts handed to a girlfriend, earmark money funneled to cronies, and sundry other public disclosures that embarrassed both Barry and his institution, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray has stuck to his mantra, his civic religion: Respect the process.
Gray jumped to no conclusions and recruited superlawyer Robert S. Bennett to embark on a detailed investigation of Barry’s conduct and council practices at large. Gray kept his hands off as Bennett and his team of lawyers made their way through the John A. Wilson Building, reviewing documents and interviewing officials. Bennett delivered his report to the council last month, and Gray gave Barry and others due chance to respond.
That process came to an ignominious end on Tuesday afternoon, when Gray did what the process demanded. He led his colleagues in a unanimous vote to censure Barry, strip him of his chair of the council housing committee (and its $350,000 budget), kick him off the finance and revenue panel, and to refer Bennett’s findings to federal prosecutors.
The process was pliable enough to accommodate Barry’s usual circus. When time came for him to speak, Barry launched into a nearly 17-minute-long dais harangue, where he stuck closely to the talking points he’d unveiled in a press conference last week. He admitted to “personal misjudgment” but little else.
Though Barry’s plan was doubtless to project defiance and strength, only despondency and denial came across. In one of his more desperate stabs at self-rehabilitation, he made reference to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the Earmark King. OK, but the Earmark King never gave a cent to a group he personally created and controlled. Barry discussed ex-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt’s personal finances. He smeared former confidant Sharon Wise, the only woman in his sphere with enough good sense to blow the whistle on his misdeeds.
Then Barry got personal with Gray. “Mr. Chairman,” he began, “we go back 35 years. You know my heart and my soul. We’ve talked about all kinds of things together. We’ve talked our two boys. You know my character.”
He later added: “I’m sure, Mr. Chairman, you don’t want your legacy to be that you punished Marion Barry on the words of one person. You’re too good of a person. You’ve served too long.…You don’t want to be known as the person who took Mr. Barry’s due process away from him. You’re too great a person. But…that’s what people are going to think. I know you better than that. I love you. You’re my friend.”
It was a virtuoso performance from a demagogue extraordinaire, a man convinced he can talk his way out of anything, someone with an uncanny sense of how to tell people exactly what they want to hear.
Gray knows that very well, and yet he doesn’t. In comments made after the meeting Tuesday, Gray said of Barry’s remarks: “It was the truth,” he said. “I think it was very appropriate. I didn’t find his representation, the way he spoke, to be qualitatively different from what he normally does.”
And that’s the problem. Barry’s been doing “what he normally does” forever with few consequences, and Tuesday’s rhetorical excesses got little more than a shrug from Gray. (Few of his colleagues chose to stick their necks out, either.) Gray set up a good process and did everything that the process required him to do.
Too bad that wasn’t enough. In passing up an opportunity to tell Barry and the District why his conduct is so abominable, Gray positioned himself not as a leader but as an enabler.
LL longed for the last days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, when lawyer Joseph Welch finally called the drunken bully on his odious tactics, his destruction of lives and reputations, in a televised hearing: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?” LL wanted Gray to shout. “Have you left no sense of decency?”
No such protestations were to be made Tuesday, or any other day.
Gray stopped short of calling on Barry to resign, and he hesitated to even want the power to eject an out-of-control colleague. “Frankly, I’m not even sure if it’s an authority that this body would want,” he said. “That is excruciatingly painful to have to deal with something like that.”
The closest Gray came publicly to showing any passion came Monday, when after his monthly press conference WTOP analyst Mark Plotkin asked one too many questions about the Barry affair: “Can you understand why we’re trying to do this right? Do you realize people’s lives are involved in this?” Gray snapped. “You know what? You’d be the first one to criticize something that was half-baked if we put it out there.”
What that was, dear reader, was passion in defense of the process.
Now Barry, too, knows process well. He certainly knows how to use it, not to its own ends but to his personal advantage. On issue after issue, he’s used the term as a cudgel with which to beat the Fenty administration. On Michelle Rhee’s hiring as schools chancellor. On teacher firings. On the letting of parks and recreation contracts.
And if you’re talking process, that term has to alight on the processes that Bennett found that Barry abused. Personal services contracts had been a council fixture for some time, but never before Barry would anyone have handed one to a girlfriend—a woman he invited to the Democratic National Convention, only to evict her from his hotel room for refusing him oral sex. Council earmarks certainly have had their problems, but only Barry would think to create bogus groups under his own control to funnel city funds to.
There is no process available to deal with Barry’s temerity, the audacity of his scheming, his all-encompassing narcissism.
And whatever Gray led the council in doing Tuesday, those traits will persist. Barry could easily become a Wilson Building version of Sen. Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican castrated by his leadership—a lame duck with little else to do but cause trouble. Bunning has chosen to spend his time placing holds on immensely popular, no-brainer legislation out of little more than spite. Barry could easily do the same.
He could return to his antics of fall 2008, when he filed disapproval resolutions on virtually every city contract that came to the D.C. Council—touching off a mayor-council pissing match over contract submissions that still has not been fully resolved. Or he could sit on the council dais every other Tuesday, raising objection after objection, obliterating the consent agenda. He could sit in on his colleagues’ hearings, asking interminable questions and making even more interminable, rambling speeches. He could become a gadfly with nothing to prick but the institution to which he belongs.
LL has no doubt that the Barry affair, as Gray says, has been a “really tough experience” for him. But the faith in process, in letting things run their course, has not served Gray or the council well. And—for a man pondering a run against Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a man who’s never met a process he couldn’t overtake, subvert, or simply ignore—it doesn’t serve his ambitions well either.
Gray, however, takes his performance as a qualification.
“If I ever have to deal with this again, I hope people would look at this experience and realize that if I can get though this with somebody who I’ve known for so many years, who really has done many important and significant things for this city, then I can probably get through anything,” he said Tuesday.
Ron Moten: Aspiring Media Mogul
Attention D.C. politicos: Ronald Moten is out of the beef-squashing business.
The Peaceoholics honcho, for years called on by politicos far and wide to do gang interventions and conflict resolution, has moved on to his next project: media entrepreneur.
His outlet is called OtherSide Magazine. Get it? If not, here’s the publication’s tagline: “Every Story Has Another Side.”
Where his former job was all about settling tussles, this enterprise stands to stir them up. “I want a vehicle to tell both sides of the story,” he says in his new office, a modest storefront on Martin Luther King Avenue in Congress Heights, a few blocks from Ballou High School.
In the front of the office, formerly a church, his only employee, Damon Gorham, does design work on a computer; Moten has a bare desk set up in the back, in the boiler room—as in right next to the furnace. “I’ve always been a media man, a promotions man,” he says, sitting behind it. “The toothpaste can get out of the tube, and it can do much damage.”
Like the whole fishy fire truck fiasco, he says—Peaceoholics found itself in the middle of the controversy over the giveaway of surplus city emergency equipment to the Dominican Republic, even though investigations later determined the group was little more than a middleman. The affair meant a bright light was shined on the nonprofit, soiling its reputation and imperiling its funding. (Moten says he is no longer involved in Peaceoholics’ day-to-day operations, but he remains on its board.)
So what stories these days deserve the “other side” treatment?
For one, Moten details “The Other Side of Omar Karim”—the principal owner of Banneker Ventures and Fenty frat brother who became entangled in the parks contracting mess. The article describes Karim, Banneker, and the parks contracts in the glowingest of glowing terms.
To wit: “Like Benjamin Banneker, Mr. Karim has committed himself and the firm he founded to improving Washington, DC. The mission of the firm is “[t]o change the world…one community at a time.” Banneker Ventures has remained true to this mission. This is a company whose ideals began to remind me of the noble goals and objectives of the Civil Rights Movement and such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.”
The other subjects of OtherSide Magazine align pretty closely with Fenty’s political agenda. One piece deems Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander the “Worst Politician of the Year” for comments she allegedly made about dropouts. Another takes At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson to task for supporting tougher penalties for liquid PCP possession. Another talks up Blue Skye Construction, the D.C. government contractor owned by Fenty ally Scottie Irving, and its efforts to employ ex-offenders and troubled youth.
But OtherSide tackles some non-D.C.-specific topics as well. There’s a piece explaining why rapper T.I. sought to buy a veritable arsenal of unregistered machine guns. Another piece deems Rush Limbaugh a “homegrown terrorist.” And then there’s this biological perspective on Tiger Woods: “Woods, like all humans who have come before him, suffers from two conflicting biological programs—the urge to establish a pair-bond with a mate to develop a family versus the urge to consistently find new mates to fertilize and subsequently diversify his genetic potential through the generations.”
“That’s something the dudes in the street are going to read,” Moten says.
The articles are published on the Web, but Moten’s also printed up 5,000 copies of an eight-page newsletter promoting his stories. (The Karim piece is printed in full.) Already this week, LL found stacks of the newsletters inside the Wilson Building. Moten says he has youths handing them out at Metro stops and elsewhere around town.
Besides the newsletter and Web site, Moten says he plans to do Internet video broadcasts and PR work. And his cash cow is a market well-known to the well-established music promoter—go-go fliers, done by Gorham in a slick, bold style. “Fliers alone will pay the bill on this building,” Moten said Friday. “We’re doing all the go-go bands, but we’re going to start marketing to nonprofits.”
Moten’s going to have to expand his enterprise at some point, and soon. He credits “some saving souls” with helping him with start-up costs, but the bottom line looms.
“I’m gonna need some advertisers within a month and a half,” he says. “And I’m gonna get ’em.”
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