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Kicking Cora Masters Barry out of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center?
That’s like kicking William Randolph Hearst out of San Simeon. George H.W. Bush out of Kennebunkport. Thomas Jefferson out of Monticello! It’s just not supposed to happen.
Yet last week, the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had a pair of D.C. cops deliver an eviction notice to the Recreation Wish List Committee (RWLC), the nonprofit that the 64-year-old estranged wife of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has run for nearly 15 years. The RWLC, city officials allege, had allowed its corporate registration with the District to lapse prior to signing a 10-year lease agreement with the city in 2006, leaving that document null and void.
When asked about the snafu, Fenty placed it in the realm of the “technical” and signaled that something could probably be worked out. Yet the only thing technical about this eviction is the precision and premeditation with which it has been executed: Team Fenty has no interest in partnering with Team Barry, whether it’s on summer jobs, economic development, or a tennis facility. Corporate registration just happened to serve as a timely pretext for an abrupt political divorce.
That tennis and politics commingle in Southeast is no surprise given that the RWLC, and the center that’s by far its most visible achievement, was born of politics. The committee was founded by Cora Barry in 1995, months after Marion Barry retook the mayoralty; its seed money was $100,000 left over from the restoration inaugural bash.
Cora Barry, who in her years as chair of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission and decades of aggressive politicking had amassed an impressive Rolodex, stocked her board with big names and big pockets. Over the years, Barry’s maintained a mix of business, civic, and sporting heavyweights, including former pro tennis player Zina Garrison, former Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton, and developer and Olympic silver medalist Jair Lynch.
For the first three years of the Wish List, the organization engaged in small-scale donations and cleanup projects benefiting mostly east-of-the-river rec centers—providing vans to cart kids to sporting events, for instance, or building a dance studio or computer labs. The group announced it had spent about a half-million dollars on those projects—amounts that reporters could never verify through RWLC’s tax returns, since it claimed donations were made directly by corporate sponsors.
By early 1998, when it looked less and less likely that Marion Barry would be running for a fifth term, his wife upped her philanthropic ambitions. Calling her plan a “spiritual revelation from God,” she announced that she intended to turn a set of raggedy tennis courts on Mississippi Avenue SE, where she’d long played with her husband, into a gleaming 15-acre indoor/outdoor tennis and education complex. And, with less than a year left as first lady, Barry immediately put the hard sell on local business types to raise the estimated $3 million to make the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center happen. Soliciting money, after all, doesn’t get easier when your husband isn’t the mayor.
Despite a very public campaign, kicked off with an appearance and endorsement by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady, big money never materialized. Though Cora Barry at one point announced that she had raised as much as $1.8 million to build the center, she never got more than $400,000 in hard pledges. That wasn’t even enough to float a loan to start construction.
But Cora Barry, master politicker, had a Plan B: His name was Anthony A. Williams.
Having distinguished himself as the city’s no-nonsense CFO, Williams was a late entrant into the 1998 race to succeed Barry. No doubt sensing that he’d steamroll his nominal opposition of D.C. Council mayor-wannabes, Cora Barry broke early for Williams. And for Williams’ wife, Diane Simmons Williams, who was given a seat around that time on the Wish List board. Marion Barry himself never made an endorsement.
“If she had not been that brilliant to make that decision, the tennis center would not have been there,” he says.
Cora Barry’s backing paid almost immediate dividends. Shortly after his inauguration, Williams included a mention of the center in a speech to the bigwigs at the Federal City Council. In subsequent comments to the Washington Post, Williams called the project “something that I want to help along” in order to “put politics aside and do what’s best for the kids.”
Help it along he did: A few months later, Williams sent the D.C. Council a proposal to spend $3.7 million in capital funds to build the center. The authorizing legislation, sent to the council as an emergency bill, basically handed Cora Barry her own little corner of the District government. The legislation exempted the project from the District’s normal procurement rules, allowing Cora Barry to select the contractor, approve the plans, and oversee all aspects of construction. The city would pay to build and maintain the building, and Wish List would run tennis and educational programs at the center. The project was approved 10–2.
The center had its grand opening in April 2001, and again Cora Barry flaunted her Rolodex. Appearing at the kickoff were tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, racquet legends Pam Shriver and Garrison, and poet Maya Angelou. A year later, Cora Barry would separate from her husband after police at Buzzard Point found traces of cocaine and marijuana in his car.
Her relationship with Williams solidified, with the mayor showing up at the center sometimes two or three mornings a week to play tennis. She started drawing a salary from the RWLC as founder and CEO—$79,500 in 2006, according to the organization’s most recent tax return. She’s maintained her high-powered relationships, having been seen regularly around the world with Oracene Williams, the mother of Venus and Serena. Barry has kept an office at the center, which she mans with another RWLC employee, and by all accounts keeps a tight leash on the place.
That leash, depending on who you ask, has either been a boon for the city—freeing parks-and-rec bureaucrats to focus on other programs and facilities—or a constant headache for administrators. Honchos at the Department of Parks and Recreation—with responsibility for the upkeep of the center, but with little control over Cora Barry’s programs—resented the outsize attention and resources the facility has received over the years, not to mention having to deal with its doyenne’s outsize, domineering personality.
Not among those is former DPR chief Clark E. Ray, who ran the department for most of the Fenty administration before being ousted this spring. Ray says that he “never worried about the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center” and that he never heard any concerns about the facility up the chain of command. “It was, in my opinion, a good partnership,” says Ray. “She runs a tight ship. The building’s always clean. The kids are always well-behaved.”
Ray thinks highly enough of Cora Barry that, as an at-large D.C. Council candidate, he released a statement in support last week. (He’s also friends with her daughter, Tamara Masters Lawson; both worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.) Aside from any personal connection, Ray described his relationship with Cora Barry as essentially that of landlord and tenant, with Barry calling him “two or three times a week” about issues with the facilities. Otherwise, Ray says, “I expended little energy on that center,” which is staffed by a city-paid site director and maintenance man, plus seasonal instructional staff.
Cora Barry says in an interview that she’s repeatedly tried to set up a meeting with Ray’s successor, Ximena Hartsock, who took over the department in April. “I didn’t get a response,” she says. “I tried. I used every avenue.” There were other hints that the city’s usual support of RWLC was slipping: In past years, Barry says, the city kicked in toward the group’s six-week summer academic program. This year, the money wasn’t there, so the $65,000-plus program was funded wholly with RWLC dollars.
So what accounts for the Fenty power play?
For one thing, Cora Barry’s political acuity faltered ahead of the 2006 mayoral run. Rather than cast her lot with front-runner Fenty, she joined the amalgam of good-government types and Gold Coasters backing Verizon executive Marie Johns for the post. Cora Barry tried to cement a political bond by inviting Fenty and his twin sons to play at the center. They stopped by to play a handful of times, according to sources, but that was it.
If there is a personal conflict with Fenty, Barry says that she’s not aware of it: “I’ve never had an experience with the mayor where he’s said anything but nice things.…We invite him to everything. I have not had a negative experience with him in person.”
Any reading of the situation also depends on how credible you find Hizzoner’s claims that he was not aware of the decision to send the eviction letter to the RWLC. “These things usually get worked out,” he told reporters last Thursday, shortly after Barry appeared on WJLA-TV’s cameras in tears outside the center. That attitude, however, was not reflected in Attorney General Peter Nickles’ comments to the Washington Post the next day, saying, “Legally, you can’t give them a break.”
The wiring diagram on the decisionmaking process hasn’t been pieced together yet, but Nickles’ explanation that this was simply a matter of due diligence strains credulity. Still to be determined, for one, is the role of City Administrator Neil O. Albert, who was DPR chief during the facility’s construction and its first years of operation—not to mention a frequent morning tennis partner of Tony Williams.
Albert was vacationing this week and unavailable for comment.
The eviction is all the more intriguing considering that it comes on the heels of a major partnership between the city and the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to provide programs at 11 DPR facilities—including the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. Albert, going back to his stint as deputy mayor, was deeply involved in brokering the deal, LL is told. The press conference announcing the joint venture took place at the Rock Creek Park tennis stadium; Cora Barry was not invited to the Aug. 6 announcement.
Rumors have it that Fenty’s fingered a new tennis coach, Nic Askew, to run the Southeast Tennis and Learning facility. Askew, now an assistant tennis coach at Howard University and director of programs of the Prince George’s Tennis and Education Foundation, says he’s “heavily affiliated” with the USTA but unaware of any personnel moves. “At this point, I’ve only been reading what’s in the news,” he says. “I’m not sure what’s going on. I’m waiting to see what happens along with everyone else.”
Or is the explanation more Machiavellian? Over nearly three years in power, Fenty has mounted a campaign to stamp out every independent power base in the city, from the Anacostia Waterfront Commission to the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. to the Sports and Entertainment Commission and so on. Did he finally figure out that Barry’s Mississippi Avenue fiefdom doesn’t fit into the Fentyocracy?
The RWLC filed its delinquent corporate papers this week, and Cora Barry and her supporters still hold out hope that the whole situation can be resolved amicably. Barry says she’s concerned that, in her organization’s absence, the center will lose its education programs in favor of a tennis-only model.
“I really don’t believe at this point that the mayor understands what we do,” she says. “I don’t think he understands what we do.”
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis
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