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On Tuesday morning, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty told LL the following: “To be perfectly candid, I’m really focused on the budget, on making sure the city works.”
Perhaps that’s a good thing for the city, for the taxpayers.
Trouble is, LL wasn’t asking the mayor about the budget or about a working city.
LL was asking about baseball tickets, and, more specifically, Fenty’s policy of denying free ones to members of the D.C. Council. That petty act, of hoarding the freebies for his own people and keeping them from the panel on which he formerly served, is becoming as reliable a rite of spring as breaking out the grill and scanning the box scores.
The background: Last year, the Nats handed the tickets owed to the city government under the stadium lease over to the mayor’s office, which in turn distributed them only to certain favored members. Council Chair Vincent C. Gray had his colleagues send the tickets back until they were distributed equitably. The internecine conflict was resolved only when Fenty consigliere Peter Nickles intervened, and the council was given exclusive use of one of two skyboxes provided by the Nats.
Once again, this year, the tickets were delivered to the mayor’s office, but this time no tickets at all were passed on. As of game time, Fenty had kept the tickets for the original suite, the council suite, and a “smattering” of seats behind first base, according to Dawn Slonneger, chief of staff to Gray. (The council, however, does have plenty of parking passes—those were delivered earlier this month by Deputy Mayor Neil O. Albert.)
Actually, there were exceptions to the no-council rule: WTOP’s Mark Plotkin, on the scene, spied the father of Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser in the council box, who was there with City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and his kids.
And Jim Graham, a generally reliable supporter of the mayor, got his tickets from Albert, but not for himself. He had donated his council allotment to a charity auction last fall and had to come through for the people who bought them. After LL called Monday morning inquiring about the matter, Graham made a point to call back and emphasize that the charitable implications were the only reason he wanted the tickets. “I now realize this might be a larger issue than I thought,” he said.
Fenty’s willingness to reopen such petty affairs comes without explanation. His communications apparatus went on complete lockdown on the issue. Neither chief spokesperson Mafara Hobson nor chief of staff Carrie S. Kohns responded to inquiries on the matter. Fenty himself, buttonholed Tuesday morning, would say very little beyond several versions of he didn’t “know all the details” and that the situation “will be resolved.”
After six minutes of questioning, he finally found his home base with the previously cited budget refrain. He added, “I’m not as focused on tickets as you all are.”
At least one councilmember made it to the ballgame without the mayor’s help. LL reached at-larger Kwame R. Brown a few minutes before game time. He was attending the game with his son and was cagey about how he had procured tickets. But his suite seats, he says, were to be given away to kids he’d bused down to North Carolina earlier this year for a college fair.
Says Brown, “I think it’s time for the mayor to grow up.”
“Grow down” would perhaps be a better prescription. That’s because in recent months the mayor has taken on the persona of a megalomaniac in charge of a city of 585,000 people.
Where Fenty the councilmember was an open and accessible public official and Fenty the candidate promised new levels of governmental transparency, the mayoral version, with some $2 million in his re-election coffers, is a guy who simply can’t be doubted, who can’t even be questioned.
Take his awkward meeting with WTOP’s Mark Segraves on the National Airport curb earlier this month—a rendezvous prompted by Fenty’s failure to be fully forthcoming on his peregrinations. Hizzoner told Segraves he was headed to New York on official business but refused to explain what the business was.
What was particularly irritating, LL felt, was that his Gotham activities were no secret: He’d previously been advertised as appearing on an education panel with fellow mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.
What was the point in keeping that private? Or what was the point of nominating a bevy of folks to various boards and commissions with flimsy qualifications beyond friendship with Hizzoner? Or what was the point in keeping a key contracting official from testifying on the giveaway of a fire truck and ambulance to a Dominican Republic town?
Then again, those things actually kind of matter to his governance of the city. But the baseball tickets? Most councilmembers, LL senses, wish the issue would just go away.
Says Ward 3’s Mary M. Cheh, “Governing is a practical affair, and you have to learn to get along with people….It’s mystifying. It’s calculated to exacerbate tensions for no good reason.”
City Looks at Democratic Books
Last August, local Democratic honchos had a fab time in Denver celebrating the Democratic National Convention. They stayed in a fine downtown hotel, enjoyed lavish breakfasts, and hosted a group of young Washingtonians who helped lobby for D.C. voting rights.
Now some folks are asking who paid those bills.
The city’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) launched an official investigation of the D.C. Democratic State Committee this week, including allegations that a “secret account” existed under the DCDSC name to pay for convention expenses.
Corporate and individual donations are said to have paid for travel expenses for the youths and certain DCDSC members, not to mention breakfasts and other events at the confab, but there has been no public disclosure of those donations to date.
The most serious questions surround a $12,000 check written on a DCDSC account in August to cover convention expenses. The check was paid to an entity called “Denver Convention 2008,” but the endorsement stamp on the back of the check indicates the check was deposited into an Industrial Bank account in the name of “DC DEMOCRATIC STATE COMMITTEE.”
In other words: Here’s a check for a tidy sum paid by the DCDSC to the DCDSC. The originating account is the group’s standard operating account. The destination account is an account that nobody knows a thing about—except for committee chair Anita Bonds and member Marilyn Tyler Brown.
The DCDSC’s treasurer, Dan Wedderburn, has no control over the account into which the funds were deposited.
Back in December, Deborah Royster, national Democratic committeewoman and chair of the Ward 4 Democrats, sent a letter to OCF asking for a full investigation of the convention finances. After OCF failed to respond, Ward 8 member Phil Pannell followed up last week.
In an e-mail sent last Tuesday to committee members, Pannell said questions need to be answered: “Was any money left? If so, what happened to it? A few members have asked [Bonds] about the national convention finances and the response has ranged from delay, dismissal, insults and threats.…[T]he members of the DCDSC have every right to expect total financial accountability and transparency.”
Bonds says that “there are no secret accounts.” The purpose of the Denver Convention 2008 fund, she says, was to accept corporate and political action committee donations that the DCDSC itself was unable to accept. As for the mysterious endorsement, she says, “Apparently the bank created a stamp. They did that for informational purposes, which I guess is probably correct.”
Bonds says that she and Brown consulted with OCF before creating the account and that they have been cooperating with the office since questions have been raised.
Full disclosure, Bonds says, will come when the Denver Convention 2008 group files its federal tax form later this year. She promises to LL that a complete accounting of donations and expenditures will be provided.
“You can get a copy of that,” she says.
So, too, can the Office of Campaign Finance.
Capitol Hill Smackdowns Remembered
With last week’s surprise vote to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, District politicos are pondering a clash with Congress. And, when at some point in the near future, the council passes a law allowing said marriages to be performed here, they’ll really be spoiling for a fight.
To overturn District law, both houses of Congress would have to pass a joint resolution and the president would have to sign it. In a conversation with LL about that possibility, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s congressional delegate, claimed that hasn’t happened before—a point repeated recently by LL, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, and Post columnist Marc Fisher.
Congress first used the legislative “nuclear option” in 1979, after the council had voted to restrict future diplomatic chanceries in the Embassy Row area and north of Scott Circle. Before Mayor Marion Barry could sign the bill, the State Department threw a shitfit—one adviser told the Washington Post it was akin to “the Detroit City Council doing everything to hurt Chrysler”; Barry signed the bill anyway. After a fair amount of home-rule hand-wringing, Congress voted by acclamation to throw out the law.
In the most recent case, in 1991, the council had voted to give a planned downtown development an exemption to the standard height requirements. Developers of Market Square North, including parking-lot magnate Kingdon Gould III, wanted their building to rise 130 feet, 20 feet higher than regs permit. Again, both houses chose to veto the District act by voice vote—this time, without much hand-wringing.
In both cases, one could argue that there existed some legitimate federal concern compelling Congress to overturn the District’s legislation.
But that was not the case in 1981, during the initial ascendancy of the Christian right. The District, after poring over its criminal code, had passed an act overhauling the law concerning sexual crimes. Among other provisions, it legalized fornication, adultery, bestiality, and consensual sodomy—the last of which, in other words, legalized homosexuality. Though dozens of other states had similarly liberalized their sex laws, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority saw a political opportunity. They lobbied Illinois Rep. Phil Crane, conservative leader of the era, to introduce a disapproval resolution (which, in those days, needed to be passed by only one chamber).
What followed was a pattern of legislative maneuvering that would look awfully familiar to anyone who witnessed the Senate vote last month to gut the District’s gun laws: Conservative and moderate Democrats, fearful of an election-year pro-bestiality smear, abandoned the District in droves, helping kill the council bill 281–119 in the only congressional roll call ever taken on District law in the home rule era. The Moral Majority deemed the vote the group’s biggest Hill victory to date.
So what’s going to keep the same thing from happening 28 years later—especially when the same playbook was used by conservatives six weeks ago?
Probably not the makeup of Congress. The 97th House of Representatives was almost as heavily Democratic as the 111th, though the Republicans had a Senate majority at the time. What Norton is counting on is a disorganized response among social conservative activists. In other words, gay marriage opponents don’t have an NRA: “The gun amendment is controlled by a big lobby that specializes in out-and-out intimidation of members and big donations,” she says. “There’s no such organized lobby against gays or gay marriages.”
In any case, Norton says, she can handle it: “I anticipate being able to be able to protect [the gay-marriage laws]….In order to do something someone is going to have to introduce a bill or otherwise get something through the Congress. Well, you gotta pass by me on that.”
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