Hard of Hearing: Reinoso?s communicative style doesn?t play too well in front of the council dais.
Hard of Hearing: Reinoso?s communicative style doesn?t play too well in front of the council dais. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray started last Thursday’s oversight hearing for Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso with a fairly simple question: “Can you explain to this council why it is so difficult to get you to come here?”

Reinoso ventured a response: “On a couple of occasions, at least that I remember, there were scheduling conflicts…”

Oof—wrong answer. Gray interrupted, in full bloom of righteous outrage: “What was more important than coming here and trying to explain to the Council of the District of Columbia and the citizens of the District of Columbia why we should spend tens of millions of dollars?”

That kicked off one of the more withering rounds of dais questioning visited upon a top executive official in some time—one that single-handedly, in LL’s mind, raised the Vince ’n’ Victor show into the top ranks of governmental feuding in this town. It may not be at David Catania–Natwar Gandhi levels yet, but it rivals the Peter Nickles–Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown–Neil Albert tiffs.

Gray’s an unlikely bureaucratic combatant with an earnestness about education reform, having kept oversight over the District schools apparatus—the only oversight over the District schools apparatus in the post–Board of Education world—in his own personal portfolio.

The bad blood between Gray and Reinoso goes back a ways—Gray famously refused to move the deputy mayor’s confirmation till the last minute—but the recent tussle dates to last summer, when a passel of school construction contracts totaling tens of millions came to the council. Those contracts were a mess—poorly documented and submitted at the last minute—so councilmembers filed disapproval resolutions in order to hold hearings on the expenditures.

That prompted a round of hand-wringing about Gray’s supposed obstructionism, including a scathing July 4 Washington Post editorial that, of course, found no fault with the Reinoso-Adrian FentyMichelle Rhee axis. Gray held a pair of hearings to get some answers on the contracts and the policy decisions behind them; Reinoso showed at neither, leaving facilities czar Allen Lew to (not) answer questions about the educational reasoning behind combining elementary and middle schools into K-8 buildings.

Gray didn’t appreciate getting scapegoated for doing his job back then, and he hasn’t forgotten. At Thursday’s hearing, he referred to “an attempt to lay blame off on the whole council. We had editorials; we had articles written.…We get accused of delaying education to kids in the District of Columbia.” Further stoking Gray’s outrage last week was a recent report that referred to council approval of contracts as an “external factor” affecting Lew’s ability to do his job.

Reinoso, in an interview with LL, explains the drama this way: “I think my appearance is an opportunity to hold the mayor accountable,” he says. “[Gray]’s always had tough questions for me from the beginning.…He’s doing his job; I’m doing my job. Sometimes sparks will fly.”

Given Reinoso’s absence, Gray brought a whole file of unfinished business to his attention in the hearing. And amid the rhetorical volleys, LL figured out a reason why Reinoso, a smart, well-informed guy, hasn’t been showing up to his hearings: He’s just not very good at them.

For one thing, Reinoso is a sloucher. When councilmembers go off on their minuteslong pontifications, as councilmembers are wont to do, Reinoso will lean back in his chair, waiting for his cue. Then there’s the perpetually uninterested look on his face; says one council wag, “He just looks like a deer in the headlights.” And his voice is a monotone nasal drawl; hell, WALL•E’s exhibits more affect.

The whole effect is a nonchalance reminiscent of Jeff Spicoli’s face-offs with Mr. Hand back at Ridgemont High. (To be fair, Reinoso, as far as LL knows, has yet to order pizza to the council chamber.)

Not since the former Office of Property Management head Lars Etzkorn left the District’s employ early last year has there been a guy whose body language, mien, and instinctive standoffishness have done the executive branch so few favors before the council.

Reinoso, by way of explanation, explains he’s one of five brothers. “Two are in the theater and three are not,” he says. “I’m not one of them. It’s pretty evident why.”

Compounding the issue: Reinoso showed up in shirtsleeves, sporting a French blue shirt with a red tie somewhat less than perfectly snug around his neck.

Maybe he was embracing contemporary fashion—you know, the “Obama casual” style favored in the Oval Office these days? Nope, Reinoso’s jacket-optional attitude predates 44. “He does that all the time!” cried Gray when LL pointed out Reinoso’s recent chamberwear.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed. LL is told no less a sartorial stickler than Attorney General Nickles—a fan of finely tailored three-piece suits—wandered into the mayoral bullpen during Reinoso’s testimony wondering where his jacket was.

Gray claims indifference on style issues: “I don’t really care. His casual attire is far less important to me than his being able to make sure the right people are there to get the right information in a timely fashion that will allow the council to do its work.”

The bigger problem is that Reinoso’s behavior hasn’t exactly been defensible. Take the education budget hearing that Reinoso’s shop held last Tuesday—notice of the hearing appeared on the mayoral Web site less than a week ahead of time, well short of the 15 days required by law. The hearing was scheduled for 9:15 a.m. on a weekday, and it was held at the temporary home of H.D. Woodson Senior High way out on Benning Road SE. One parent who showed up e-mailed LL photos of the sidewalks and steps outside the school, thick with ice.

At Thursday’s hearing, Gray testily asked Reinoso if he thought the date and location made for “the best choice.”

His reply: “I think it worked as a choice.…The best choice is an optimization model involving the schedule of some unknown variable as to how many people would like to speak at these hearings. I don’t know the answer to that kind of optimization.”

Like LL said, maybe there’s a reason Reinoso doesn’t like to show up at these things.

In an e-mailed response to a letter sent by At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown, Reinoso admitted not following the letter of the law for giving notice on the hearing, saying his office “unintentionally missed the deadline” set in District statute. Reinoso told LL, “At any given point in time, there’s a thousand items. This one, we missed it.”

In general, Reinoso tries to play down the feuding with Gray; he points out that the two of them knew each other prior to all of this. “I think that we like each other,” he says. “Maybe it doesn’t come through in those exchanges or in those settings, but I think it’s relevant.” He says he plans to reach out and schedule regular meetings with the chairman.

But the immediate concern for Reinoso? Justifying his existence.

Reinoso spent much of the hearing describing his efforts to coordinate services for students across agencies—important work, but deputy mayor-level work? Budget season is under way, and with a 10 percent haircut anticipated for the fiscal 2010 budget, Reinoso might have to worry that Gray might choose to trim some management fat out of DME come markup time.

His office has responsibility for school construction, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the school ombudsman’s office. Gray certainly seems to think there might be some extraneous management: “There’s no question in my mind that Allen Lew is able to manage his operation pretty independently,” Gray tells LL. Same goes for State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist, he says.

“You know, we’ve not targeted him for anything at this stage, we’ll just look at it,” says Gray, who was able to recite DME staffing levels from memory. “I don’t dispute the fact that there should be somebody to coordinate [education and other services], but do you need a whole deputy mayor apparatus to do that?”

Political Potpourri

• An old political hand has entered the electoral realm: Kelvin Robinson, the former chief of staff to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, has taken a spot as advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Robinson, these days a consultant active in the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, filled an open seat in a district northwest of RFK Stadium; he’d run as a write-in for the seat in November’s election and lost, but the winner was declared ineligible, so the seat was declared vacant. Robinson was the only candidate to file ballot petitions for a special election; he’s to be seated this week.

In the interest of recklessly fomenting conflict, allow LL to pose this question: Is Robinson gunning for a Ward 6 council run against Tommy Wells? Is he trying to succeed where the likes of Keith Andrew Perry and Curtis Etherly have failed and unite the ward’s outer reaches against the Hill nannys and NIMBYs?

Robinson’s negative—his relentless fundraising, which earned him a Hatch Act investigation while under Williams’ employ—also happens to be his positive—his relentless fundraising might give him a rare shot to beat an incumbent whom certain laissez-faire business types might be happy to see go.

Like any good community politico, Robinson says he’s focused on his constituents: “People say a whole lot of different things, but I’m just interested in trying to move my small corner of the world forward,” he says, pointing to concerns about public safety, development, and cleanliness issues in the neighborhood.

Asked if he’s a Wells supporter, Robinson says, “Well, he is certainly my councilmember, and I certainly support my councilmember.” He also declined to give the no-run guarantee: “That’s not my focus right now; my focus is not on what’s going to happen in 2010.”

Also fueling the rumors—that Robinson wasn’t sworn in to his ANC post by Wells but by Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. That, explained both swearer and swearee, was due to their prior friendship and Alexander’s post as chair of the council committee overseeing ANCs. Of course.

Wells, queried by LL shortly after scoring 10 points in the council’s losing hoops effort against the local media Monday, declined to be baited. “I don’t know why you’re asking about him. There’s 30-some ANC commissioners in Ward 6.”

• In other reckless rumormongering, LL hears that more than 50 people showed up late last month at the Palisades home of local Republican honcho Tony Parker. The main attraction? A meet-and-greet with D.C. police union chief Kristopher Baumann.

Is a Ward 3 run in the works? Baumann’s a thorn in the side of all sorts of people in town, incumbent Mary Cheh included, and he’s certainly a known quantity—he peppers quotes in the local press the way a certain Ward 4 councilmember once did. He’s been a registered Republican in this town since 1998.

Baumann, who lives around the corner from Cheh in Forest Hills, denies any machinations, saying the appearance was merely a courtesy call to a civic group. But he did express support for the local GOP: “They came out in supporting mandatory minimums, which is a big issue for us. I think Paul Craney is doing a great job. It’s good to have another voice.”

And LL asked Craney, executive director of the local Republicans, if he was recruiting Baumann: “I think he would be a great candidate, but no.” Craney said the Palisades event “had nothing to do with fundraising. No politicking.”

Cheh wasn’t as reticent as Wells to address a possible challenge. She stole a famous line from a well-known GOP personage: “What I say to the Republicans is, bring it on.”

She also gave LL a preview of her re-election run. “I’m running on youth and energy,” a nod to Jack Evans’ winning strategy last year. “Oh, and ‘Queen of Green’—don’t forget that.”

Get Loose Lips Daily every weekday morning in your inbox—sign up at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk. Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 460, 24 hours a day.