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LL has a confession to make: Campaign season is overrated.
Post-campaign season, dare he say, excites him more. The egos! The turf battles! The rewards! The punishments! The wheeling! The dealing!
All of those italicized dynamos come into play in the waning months of even-numbered years in the District of Columbia. That’s when councilmembers elbow, gossip, and diss on each other in pursuit of better committee assignments. It’s a frenzy of petty wrangling that happens to be of great import to governmental functions in this town: Will Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham continue to hound bars from his committee perch? Will Ward 8’er Marion Barry use a committee upgrade to stymie Mayor Adrian M. Fenty?
Committee assignments in the District rest solely in the hands of Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. And, except for platitudes, he ain’t talkin’ ‘bout nothin’. “He doesn’t share anything with anybody,” one of his esteemed colleagues says.
That leaves LL as clearinghouse for any and all committee-related scuttlebutt, gathered through surreptitious wanderings through the John A. Wilson Building corridors and covert late-night phone calls. Allow him to share his painstakingly gathered intel by answering a series of questions:
WHO’S GETTING A COMMITTEE?
Everybody. As it stands, only two members—Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser and Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander—don’t have panels of their own, and they’ve been promised them after winning re-election. Back in 2004, Gray and fellow freshman Kwame Brown raised holy hell with then-chair Linda Cropp about not getting their own oversight portfolios, however modest.
So Gray will be busy figuring out how to carve up the oversight pie into 13 pieces. That would include a sliver for incoming at-larger Michael A. Brown. Perhaps Mr. Robocall would relish some telecom regulatory duties. Or the boxing and wrestling committee, perhaps?
HOW DO YOU MAKE TWO NEW COMMITTEES?
Now that’s kind of the big question, isn’t it?
The obvious place to start is by dismantling outgoing Councilmember Carol Schwartz’ workforce development and government operations committee. That panel’s bailiwick is enormous, with purview over big things—the Executive Office of the Mayor and the city administrator, for instance—and little things—the Office of Ex-Offender Affairs, and a dozen other minor offices. One easy plan is to break off the Office of Human Rights and all the various commissions and offices tending to various demographic groups and hand that portfolio to a council tyro. In fact, count on that.
Much of this re-org will hinge on the capabilities of the council’s least experienced members. Council wags tend to take a dim view of Alexander’s legislative chops, but remember her close relationship with Gray. She’d be happy with the Department of Health Care Finance or the Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking—where she used to work. The latter’s a lot more likely than the former, but even more likely is that she gets handed housing.
Bowser’s an even more head-scratching case. She’s bright, hard-working, and has a nose for nuts and bolts, but with her mayoral ties, don’t expect Gray to go out of his way to hand Bowser any sort of plum post. She’d be a natural for public works, but expect her to get the dregs of government ops.
WHO’S LOOKING TO UPGRADE?
Some members are perfectly happy with their current portfolios. In that group, count Ward 2’s Jack Evans, who will undoubtedly keep finance and revenue (duh), At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who’s having a fine time chairing public safety and judiciary, and At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, who has done the most impressive committee work of the term as health chair.
Others are looking for a change. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh was unhappy two years ago with being handed public services and consumer affairs, which has the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—still famously dysfunctional then—as its centerpiece. Sure enough, she spent little of her time slapping around that agency, instead directing her energy toward the other regulatory agencies under her umbrella.
Cheh, a constitutional law professor, has to salivate at the prospect of following her predecessor Kathy Patterson and grabbing the judiciary panel, but Mendo’s got that on lockdown.
What she’s realistically gunning for, sources say, is oversight of the Department of the Environment, which would match up quite nicely with her utilities-regulation portfolio. Mind you, the enviro office currently belongs to Graham, but that can be pried away (keep reading). And LL doesn’t seem to think she’d mind losing DCRA in return.
Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr. has the smallest portfolio of the current committee chairs, with only parks and rec and the public library system under his purview. LL doesn’t see him jumping over others with a stronger claim to the juicy parts of the government ops portfolio. Instead look for Gray to sweeten Thomas’ pot with an additional youth-related function or two.
Ward 6’s Tommy Wells, a former social worker, has a tough oversight job with the human services committee, and he seems to enjoy the yeoman’s work it entails. That’s not to say he wouldn’t relish another assignment—Mr. Livable Walkable would jump at anything transportation- or planning-related—but with several others in line before him, it’s not likely to happen.
And then there’s Graham, who now heads the public works and environment panel. He’s a master of looking out for No. 1—that is, Ward 1—and public works is the prime place to do that. (Just check out his committee’s porky markup of the fiscal 2009 budget last spring.) Now, would he seize any chance to take oversight over the mayor’s office, employment services, and property management? Maybe, but not likely. And he’s not buddy-buddy enough with Gray that he would get first dibs.
Dare LL say it, but look for all that to fall to Marion Barry. It’s gonna be a long two years for Fenty.
DOES GRAY KEEP SCHOOLS IN HIS SHOP?
Almost certainly. Gray decided upon becoming chairman that he was going to do it for the children. Thus, with a mayoral schools takeover on the horizon, he put the D.C. Public Schools, the State Education Office (now the Office of the State Superintendent of Education), and UDC under the Committee of the Whole. That meant Gray became the council’s de facto education czar. It’s also meant marathon hearings for schools honchos, as all 13 councilmembers line up to take their shots, and it’s meant that no one besides Gray has developed any special expertise in DCPS.
Breaking off an education committee would probably be good government—with a smaller, more dedicated group exercising deeper oversight—but, as far as Gray’s concerned, it’s not good politics. He relishes wearing his schools-watchdog hat and wouldn’t trust any of his colleagues with it. Get ready, Michelle Rhee, for lots more eight-hour hearings over the next two years.
WILL KWAME KEEP ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?
Looks that way, at least the bulk of it.
If Gray’s feeling outside pressure on anything, it’s to jettison Brown from his ultradesirable post as head of the economic development committee. Developers feel Brown lacks hustle when it comes to moving various property deals and financing packages through his legislative shop. The Southwest Waterfront land disposition, in particular, has raised ire. Business and mayoral big shots blame Brown for slowing movement on one of the largest development projects in the city, and now that the economy’s gone down the crapper, the whole project’s in a very bad place, sources say.
Brown says he relishes running afoul of said big shots: “Tell them they need to voice their concerns louder: ‘I don’t like Councilmember Brown because he holds people accountable!’”
Of course, the developers would love to see the core development functions handed to Evans’ finance and revenue portfolio. Don’t expect Gray to even think about that; for one, he can’t move against Brown, one of his top allies, without embarrassing him.
What Evans might make a grab for is the Sports and Entertainment Commission, an organ that’s always been close to his heart. SEC honchos and Evans were appalled when Brown took aim at the body around budget time last spring, trying to hand RFK Stadium’s maintenance to the Office of Property Management.
Brown wouldn’t give it up the commission without a fight: “Jack can’t take anything away from me,” he tells LL, before adding, “without me taking something from him.”
Fine. Sports and Entertainment Commission to Jack, Multistate Tax Commission to Kwame!
IS JIM GRAHAM GOING TO REMAIN MR. BOOZE?
Graham, the Robert Moses of liquor in the District of Columbia, for years has exerted great influence over the regulation and operations of alcohol-peddling businesses in this town. A lot of people hate that, not that they can say so.
Those people include restaurant owners sick of Graham’s cheerleading of supertough enforcement of underage drinking laws and other booze regulations. They also include the lobbyists representing those restaurant and bar owners, and politicos who count drinking establishments in their wards and listen to those lobbyists.
When Gray moved Graham from consumer and regulatory affairs to public works two years ago, Graham made it a condition that he keep the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and its enforcement arm under his oversight. It’ll be a massive slap at Graham if Gray were to take alcohol regulation away from him. But LL is told forces within the council and without are trying to make it happen.
Gray may have a bargaining chip: Graham’s due to take a second turn as chair of the Metro board next year, should Gray keep him in the post he’s held since 1999. Being Metro board chair carries one-tenth the Wilson Building political clout of the alcohol agencies but 10 times the publicity. If Gray were to tell Graham it’s either the booze or the buses, he might have to think about that one.
WHO GETS CAROL’S OFFICE?
OK, so it’s not a committee, but it’s a sweet plum, indeed: The fourth-floor corner office about to be vacated by Schwartz.
It’s got a lot to recommend it: Good layout, great waiting area, fab view of Pershing Park and the White House. But most desirably, it’s got…a private bathroom, the only council office other than Gray’s with such an amenity.
The council offices are passed out on the seniority system. Evans, the longest sitting member, says he’s perfectly happy with his first-floor corner digs. Next in line is Catania, who tells LL he hasn’t given the matter much thought, though he says he “couldn’t imagine” vacating his current digs. LL, however, thinks Catania might find it a suitable trophy after helping to oust Schwartz. If not, Mendelson has dibs, then Graham.
There is a caveat for whoever dares take the office: It is where political careers go to die.
The three occupants of the office since the Wilson Building’s renovation—Schwartz, Harold Brazil, and Charlene Drew Jarvis—all suffered humiliating electoral defeats while enjoying the plush confines.
“It’s kind of a jinxed kind of thing, isn’t it?” Graham told LL. But he didn’t say he wouldn’t want the office.