Obstruction Worker: Barry uses rare tools to slow Fenty initiatives.
Obstruction Worker: Barry uses rare tools to slow Fenty initiatives. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. disapproves of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Proof of this unqualified statement comes not only from Barry’s public pronouncements, which have gained volume in recent months, but from a parliamentary quirk of D.C. politics—the “disapproval resolution.”

An uncommonly invoked measure at the disposal of the 13 members of the D.C. Council, the disapproval resolution does exactly what its title suggests. It scolds the executive branch for rash or ill-conceived contract awards, budget shuffles, or rulemakings. During the whole of Anthony A. Williams’ second term as mayor, councilmembers filed about 30 disapproval measures, according to council records.

But during the first two years of Fenty’s mayoralty, councilmembers have filed disapproval resolutions 132 times. And Barry has introduced approximately 90 of them.

Now, many of those have been filed with one or more colleagues—including dozens filed early this summer halting school construction awards—but since then, scores have been introduced by Barry alone. In the past three months, he has filed disapprovals on virtually every contract and budget reprogramming submitted by the city for council review, with few exceptions.

Much like Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn has made a name for himself in the U.S. Senate for personally blocking all sorts of legislation, Barry has become his body’s most reliable obstructionist. But where Coburn’s legislative obstreperousness represents the mania of a raving ideologue, Barry’s moves are pure politics.

“He really he doesn’t care for Adrian very much,” says a source close to Barry. “When he was the mayor, he had differences with councilmembers. At the end of the day, they could always agree to disagree.”

“Sources close to Barry” is as close as LL’s going to get to the Ward 8 councilmember’s thinking on this matter. Barry, after all, won’t talk to him about it—his ban on communications with LL stands.

Barry’s current fit of pique comes on the flop side of a flip. After all, Barry endorsed Fenty a week before the primary in 2006. In a press release at the time, Barry said Fenty would bring “a better vision of help and hope to the last, lost and the [least] amongst us.” The decision to go with Fenty over then-council Chair Linda W. Cropp, though, was read less as a ringing endorsement of Fenty and more as the last-minute machinations of a skilled political operator making nice with the likely winner.

The mayor-for-life ain’t making nice anymore—and hasn’t been for a while.

Last week, for instance, Barry voted against confirming Peter J. Nickles—by all accounts Fenty’s most trusted adviser—as attorney general. This, after standing behind Fenty when he announced his intention to nominate Nickles for the permanent AG post over the summer.

Before that, Barry was the linchpin behind the scenes in getting colleagues Vincent C. Gray, Harry Thomas Jr., and Yvette Alexander to snub fellow councilmember Carol Schwartz and her write-in campaign for the Nov. 4 general election and endorse Michael A. Brown—a candidate Fenty simply despises.

And, in a minor but not insignificant jab at the mayor, Barry last week hired Caroline Jhingory as an education adviser. Jhingory is the former neighborhood services coordinator allegedly fired by Fenty for “not being a team player” after an incident at a Union Station press conference. Jhingory penned an e-mail laying into Fenty that she sent to neighborhood activists; LL covered the firing in his Oct. 9 column.

And then there’s the disapproval legislation.

The beginning of the onslaught, multiple sources tell LL, goes back to the Summer Youth Employment Program fiasco back in July. Early on, as the scandal was breaking, Barry had received word that kids enrolled in a program he had a close hand in, East of the River Academy, had received incomplete paychecks, if they had recieved them at all.

So Barry called a press conference at P.R. Harris Educational Center, a public school in Washington Highlands where the program was based. He railed against the mayor and his mismanagment of the program, leading kids in chants: “Mr. Fenty, pay us our money now!”

By week’s end, the city had shuttered the program.

It was bad enough, Barry thought, that Fenty was messing with the summer-jobs program—which to this day remains a cornerstone of the Barry mayoral legacy. But it really rankled that Fenty had shut down a program that Barry had a personal interest in. Within a week, his blanket disapproval policy would be in place.

What does it all mean to Fenty?

It’s an undeniable annoyance. When a disapproval is filed, in the case of a budget reprogramming, it essentially adds two weeks before the money the mayor wants moved can be moved. When it comes to contract approvals, you’re talking about a month’s delay. There’s some collateral damage, too: Councilmembers who oversee agencies that need particular contracts approved have been forced to go hat in hand to Barry, asking him to withdraw the disapproval.

Nickles—now confirmed as attorney general—is well aware of Barry’s disapproving ways. “It’s not helpful,” he says.

The two have had discussions about the dispute, but Nickles declined to detail the talks, except to say that he expects to sit down with Barry resolve the matter soon. “We cannot have a situation where there’s an automatic disapproval resolution filed on every contract,” Nickles says.

The symptoms of Barry’s vexation aren’t difficult to discern, but there is some question over whether his power moves are borne of simple frustration that he isn’t given his due as a power broker or whether Fenty’s model of governance represents a more basic rejection of Barry’s way of doing business.

Here are the possible rationales for Barry’s ball-breaking, ranked by level of cynicism:

At the low end of that scale is the view expressed by At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania in a recent Fenty profile in Washingtonian mag: “Marion Barry is watching as Fenty dismantles the government Marion Barry created….It’s a total undoing. Marion can’t stand it.” In this telling, Barry can’t sit idly by as the black-middle-class-empowering bureaucracy he built is replaced by an unfeeling, hyper-efficient technocracy.

Then there’s the idea that Barry feels he’s not getting his due as a four-term mayor and elder statesman. “Marion just doesn’t feel like he’s getting the level of respect he deserves,” another source who deals regularly with Barry says. “Let me put it this way—it wouldn’t take a whole lot for the mayor to make Marion happy on a lot of this stuff, and he won’t even do that.”

Hizzoner, indeed, isn’t doing himself any favors. One of Barry’s council colleagues says Fenty “has a lot of Tony Williams in him in that he doesn’t work the council at all. His predilection isn’t to pick the phone up….It’s just not in his nature to do that.”

At the high end of the cynicism scale is the notion that Barry is merely trying to score political points at Fenty’s expense, burnishing his own image as champion of the downtrodden by challenging the guy who’s summarily closing schools, firing city workers, and pushing big development plans. That means more PR for a publicity hound as he battles Phil Mendelson for the distinction of being the media’s go-to anti-Fenty guy. (At the very extreme is the unlikely notion that he’s preparing for another run at citywide office.)

Most wags LL consulted, however, say the conflict is a combination of all of the above—and probably heavier on the personality clash than anything else.

In any case, no resolution to the resolutions is in sight. LL will put it this way: Staffers in the council legislative services office won’t be getting a break anytime soon.

“He’s gonna continue to do it,” a staff source says. “He’s gonna do anything under the process legally he can do to create some checks and balances with this guy.”

Kwame Explains It All

At the Nickles confirmation vote on Nov. 18, At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown said not a word as his colleagues debated, and when roll-call time came, he voted “present” on two votes on the matter.

Since then, Brown’s taken a lot of flack from the chattering classes. LL called him a “wuss” on his liveblog of the Nickles proceedings.

But it wouldn’t be fair to let such name-calling pass without offering Brown the chance to explain himself. The evening of the vote, LL phoned Brown. Here’s some highlights from the conversation (the full version can be found on our City Desk blog).

Brown: “I think [Nickles] is qualified. The question is, the tactics that he uses to avoid having people come down to the council is something that was very problematic, and I wouldn’t have voted absolutely no. I had a long conversation with Peter. He assured me that, you know, that as we subpoena and as we ask the witnesses that he would make sure that we have access to all the information that we need. I said, ‘Peter, I’m not gonna vote for you just because you told me that today. so I can’t commit to vote for you.’…

“To be quite honest with you, the last two months, I’ve been getting more information out of the deputy mayor’s shop because Peter has said, ‘Give Kwame the information.’”

LL: So why not vote yes?

“Because just because you did something one time doesn’t necessarily mean that you have my ultimate confidence that the relations will continue to happen….I mean, you could have said, ‘No, he’s not qualified,’ but I disagree with that. I could have said, ‘Yes, he’s the best thing since sliced bread.’ Well, I disagree with that, too.”

LL: You had how many people vote for you on Nov. 4?

“148,000.” [Actually 172,272.]

LL: 148,000 voted for you on Nov. 4….People voted for you so you’d take a stand on matters such as this.

“What do you mean, ‘take a stand’? I think I did. I think I did take a stand.”

LL: You didn’t take a stand! You didn’t vote!

“I mean, just like we have a president-elect who made many present votes, this was not a vote about—you know, people wanted to make this about the mayor and the council. This was about a nominee. A nominee that either they should be nominated or they shouldn’t be nominated. That’s what this was about.”

Political Potpourri

David Grosso, a top aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, has taken a job with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Grosso will be vice president for public policy for the region’s largest health insurer. He has been Norton’s legislative director since early 2007, when he left the employ of former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose after she stepped down. He had worked for Ambrose for six years, including a stint as clerk of the economic development committee.

LL has heard some grumbling about the move, given that in recent weeks Grosso, representing Norton, had sat in on strategy sessions with Wilson Building staffers and other stakeholders regarding a council bill intended to squeeze community benefits out of CareFirst—legislation the insurer has vigorously opposed. The meetings, LL is told, concerned strategies to avoid congressional meddling with the bill.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, who introduced the bill and is pushing it through the council, declined to comment directly on the personnel shuffle, but she did say that she plans to make several amendments to her CareFirst bill that she hopes to pass at the next legislative meeting, on Dec. 2. Those amendments, she says, are intended to allay concerns from suburban jurisdictions—and, in the unspoken subtext, to head off any possible congressional intervention.

Grosso had no comment, but CareFirst spokesperson Michael Sullivan says that his new gig isn’t a lobbying job, but “primarily a policy analysis, review, [and] development post.”

Grosso has left Norton’s office and will start his new job on Dec. 1.

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