Marion Barry’s looking good these days. The Ward 8 councilmember seems healthy, he’s as lucid on the dais as he’s ever been since Barry Comeback II commenced in 2004, and he pretty much avoided any legal difficulties this year.
And earlier this month, he could bask in a bona fide triumph, as a Giant grocery store—the first supermarket in Ward 8 in nearly a decade—opened up to universal acclaim. He even managed a crackerjack karaoke performance at a recent Democratic party shindig (Loose Lips, “Political Potpourri,” 12/14).
But ribbon-cutting and dais-strutting aren’t all that’s expected of a D.C. councilmember. When you sit on the city’s august legislative body, you are in fact supposed to actually move some legislation. Sausage-making, however, has not proved to be Barry’s strong suit.
Barry’s housing committee has handled a grand total of 15 bills, not counting ceremonial resolutions and nomination approvals. Of those, since the start of the term, only four have been reported out of committee, and only two have passed the council: one making a minor modification to the rules of a housing program, and one establishing a fund to subsidize residences for certain DCPS teachers. (In fairness, the parks and rec committee, belonging to Ward 5 rookie Harry Thomas Jr. hasn’t handled any bills at all. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells’ human services committee is batting one for eight.)
Earlier this month, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi announced that the city had found about $50 million in extra funds, and the Fenty administration soon decided that they wanted the bulk of that money to go toward housing. But rather than direct the money to any of the myriad housing agencies under the oversight of Barry’s council committee—the Department of Housing and Community Development, the D.C. Housing Authority—Fenty directed the money to go to the Department of Human Services, under the oversight of Wells’ committee.
Why might the executive branch be leery of sending legislation through Barry’s shop?
Take Barry’s Evictions With Dignity Act. The bill seeks to redress an all-too-common scene in the District’s poorer neighborhoods—and in some of its not-so-poor neighborhoods, too: the belongings of an evicted tenant, sitting on the sidewalk, open to the elements and looters. It’s an undeniably heartbreaking scenario when you not only lose your home but potentially lose all your belongings, too.
What Barry’s bill aims to do is allow evicted tenants to store their stuff in a private storage facility for up to 90 days with the District paying the bill. If they don’t claim their things after that time, the city is free to get rid of it all.
In a Dec. 11 council meeting, Barry introduced his bill, which had been marked up by the housing committee the week before. He gave a vivid example of the people he’s trying to help: a 70-year-old woman who’d lived in her apartment for 40 years turned out on the street.
“The committee worked awfully hard to make it not very bureaucratic,” Barry said, meaning the meat of the bill is all of two paragraphs long.
Things were moving along until At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, also a member of the housing committee, took a look at the legislation presented to the full council. He noticed something amiss—the bill didn’t include a number of amendments made during the markup session, the most important of which capped the number of persons eligible for aid at 500 per year.
Barry got upset: “Mr. Mendelson, first of all, you are on the committee and you were not there. [Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser] and [Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander] can tell you that they were not even discussed.”
At that point, Mendelson produced a document showing that the committee had indeed approved the 500-person cap. He also produced the bill’s fiscal impact statement, which also assumed a cap.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray asked Bowser and Alexander what had happened at the markup, and both recalled passing the cap and other amendments.
Eventually, Gray decided to take a rare step—sending the bill back to committee for revision.
That didn’t quell Barry’s indignation: “Mr. Mendelson wasn’t present, so I don’t know where he gets his information from, but I know what the committee members saw and did and saw at the meeting….He ought to just vote against it rather than try to confuse us with these technical things that he raises.”
At that point, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania took the mike: “I’m going to assume that these were all innocent misunderstandings, but I think it’s a rather dangerous precedent to have what is voted on by the committee not what is represented to this body….I [don’t] suggest that Mr. Barry did this on purpose, but…we should follow this motion to recommit so we can have an actual representation and a complete record of the committee’s actions.”
Then Barry spoke up: “Point of information, Mr. Chairman…if this motion carries, does it mean that I could just refile the committee report rather than have a committee meeting?”
He could, and that seemed to calm Barry down.
Bowser chimed in with the following: “I just want to add as a member of the committee that I’d like to associate myself with Mr. Catania’s remarks.”
Mendelson says it’s “not common” to have a bill sent back to committee under these circumstances. “I can’t remember the last time it’s happened,” he says.
Last week, Barry did reintroduce the bill, complete with amendments. His reward? Suffering through a withering line of questioning from Catania, poking various holes in the bill’s proposals.
Barry spokesperson Andre Johnson didn’t return a call for comment.
The Real Holiday Gift Grab
Last week, LL distributed his annual holiday gifts to deserving political folk across the District. But LL’s distribution of jokey fake gifts pales in comparison to the real holiday gift drama: the annual exchange among councilmembers.
The old reliable is candy. Honestly, Wilson Building folk: You just can’t go wrong with chocolate. That’s the route chosen by Catania, who opted for his traditional Godivas; Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who also did a choco-sampler; and Mendelson, who went with a Mason jar full of delicious chocolate-covered cherries. (LL speaks from experience—he was allowed to dig into one member’s Mendo jar.)
The edgiest gift this year comes from Bowser, who gave her colleagues a gift stocking that included Bailey’s Irish Cream and a bag of Frangelico-flavored coffee. (“The people who don’t drink, she gave them something else,” says Bowser spokesperson Kristen Barden.) At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz chose to appeal to the entertainers on the dais, opting for a mini ceramic chafing dish. In the perhaps-a-little-too-personal category comes Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s gift of hand massagers from Brookstone. (Cheh brags that she not only included batteries but actually pre-loaded them into the device.)
Extra credit goes to Alexander, who went to the extraordinary effort of actually selecting personalized gifts for each of her colleagues. For Wells, for instance, she gave the well-known cyclist a water bottle and Velcro strap to secure his pant leg. (Wells was also rumored to have given personalized gifts himself, though no details were available by press time.)
But, by far, the most mystifying gift of the year comes from Thomas, who gave his colleagues a gift box full of Bumble Bee seafood products. Mind you, this wasn’t the usual tins of water-packed tuna. But it wasn’t too far off: The Thomas bag included a can of “Tonno Packed in Olive Oil,” “Easy Peel Sensations Lemon and Pepper Seasoned Tuna Medley,” “Premium Select Wild Crabmeat,” “Prime Fillet Solid White Albacore in Water,” and a “Prime Fillet Albacore Steak Lightly Marinated in Ginger and Soy,” along with a box of multigrain crackers.
Why the seafood? Says Thomas: “I thought it was a nice gift considering all the long, hard hours on the dais. I thought they’d appreciate a snack.”
And, Thomas notes, his gift was thoroughly vetted: “I made sure it was dolphin-free.”
One Wilson Building wag said the fish sampler was well and good, but it happened to be missing a couple of components for the optimal snacking experience: “Where were the pickles and mayo?”
• At-large council candidate Adam Clampitt continues his wooing of the city’s political and moneyed elites for his run against Schwartz. On Dec. 18, Clampitt held a fundraising party at the Park at Fourteenth, the swank downtown club owned by impresario Marc Barnes.
LL arrived after most of the boldfaced names had left, but there were plenty of notables on Clampitt’s “host committee,” billed as the “Best Of Washington” on the invites: megadeveloper Jim Abdo, east-of-the-river housing activist David Bowers, Ward 6 muck-a-muck Charles Burger, attorney and gay-politics honcho Darrin Glymph, Ward 8 development guy Butch Hopkins, and Mount Pleasant überactivist and big-time Fenty backer Laurie Collins are but a few of the big names pulled in by campaign chair Judith Terra.
Collins, for one, has donated to Schwartz in the past, and she says she’s hedging her bets. “I think that where I’m coming from is, it’s not that I’m against Carol and for Adam,” she says. “I’m for energy and new ideas.”
Perhaps the most resonant name on the roster: Max Brown, the lobbyist and one-time aide to former Mayor Anthony A. Williams who also took a hefty role in Fenty’s fundraising effort.
Like Collins, Brown doesn’t hesitate to cast Clampitt in the same terms as Fenty. “I see Adam as an agent of change, supporting things the mayor is trying to do,” he says. “I see a lot of the same energy.”
Clampitt wasn’t alone on the campaign trail that night: Earlier that evening, LL ran into Dee Hunter, who’s also angling for Schwartz’s seat, at the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s holiday party.
Schwartz has yet to file her campaign papers.
• Hilda Mason, who served more than 20 years as an at-large councilmember, died on Dec. 16 at the age of 91. This LL had little occasion to know Mason, who was already out of government service when he arrived in the District. Not to speak ill of the dead, but to correct the record, LL feels the need to point something out.
In her Washington Post obituary, reporters J.Y. Smith (deceased himself, indicating just how long the obit had been in the can) and Joe Holley write that Mason “was virtually unbeatable at the polls despite running on the ticket of the minuscule D.C. Statehood Party” (emphasis LL’s).
Actually, that should be “was virtually unbeatable at the polls because she was running on the ticket of the minuscule D.C. Statehood Party.”
The point connects with one of LL’s obsessions: the essential unfairness of reserving two council seats for parties that a majority of District voters choose not to patronize. The Home Rule charter passed by Congress in 1973 says no more than two at-large seats can be held by members of the same party—hence the non-Democratic sinecures now held by Catania and Schwartz.
No doubt Mason served many years with distinction, but let’s not forget she got a little electoral assist from Congress.
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