One of the most bombastic and bigoted political leaders in the city was tossed out of office Tuesday night.
Legendary Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Leroy Thorpe Jr. lost in a huge upset to attorney Kevin Chapple by a margin of 246–228.
Thorpe has been on the ANC for 18 years and has chaired it for the last four. While many ANC commissioners view their position as a part-time affair, Thorpe went full-time-plus, organizing red-hat crime patrols and recruiting protégés to serve alongside him, perpetuating his hold on the panel. He relished ANC meetings, where he cut people off and rammed his agenda through the commission.
He did all of this amid the socioeconomic convulsion of gentrification, a process that hit Shaw with full force. Thorpe’s fear that gentrification would drive out all the “real” residents of Shaw was reflected Tuesday night on the Board of Elections and Ethics tally sheet. His 18-point margin of defeat came at the hands of a man who moved into a newly built Shaw duplex in 2000.
Thorpe was a classic NIMBY commish who was tough on crime and various nuisances, both real and alleged. Among his recent battles was fighting the liquor license for a gay-owned bar in the neighborhood.
The Thorpe era, though, will be remembered for his harsh attacks on anyone who had the audacity to challenge him. He called At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania a “faggot” during one public meeting.
In a recent Washington City Paper letter to the editor (8/18), Thorpe referred to then mayor-to-be Adrian Fenty as “a mulatto, which eases the fear in European-Americans.” In the same letter, he called Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Barack Obama “house Negroes.”
According to several voters, Thorpe brimmed with confidence at the Shiloh Baptist Church polling site on Election Day. He told one of his longtime detractors, former commission member Lydia Goring, he wasn’t just going to beat Chapple. “He was expecting a landslide and said that he would embarrass Kevin,” she says.
When Thorpe saw Chapple campaigning at Shiloh, he went over and shook his hand and offered a few kind words. “When he did that, I pretty much knew I was sunk,” says Chapple.
Thorpe clearly was not prepared for the voters’ verdict on his dictatorial rule. When LL reached him at home to share the final vote totals, Thorpe was stunned. He screamed out “What?!” and then asked, “Where are you getting these results?” After LL explained that he was at the elections board, Thorpe regained his composure. “I’ll reserve comment until after the election is finished,” he said, claiming that absentee ballots to be counted Nov. 18 will carry him to victory.
The next morning Thorpe did not offer an outright concession but did say the following several times: “Allah giveth and he taketh away, and I accept whatever Allah does.”
Commission member Alex Padro, who has done battle with Thorpe over the years and supported Chapple, says that at least Thorpe is being consistent. “He has often ranted about how he had no intention of being a commissioner forever, and that his constituents could vote him out of office if it was Allah’s will,” says Padro. “I guess Allah finally got with the program.”
THE (LAME) DUCK FIGHT
Korean businessman Sang Oh Choi is pretty serious about making certain his massive redevelopment proposal for the Florida Avenue Market moves swiftly through the D.C. Council. The 24-acre market is located north of Florida Avenue near the New York Avenue Metro station.
To remake the place in accordance with the standards of gentrification, Choi has already sunk about $1 million into design, PR, and legal help. In addition to produce stands and specialty stores, the vision calls for—what else?—a mixed-use development including affordable housing and a new warehouse for the current market tenants. It would be called the New Town at Capital City Market.
A project like that, of course, doesn’t happen without some help from City Hall. In the case of the Florida Avenue market, Choi needs approval from the D.C. Council. Here, Choi’s work in fashioning council allies may prove helpful.
Choi and some of his family contributed $8,000 to the mayoral campaign of Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Council Chairman Linda Cropp’s mayoral campaign raked in the legal maximum from Choi.
Choi’s lobbyist for the project is former Councilmember John Ray, who dumped $25,000 into Orange’s mayoral exploratory campaign coffers. Ray contributed something to practically every incumbent candidate running in 2006.
Earlier this year, the Chois also handed a chunk of change over to the Korean Business Association of Greater Washington. The group turned around and immediately financed a trip to Seoul for Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
All that political lubrication by the New Town team appeared to have dead-ended this fall. Sharon Ambrose, the Ward 6 councilmember who chairs the Committee on Economic Development, had no plans to move the bill.
Ambrose is on the verge of retiring from the council after a long career serving the District; she also suffers from multiple sclerosis. So you might think that her colleagues would grant some deference to her preference to leave the New Town issue for her successor.
In a shameless display of disrespect for Ambrose, her colleagues on the committee—Orange, At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray—signed on to a rare demand that Ambrose move the New Town bill over her objections. They lodged this demand on Nov. 1.
Officially, the members were requesting a special meeting to mark up the bill, which would create a preliminary development scheme for the plot of land. The request was a threat—the committee members could have moved without her—so she let the bill move.
Orange and his cadre were pushing legislation to declare the market a blighted area—even though there are few vacant properties on the lot and it hosts a vibrant business. “I believe that to make such a declaration would invite the use of eminent domain,” Ambrose said at a Nov. 6 markup. That would be pretty handy for the New Town boosters, since a majority of the property owners oppose the project.
Ambrose resisted the power move of her colleagues because she wanted to make sure that whatever replaced the current market was a step up. “We don’t have a void there,” she says.
The outgoing chair blinked at the threat, but she also got Orange to drop the “blight” language for a more general description of the market. Orange was decent enough to consult with Ambrose before forcing her hand.
“I truly don’t understand the hustle here, unless it truly is a hustle,” Ambrose told LL before the markup. Could it be Orange is staring unemployment in the face and looking to keep some friends? “I suppose so, if you don’t have a job lined up,” says Ambrose.
Orange denies his desire for swift passage of the New Town bill has anything to do with future job prospects. “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing,” he says.
Orange wasn’t alone in running roughshod over Ambrose. At the Nov. 6 meeting, Brown announced that he had crafted a deal between the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation and the National Capitol Revitalization Corporation. The two quasi-public development groups had been feuding for months over a complex land swap. Brown never bothered to mention his deal-making to Ambrose or invite her staff to the negotiations.
Orange says one of Ambrose’s many absences forced Brown to take charge during a recent hearing on the dispute. “Thank goodness that Kwame chaired that part of the meeting because Ms. Ambrose was ill,” says Orange. “It’s a changing of the guard. What you saw is the new council.”
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton should be in a celebratory mood. For the first time since 1994, her party will soon control the U.S. House of Representatives. The woman she supported for party leader will likely become the first female Speaker of the House. Norton was re-elected with 97 percent of the vote, and the party caucus is expected to give her a vote on the House floor.
Funny timing: All this good news coincides with the most direct local rejection of Norton’s leadership in the D.C. voting-rights battle in her nearly 16 years on the Hill.
Last week, D.C. entrepreneur Jeffrey Zients hosted a dinner in Foxhall with a gang of big shots to muster a new push for voting rights.
Norton was absent—and it wasn’t because of a scheduling conflict. How clearly did the organizers bypass Norton? They called her office asking for a few phone numbers for people they planned to invite to the voting-rights feast.
The lack of interest in including Norton is notable.
The sometimes-surly nonvoting delegate has held virtual dictatorial powers over the District’s voting-rights strategy. Anytime the mayor or activists have had a new idea for pushing voting rights, the protocol involved informing Norton and receiving her blessing.
Norton could not be reached for comment about being left off the guest list, but in a statement, she praised Zients’ efforts.
The last time D.C. politicos saw Zients, he was part of the local business team that attempted and failed to buy the Washington Nationals. He hasn’t exactly been known for voting-rights advocacy. Zients spokesperson Winston Lord says his boss has a simple motivation: He’s a native Washingtonian pissed off that the he has no vote in Congress. Lord denies any snub of Norton. “We appreciate what others have been doing on this effort.”
According to sources familiar with the dinner, some of those gathered around Zients’ repast are familiar faces in the voting-rights battle. WTOP-Radio rabble-rouser Mark Plotkin offered his two cents. Republican Jack Kemp was on hand. So was mayor-to-be Adrian Fenty—a logical new best political friend for whiz-kid Zients.
But Zients was looking to reach out to a few newcomers. Among the 35 on the guest list was former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, who says he was roped into attending by a colleague at the Patton Boggs law firm. (Some who attended the meeting say Breaux’s interest in the issue was stoked by his move to the District and attendant disenfranchisement.)
According to Breaux, the dinner yielded several strategies for moving a bill that would give the District a vote in the House in return for giving the state of Utah an additional seat that would presumably go to the GOP.
“[I]f they can get [Utah Republican Sen.] Bob Bennett and [Utah’s senior senator] Orrin Hatch to go to [Majority Leader Bill] Frist, I think they can get some sort of agreement to get it done quickly,” says Breaux.
But Plotkin—who is ostensibly a working journalist/analyst—finally has his dream: a chance to get movers and shakers to craft a real action plan for voting rights without Norton’s input or veto.
Numerous voting-rights activists such as Plotkin have soured on Norton’s tendency to yell at and belittle the hoi polloi. One activist recalls that early this year, Norton was asked to speak before a coalition of voting-rights advocates and ended up ridiculing the group for getting behind the D.C.–Utah bill. Organizers say several activists were put off by Norton’s act.
“All brilliance does not reside in one place,” says Plotkin who calls the Zients effort to pull together city power brokers who are not elected officials long overdue. “This isn’t a one-person show.” —James Jones
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