For a brief period last week, the office that houses the latest D.C. slots initiative actually had a sign. It was a makeshift sign, to be sure—a piece of cardboard held up with two heavy-duty paper clips and scrawled with black marker. It included an arrow pointing to the doorbell of a structure in a Capitol Hill alley and was labeled: “National Ballot Access.”
Local slots campaigns have always relied on euphemism. Officially, the slots people call themselves proponents of Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs), machines that represent a technological evolution from plain old slot machines. And they prattle on about how VLTs will bring economic development to underserved communities plus infusions of cash for municipal priorities.
And these days, they’ve set up shop where they’re least likely to be noticed. The new slots office adjoins an old metal workshop where neighbors say a man used to make wrought-iron fences. Repeated attempts by LL to gain access to the slots campaign nerve center proved fruitless. A visit on Oct. 13 found the cardboard sign removed.
Its headquarters may be in the middle of a seldom used back passageway, but the District’s most maligned initiative ever just won’t die. These days, slots workers are quietly slogging their way toward Election Day 2008, as they muster their third attempt in two years to put their idea before voters. This time, they’re hoping to land the VLTs in Anacostia. To get the initiative on the 2008 ballot, they need 20,000 signatures of D.C. voters spread out over at least five city wards by Dec. 11.
It’s an effort fueled by a perfectly corrupt economic combination: desperation on the part of signature gatherers—the slots folks pay $2 per signature—and greedy gambling parasites.
The slots crowd was ready to put a VLT initiative on the 2006 ballot. They claimed nearly 40,000 signatures, but organizers figured their last-minute push, combined with the expected scrutiny from people like election-rules nerd Dorothy Brizill, made delay the best strategy.
And besides, money for the campaign will certainly last till 2008. Offshore-gambling promoter Shawn Scott and his pals are immune to sticker shock. They dumped $1,372,000 into the effort to get the initiative on the 2004 ballot, and that doesn’t count the $622,880 fine levied by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics for sleazy petition signature-gathering antics that killed the initiative. The city is still waiting on that cash while Scott’s well-paid lawyers fight the fine.
The latest report from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance shows that the Citizens for the Video Lottery Terminal Initiative of 2006 spent $366,479 this spring and summer. Most of the money went to lawyers. Another chunk ended up in the hands of D.C. residents willing to hit the streets with clipboards and petitions.
The initiative office may be hard to find, but petition gatherers have been fanning out all over town for weeks, according to consultant Barry Jerrels, who is the latest local pol to take up the slots cause. And Jerrels says that a grassroots campaign is afoot to convince city voters that slots will be good for “the most vulnerable residents of the city.”
This grass-roots uprising may be short on local talent. The slots advocates have already ripped through their roster of D.C. political operatives:
•John Ray. The former councilmember and lobbyist for just about any cause cashed in on the first slots gamble to the tune of $419,759, which went to his Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm. It was a nice paycheck, but he won’t be back.
•Pedro Alfonso. The Northeast businessman saw slots as an economic development tool for disadvantaged neighborhoods. He chaired the 2004 Video Lottery Terminal initiative and for a while had a bill for $622,000 in the form of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics fine hanging over his head. The VLT boys owe him $16,000. Somehow, he’s lost interest.
•PR maven Ann Walker Marchant, the advertising whiz who played a key role in Mayor Williams’ 2002 write-in election victory, was paid $62,028. She won’t be taking on Scott as a client.
Recent history, though, doesn’t bother Jerrels. He disputes the prevailing notion championed by VLT opponents that a slots emporium will benefit a bunch of out-of-town rich guys much more than local folks.
“I hope it changes when we campaign [prior to the 2008 election],” says Jerrels. “It’s really different this time around,” he says. “We will make sure it supports the most vulnerable people in the city.”
As for gambling financier Scott, his office isn’t so easy to locate these days, either. On campaign finance records, his company, Atlantic Northstar, LLC, lists a Virgin Islands address. “You won’t find them there any more,” says Jerrels. “They’ve since moved.”
NOT SO COLLEGIAL
D.C. councilmembers aren’t shy about taking an occasional shot at one another during the campaign season. Before the September Democratic primary, for instance, several endorsed council Chairman Linda Cropp over their colleague from Ward 4, mayor-in-waiting Adrian Fenty.
But those were cordial expressions of civic statecraft—at least by the standards of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr.
Last month, voters in Ward 7 and 8 got a pretty good idea that Barry doesn’t think very highly of At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who was locked in what political know-it-alls thought was a tough re-election contest against lawyer A. Scott Bolden. A Barry letter backing the Bolden candidacy landed in east-of-the-river mailboxes the weekend before the Sept. 12 election. The return address was Barry’s John A. Wilson Building council office.
Among the Barry-penned critiques of his colleague: Mendelson is “soft on crime and [on] getting guns off the street”; he’s a councilmember who “has consistently failed our children and families.”
Barry’s anti-Phil rant validated the council seating chart that has the men on opposite ends of the dais. “Phil Mendelson has been on the council for eight years,” wrote Barry. “Ask yourself a question: What legislation has he initiated to benefit you or your community? What has he done to assist our young people in getting jobs? What has he done to assist our seniors? The answer is not very much.”
So ask yourself a question: How much electoral juice did Barry’s Mendelson slam give the Bolden camp?
Mendelson outpolled Bolden 51 percent to 48 percent in both east-of-the-river wards—areas most political observers pegged as Bolden territory. But surely, Barry’s scurrilous letter must have had some impact on his home turf.
In Barry’s Ward 8 voting precinct, it was Mendelson 338, Bolden 300.
Mendelson recently confronted Barry about the harsh eve-of-the-election dispatch, but he resisted crowing about his east-of-the-river electoral success. “His letter was full of inaccuracies,” says Mendelson, who reports that Barry just chuckled at his concerns. “He tried to make light of the letter. He sort of dismissed it as not important.” Mendelson failed to see the humor in Barry’s bashing. “I don’t think it was appropriate for him to send it,” says Mendelson.
Barry did not return calls seeking comment.
“The reality is, I’m back,” says Mendelson. “He has four years to work with me.”
•The owners of the Washington Nationals, the Lerner family, recently made a big free agent signing just in time for the fight over stadium parking.
Gregory McCarthy, former legislative wizard for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, confirms that he has been hired as a consultant by the Lerners to provide advice on Nationals-related interests. “I am doing some consulting for the team,” says McCarthy, who was scant on details about his duties.
City regulations bar McCarthy from lobbying the mayor or council for one year after his departure from the government. “I have not had any dealings with the mayor’s office since I left,” says McCarthy.
The Lerners will be well served by involving McCarthy as much as possible. He left the Williams administration in early 2006 to great praise from just about everyone he worked with. He is highly respected for his integrity and smarts.
“With all the turmoil you witnessed during the stadium debate, Gregory was the one person in the mayor’s office that everyone on the council liked,” says fundraising maven and stadium backer Max Berry, who was part of a losing bid to get the Nationals. “They know he is telling them the truth, and he’s very good at bringing people together.”
On top of that, McCarthy is a nice guy who cares about the city, a quality the Lerners could use after demonstrating they have little regard for anything but the bottom line.
•cWhen Michael A. Brown decided to run for mayor, the campaign lacked one big public backer: His mother, Alma Brown, never appeared to tout his candidacy. Her only public show of support throughout the campaign was at his announcement that he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Cropp.
The widow of Michael Brown’s father, Democratic Party heavyweight and former Commerce Department Secretary Ronald Brown, is a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in the local and national political and social scene.
But sources now say Alma Brown is strongly backing her son’s latest political effort to fill the Ward 4 council seat likely to be vacated by mayor-in-waiting Fenty. And that could translate into the kind of cash and buzz that Brown lacked in the mayoral contest.
“I think this time she will be a little more active,” says Michael Brown, who is planning to officially kick off his Ward 4 council run after Fenty resigns his seat to take office as mayor. Alma Brown will play a role “on the fundraising side and on the general support side,” he says. Brown says his mother wasn’t so excited about the scrutiny that goes along with being mayor. Having a son who’s a councilmember is more to her liking. “It’s a less intrusive lifestyle,” Michael Brown says of the council office. As for big-time politics, “my mother has already been there, done that on the highest level.”
Alma Brown did not return calls seeking comment. “She never talks to the press,” her son says. —James Jones
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