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The March cover of community newspaper East of the River featured a smiling headshot of Ward 7 Councilmember and D.C. council chair candidate Vincent Gray. The paper’s profile of Gray offered a glowing portrait of the consensus most-valuable-new-councilmember and gave readers a two-thumbs-up review of his 18-month tenure on the dais.
East of the River describes Gray as “a big picture thinker.” An unnamed John A.Wilson Building staffer tosses in this unsubstantiated quote: “There is the impression that Gray has one of the highest approval ratings in the city—and this coming from a ward with lots of problems. That makes people take notice.”
Gray characterized the piece as balanced.
On June 20, Gray pushed through a bill to give $25,000 in city funds to Capitol Community News Inc. (CCN), publisher of East of the River and other free monthly newspapers. The idea is for the company to produce a guide to businesses east of the Anacostia River, similar to what CCN publisher Jean-Keith Fagon has already produced for the more upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Gray doesn’t seem to be the type to offer a payback for kind coverage. “There was never any discussion of the news side of the East of the River newspaper and the business guide,” says Gray, who points out that the paper’s coverage hasn’t always been positive. The councilmember clashed with the paper’s publisher after one edition featured a full-page anonymous letter questioning Gray’s decision to hire a white woman as his chief of staff.
Gray saw the grant as a way to boost the small shops that populate the city’s poorest section. As the council deliberated on the measure, he argued that east-of-the-river businesses would have a hard time paying for ads to support a classy business guide that could rival the one distributed on Capitol Hill.
One east-of-the-river business isn’t so sure a government subsidy to a community paper is a great idea. Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes sent a June 21 e-mail to all councilmembers objecting to Gray’s throwing city cash CCN’s way.
“I know of several local community newspapers that would be alive today if the D.C. City Council and the District Government had seen fit to make opportunities like this available to them,” she wrote. “There is a question of ethics that comes into play when the media, and newspapers particularly, are ‘given’ money by the government.”
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Barnes knows something about getting government money. She draws a paycheck from the city for her work as host of Channel 16’s Reporter’s Roundtable.
The CCN grant proposal passed council muster with just three opposing votes. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose—whose ward is home to CCN—saw no reason to advance CCN’s business plan. “I don’t know why we would do this when [CCN] is a highly successful publishing entrepreneur,” Ambrose said in council debate.
Gray’s main opponent in the chair’s race, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, also voted against endorsing a single community news outlet. When asked if the coverage in East of the River had anything to do with her position or the position of other councilmembers, Patterson responded with a question of her own. “On my end? No.” (At-Large Councilmember David Catania also voted no.)
The idea for the grant came out of discussions between Gray and CCN Managing Editor Andrew Lightman, according to Gray’s executive assistant, Dawn Slonneger. The company’s publisher, Fagon, was “out of the country” and unreachable, according to Lightman. Fagon did not return an e-mail seeking comment.
Gray tells LL that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the grant considering that CCN already receives substantial advertising revenue from ads placed by city agencies. The same March issue that carried a smiling Gray on the cover also featured a full-page ad for the D.C. Housing Finance Agency.
But even Gray has come to understand that putting a single-source contract into law is nothing but trouble. The bill generated so much fuss he’s been in touch with D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp to let her know that the grant for the business guide should be competitively bid and managed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
The open bid is good news to one of Gray’s key Ward 7 constituents. Julius Ware, owner of Cleo’s Brothers Electrical and General Contractors, recently worked with Gray to form a new organization called the Ward 7 Business and Professional Association. One of the first projects they talked about was a business guide for the ward’s consumers. He’s a big Gray backer but says, “It just would have been nice to know” his councilmember had already made plans for the guide.
The proposal, Gray says, was offered “with the best of intentions.”
“FREE” TV TIME
It’s tough for a ward council candidate in a crowded field to stand out. Most candidates don’t have the cash to buy a bunch of print ads, much less blitz the airwaves. Some free time on the tube is all most can hope for.
On Sunday, June 25, D.C. voters who left their sets tuned to WJLA-7 after the England–Ecuador World Cup match were greeted by the youthful face of Ward 3 D.C. Council candidate Sam Brooks. He was being interviewed on a talk show called In the Know by host LaToya Foster about what he would do as a councilmember.
The faux–public affairs show is paid programming. Brooks didn’t pay for it, though. In the Know is bankrolled by the anti-union Capital Area Minority Contractors and Business Association.
CAMCBA became a fixture on the D.C. political scene during the past two years’ ballpark debate. The group fought the stadium’s labor agreement, arguing that it shut out local and small African-American-owned contractors that were not affiliated with unions. Big-time open-shop contractors Miller & Long and MC Dean are among the group’s financial backers.
In the Know’s producer, John Wilson III, says the people who pay his salary aren’t asking guests to take an anti-union pledge. He does say he huddles with “a small group,” including the financial backers of the show, to come up with content.
Brooks admits he wasn’t told of the group’s agenda when contacted by Wilson. But an offer of free TV exposure doesn’t come along every day. And besides, all five major mayoral candidates have already taken the free time from CAMCBA, apparently with no obligation to toe the CAMCBA line. Wilson says he’s open to having all the Ward 3 candidates on his show, as well as the 18 candidates who have filed to run in Ward 5.
Wilson, a former Democratic activist and aide to California Rep. Maxine Waters, maintains that so far, he’s managed to convince his bosses that candidates should have their say with no strings attached. “I’ve been the equal-time police,” says Wilson, who points out that the program is under no obligation to be fair. “As long as we have the ‘paid programming’ disclaimer in the lower corner of the screen, we don’t have to follow any equal-time doctrine.”
Usually outspoken CAMCBA President Bobby Green declines to comment on the show.
Last week, LL shared several e-mails penned by City Administrator Robert Bobb in the days when it became clear that Mayor Anthony A. Williams was abandoning his support for the National Capital Medical Center, a new hospital proposed for the site of D.C. General Hospital. The e-mails revealed that Bobb, the driving force behind the hospital, appeared blindsided when Williams decided to bail on the project. One additional e-mail from Bobb arrived this week and outlines a data dump that ended his months of fruitless toil. The e-mail was written the day after the mayor announced that Department of Health Director Gregg Pane would lead a task force to recommend how best to spend the $200 million that the city had pledged to the NCMC.
From: Bobb, Robert (EOM)
Sent: Thursday, April 20, 2006 10:48 AM
To: Pane, Gregg (DOH)
Subject: emergency medical services task force
Congratulations on your Chairmanship of the Mayor’s Task Force. Over the next few days I will forward to your office all my files and research on health care outcomes for citizens in the Eastern part of the District as well as the work and research conducted on the NCMC. Further, I have instructed Gina to do so as well. Good luck and “May the Force Be With You!”
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