The calls come fairly frequently, in large part because Graham represents such gritty areas as Columbia Heights and lower Georgia Avenue. Another factor: Graham just happens to hold sway over some of the city’s roughest nightspots, places where disputes have a knack of escalating into gunfights. In the wee hours of the morning, Graham is often standing outside the door of the latest embattled establishment along with cops and local TV-news people. He’ll give a quote or two before heading home.
But Graham’s club-oriented activities don’t end with photo ops. In his seven years on the D.C. Council, Graham has become one of the city’s most consistent and dogged critics of bars that compile records of violence. Sure, Graham showed a lot of tenacity in pursuing the strange-smelling real-estate deals between the city and indicted developer Douglas Jemal, and he regularly annoys agency heads with his aggressive, lawyerly grilling during hearings. But as the record shows, Graham comes down hardest on the nightclubs that he gets invited to by his police liaisons. To wit:
•Between Friends. Liquor license suspended March 2004. Graham at first supported the business, but he turned against the club after more than a dozen reported crimes and 50 arrests occurred within 1,000 feet of it in 2003 and 2004. After a March 13, 2004, knife battle in the club left one man dead and two other patrons seriously injured, Graham pressed for revocation of the club’s liquor license. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey did the same. The club reopened later but closed for good in late 2004 after declaring bankruptcy.
•Club U. Liquor license revoked June 29, 2005. The notorious go-go club housed in the city’s Frank D. Reeves Center became a Graham target after years of dance-floor and post-closing dust-ups. He took to the airwaves, calling for the club’s closure after a stabbing that left one man dying in the Reeves Center lobby. Lawyers for Club U’s owners say they are appealing the license revocation.
•Kili’s Kafé. Shut down Nov. 14, 2005, after a fusillade of around 30 gunshots near the club left one dead and three wounded. The incident occurred shortly after a bankruptcy judge ordered the club to surrender its assets to pay creditors. The shooting spree only hastened Kili’s demise and capped off a long history of violent acts involving club patrons, including an earlier shooting death of a former military policeman. The Metropolitan Police Department reported seven violent incidents over the past 13 months that involved Kili’s customers inside or near the club. Neighbors had long pushed for revocation of the club’s liquor license.
The Kili’s shutdown marks a high point in Graham’s club crusade. In the aftermath of the latest shooting, the club was ordered closed for four days under a law authored by Graham after several violent incidents involving Kili’s patrons and the fatal stabbing at Club U. Previously, a club could be shuttered for only one day because of violence.
Graham has also strengthened the hand of the city agency that scrutinizes liquor-license holders. After he became chair of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in 2005, Graham pushed through funding for four new liquor-establishment inspectors. And he constantly urges the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board to be more aggressive in revoking licences held by clubs with sketchy records.
“The whole attitude towards this changes when you become chairman of the committee,” says Graham. “The [ABC] Board relates to me a whole lot differently now.…I think I can be very determined.”
And for a guy contemplating a run for council chair, the tough-guy image couldn’t be more welcome. “This is a law-and-order issue. If anything, I’m known to be progressive,” Graham says. “I’ve stood up to those who are a magnet for violence.…That should be comforting to anyone who is really serious about ending this violence.”
But his aggressive stance on liquor comes at some peril. A small, vocal group of African-American activists has labeled Graham the prince of gentrification and an enemy of African-American-owned businesses.
It’s an easy argument to sell in Ward 1. Housing prices from Shaw to Columbia Heights have skyrocketed. New apartment buildings are shooting up like weeds, and entire blocks have been transformed as whiter and wealthier people have moved in.
The most vicious attack on Graham exploited these very tensions. In early 2005, just as the Club U issue was heating up, posters portraying Graham as a reptile holding a pitchfork labeled “Grahamzilla” appeared on light poles and street signs around the ward. Another set of posters depicted Graham standing on a porch partying with young white men at the Graham “plantation.” The latter included an illustration showing “Graham opponents” hanging from a gallows. The posters stretched the limits of political speech and disappeared quickly after they were put up.
No one will say who was behind the posters, but the effort drew the support of ex–Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sinclair Skinner, according to community activists. Skinner has hammered away at Graham’s anti-club-violence campaign and portrayed the effort as a plot by the councilmember to make things more comfy for the new residents pouring into the ward. As an ANC commissioner, Skinner defended Kili’s when residents complained about the club.
Skinner refused to comment on his role in the Grahamzilla campaign because of his new job: He’s on the payroll of mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty.
Another Graham critic, civil-rights veteran and onetime ANC Commissioner Lawrence Guyot continues to spread the word that Graham has a plan to drive black-owned businesses off U Street NW. He sympathizes with the Grahamzilla crowd, even though he won’t endorse its hate-filled message. “I’m not associated with it, but I understand it. He is flaunting any consideration of racial bridge-building,” Guyot says. Since taking the helm of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Graham has “become a law unto himself,” says Guyot.
Graham shrugs off the racially inflammatory attacks. “Nobody’s buying it,” he says. “It is honest when I say to you that when [the posters] went up, they came down immediately.” Graham claims local residents were so offended by the reference to lynching that they removed the posters.
Perhaps owing to changing demographics, the Guyot-Skinner axis is losing power in Ward 1 circles. In last year’s ANC races, the status of troubled nightclubs emerged as a top campaign issue. Guyot and Skinner both lost their contests to candidates backed by Graham, whose position on liquor licenses is well known throughout the ward. The plea for peace on the club scene trumped any charges that Graham and his ANC acolytes were pushing out African-American-owned businesses.
The woman who defeated Guyot, ANC Commissioner Myla Moss, is a six-year resident of Ledroit Park and a longtime Kili’s critic. “One of the last items [Guyot] did was secure support for [Kili’s] liquor license,” she says. Moss, who lives four blocks from the now-defunct club, says her constituents are celebrating Kili’s demise, and she praises Graham’s role in getting what she calls “a troubled establishment” out of her neighborhood. “Things have changed,” Moss says, and most people are siding with Graham.
“They are enormously relieved,” Graham says of the residents who live near Kili’s. “The same with the neighbors of Club U,” he adds. Graham flatly dismisses charges that his club-closing fervor has anything to do with race or with an evil plan to “clean up” the U Street club scene. “[Several] people shot since June 25, two of them are dead,” he says of Kili’s record. “If that was happening in Adams Morgan, I would be after them with equal vigor.”
Lawyers who represent bar owners say Graham’s Carry Nation–like zeal in going after clubs has at times prompted the public to prejudge their clients. “My difficulty with Mr. Graham’s approach is that he always demands revocation or suspension of the license, rather than having the ABC Board hold a hearing and consider all the evidence,” says attorney Andrew J. Kline, who once represented Between Friends. “As a former Supreme Court clerk, he should know something about due process,” he says.
Kenneth Barnes, who recently opened up an African-American fashion boutique on U Street, doesn’t fear Graham’s stance on clubs. Barnes’ son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., was murdered in his U Street shop in 2001. The elder Barnes runs an anti-violence group called ROOT and is the public-safety chair of the U Street Business Association. “I think that Jim is looking at his constituents, he is looking at the public safety aspects, and citizens are raising hell about it.…And you want to know something? I don’t care what color you are, the first thing you think about is being able to walk down the street without fearing violence.”
Barnes, who is African-American, supports the Kili’s closing. “I’m going to catch some flak about it because it is a black-owned club, but we’ve have four or five incidents [at Kili’s], and now they say they want to close you because you’re black.”
Barnes represents the new mainstream in the ward, according to Moss. But she says Graham is still a guy who elicits few lukewarm opinions. “You love him or you hate him,” she says. “Those who really, really like him are pleased that he’s a bulldog on this. Those who don’t will use this against him.” CP