We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It was July 30, 1997, and Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. was pissed.
Congress and President Bill Clinton had just agreed to strip the mayor of hiring-and-firing power over most city departments and hand it over to the federally imposed financial control board. The deal effectively ended his mayoral career.
Naturally, Barry took umbrage at the power grab, which came to be known as the “Rescue Plan.” By the end of the day, he had drafted and released a 400-word statement decrying the intervention of the Republican Congress. “Senator [Lauch] Faircloth, who has led the effort to re-colonize the citizens of the District, has raped democracy and freedom….[T]hose who rape democracy will at some point pay the political price.”
This shrill tone was nothing new for Barry. Fourteen months earlier, he had compared the control board to a totalitarian German regime after it attempted to oust one of his agency heads. Along with dodging questions from the press, Barry specialized in throwing rhetorical bombs at a Congress long eager to trample on the District’s rights.
Earlier this year, Mayor Anthony A. Williams faced a congressional power grab of his own.
When a gay couple who had been married in Massachusetts inquired whether they could file their District income taxes jointly, D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti said in April, yes, go right ahead.
The next day, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chair of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, made clear his displeasure with the decision. The Kansas City Star paraphrased the senator as saying that the gay-marriage issue was “too important to be left for the city’s attorney general to decide.”
Now, Williams isn’t the type to indulge in comparisons to rape and genocide. The same day, the mayor visited Brownback at a previously scheduled meeting.
Williams apparently came away converted by the righteous Republican. Though Spagnoletti had rendered his opinion, it was still up to the city’s tax office, ultimately headed by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, to decide whether to honor it and accept joint filings from gay couples.
And Gandhi didn’t feel comfortable plotting the city’s social policy; he told the Washington Post that he wouldn’t make a decision without consulting Williams. Gandhi announced on May 3 that the city would ignore the opinion and bar gay joint filings. Williams continues to refuse to release the memo detailing Spagnoletti’s decision, citing the touchy ongoing congressional situation.
We’ve heard this one before from no-trouble-here Tony. It’s the Williams Doctrine of District–Federal Relations: Go along to get along. Kiss federal ass. Jump through hoops. Take orders from our red-state bosses. Please our colonial overlords.
Take it from WTOP radio host and longtime statehood activist Mark Plotkin: “He is close to Vichy France. He is a collaborator. He is a co-conspirator.”
If you ask Williams to point out an instance when he’s taken Congress to task, he’s quick to generalize: “We just have a good relationship with the federal government,” he says in an interview, before pointing out how he’s been able to get HOPE VI housing-rehabilitation projects approved by two different administrations.
So bending over backward is only half the story. The rest goes like this: Then watch the benefits pour into D.C.
It’s a formula that’s long on the pragmatism that produces federal funds that the District needs, though short on the visceral retorts to an overweening Congress that D.C. residents crave. The District had plenty of the latter for decades, and that model didn’t work so well.
The litany of congressional disses of the District is long. A few lowlights of the home-rule era:
•In 1987, at the behest of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the Senate—in one of many anti-gay provisions over the years—froze the yearly District appropriation until the city repealed a law under which insurance companies could not deny coverage to those who were HIV-positive. Helms’ amendment passed the Senate but was dropped in conference committee.
•In 1992, Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby (a Democrat at the time, he became a Republican in 1994) forced a death-penalty initiative onto District ballots. About 4,000 people had been murdered in D.C. since Shelby entered Congress in 1977; he introduced his legislation shortly after one of his aides was killed in a Capitol Hill robbery. The initiative was defeated at the polls by a 2-to-1 margin.
•In the midst of the control-board era, Faircloth (R-N.C.), a predecessor of Brownback’s atop the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee, told the Post, “The District of Columbia does not belong to the people who happen to live between its boundaries. The city belongs to the people of the United States.” He favored repealing the 1973 Home Rule Act: “There are many privileges of living in the capital of the U.S. Voting for mayor simply won’t be one of them. If that bothers you, then you need to move.”
Given such body blows, it’s no wonder that Barry and legions of D.C. citizens yell long and hard at the feds’ heavy hands. But there’s another way to deal with them:
In early January of this year, the White House had some bad news for the District. For President George W. Bush’s upcoming inauguration, the most lavish and expensive in history, the city would have to foot the bill for $17.3 million in security expenses. Some cash could be drawn from a federal fund for capital-related costs, but $11.9 million would have to be taken away from unrelated homeland-security projects in the city. It was the first time the feds had refused to pay directly for inaugural expenses.
It could have been a perfect moment for Williams to start a new, more adversarial chapter in his mayoralty. For the previous six years, the mayor had generally worked with the feds and held his tongue whenever they bashed the District.
But now the city was in a stronger position. It was running its eighth consecutive budget surplus. Real-estate values were booming. Crime was holding steady. The ultimatum would have been simple: No money, no cops.
But it wasn’t Williams who threw down the gauntlet. That suggestion instead came from Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. Barry, freshly oathed as Ward 8’s new rep, chimed in with a call to boycott the ceremony.
Instead, Williams told the Post he didn’t think such “dramatic gestures” were necessary. To this date, the feds haven’t paid.
That rigmarole was front-page news. But three weeks after the inauguration was over, another news item didn’t make as big a splash. This time, a top budget official at the White House promised quick action on a plan to transfer certain federally owned properties in Washington, such as parklands, waterfront land, and other parcels, over to the District. The land has been coveted by the city for decades for its promise to bolster the park inventory and property-tax rolls, surrendering more revenue to the city. It’s sure to add up to way more than $11.9 million over the years.
Such is the typical calculus in the Williams era. Take humiliating dives for Bush and Congress (or more precisely, refuse to humiliate Bush and Congress) and they’ll more than make it up to you—over time and without publicity.
On the Hill, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has leveraged Williams’ low-key strategy to bring the city the maximum amount of federal cooperation. “My position is ironclad: If it’s a D.C. matter, then Congress shouldn’t be in it,” Norton says. “That’s difficult to maintain if the city is in disrepair, as it was during the control-board period….I have seen the befores and the afters. I have seen what it means when the city enjoys very little respect and what it means when the city enjoys respect.”
The consensus view is that the road to full home rule is paved with a loud, sustained campaign to turn the District’s lack of congressional representation into a national issue: “The strategy is to build over time public awareness and, as a result of that, pressure on Congress to change D.C.’s status,” says Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, the best-funded and most active voting-rights advocacy group.
And many political activists scorn the Williams administration’s “partnering” with the feds as counter to that approach. Instead, they want to see a blowup every time Congress screws the District out of security money and every time some boneheaded heartland senator threatens to attach social riders to the D.C. budget.
As their conventional wisdom goes, the tone needs to be set at the top. The mayor needs to be more than an able administrator; he needs to be a vocal, rabble-rousing pain in the ass who’ll send the message that we’re not going to take our colonial status any longer. “I’m thinking of a higher calling,” Plotkin says. “I think that this place requires a Ben-Gurion, a Gandhi, a Mandela, somebody who says, ‘We’re gonna change the way we’re viewed. We’re not going to settle for the perpetuation of the status quo.’”
When the Federal Government Said: We’re not going to pass the District budget unless you veto a bill that forces health insurers to cover prescription contraceptives. (2000)
Tony Said: The bill is “causing me a lot of personal difficulty, but you have to do the right thing….I have not taken a position.” He later vetoed it.
When the Federal Government Said: We’re taking $75 million back from your budget. (2000)
Tony Said: Nothing. He wrote a letter asking for the money back. The request was not granted.
When the Federal Government Said: We’re closing the sidewalk in front of the Treasury Department. (2004)
Tony Said: “When in doubt, preserve freedom.” The sidewalk was closed for nine months.
When the Federal Government Said: Pay for President George W. Bush’s inaugural expenses. (2005)
Tony Said: “[W]e certainly shouldn’t be pushing on cities unfunded mandates to support these events”—but “dramatic gestures” are unnecessary.
When the Federal Government Said: The District can’t recognize other jurisdictions’ gay marriages. (2005)
Tony Said: You’re right, Sen. Brownback. We won’t.
Needless to say, Williams is no Gandhi. Neither has he surrounded himself with advisers who place much priority on home-rule expansion: City Administrator Robert Bobb is no Gandhi. Spagnoletti is no Gandhi. Gandhi is no Gandhi.
But Williams doesn’t see that it’s his job to be a civil-rights martyr. “I’m not a flamethrower,” he says. “That’s not why I was elected, and people got what they elected. What can I say? No, I don’t wake up in the morning worrying about [statehood advocacy], no. I go to bed at night, sleep well, believe I’ve advanced the cause of the District….There’s more than one set character in this play. I’ve got a role, advocates have a role, Eleanor has a role, [D.C. Council Chairman] Linda Cropp has a role.”
Plotkin has yet another star in mind to bring attention to voting-rights issues: Bill Clinton, playing your D.C. shadow representative. And that’s the right idea. Let Clinton head the church; Tony—or any other mayor—will mind the state. Keep ’em separated.
That way, as Williams sees it, he can provide “the best backdrop that other advocates could have.”
In other words, it’s the mayor’s job to make Norton’s job as easy as possible? “Thank you! Right. right. right.”
And so he has: “His work in the city is respected on the Hill,” Norton says. “[Williams] moved the city ahead, and the Congress has responded by less meddling.”
We once had the mayor that activists wish we now had. Her name was Sharon Pratt Kelly.
For the duration of her term, Kelly spoke in favor of D.C.-rights causes; in 1992, she strongly backed the last D.C. statehood bill to make it to a congressional floor. And in the summer of 1993, Kelly, along with 37 other protesters, was arrested for blockading a downtown intersection. On a Thursday afternoon, in a nod to another historical protest, the mayor poured a container of iced tea into the street, then sat down with the others until police arrested them shortly afterward. “We are experiencing tyranny under the rule of the U.S. Congress,” she told the Post.
The response was underwhelming. The protest was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington so that national civil-rights leaders who would be in town could participate. None did, save for then– Shadow Sen. Jesse Jackson. One top aide to a member of Congress on the House Committee on the District of Columbia told the Post, “I don’t think you could find one person whose mind has been changed.” The story got little play in the nation’s newspapers—it was a minor item in wire roundups.
Nor did it make much difference in the District’s treatment on the Hill. Early on, Kelly—elected in the wake of Barry’s national disgrace—was the beneficiary of a strong anyone-but-Barry attitude in Congress, which produced $100 million in emergency federal aid in 1991. More important was a $200 million increase in the federal payment, the annual compensation paid the District for its expanse of untaxable federal property, commuter-tax ban, building-height restriction, and other strictures borne simply because it hosts the nation’s capital. But as Kelly’s reputation as a reformer faltered, the payment was a constant source of Hill wrangling. The calculation used to determine annual hikes in the payment became a matter of dispute, throwing budgets into turmoil as Medicaid and other costs skyrocketed.
And Kelly was dealing with a sympathetic Democratic Congress at the time. It’s safe to assume the iced-tea party didn’t weigh too heavily on the minds of post– Republican Revolution members of Congress when they imposed the financial control board less than two years later or when they passed the D.C. Rescue Plan two years after that.
By then, of course, the Barry Restoration had begun, and, by that time, the Marion Barry Doctrine of District–Federal Relations went something like this: Congress can go to hell.
Not that Barry’s stands had anything to do with principle; they were all about politics. For most of his mayoral career, Barry had fairly cordial relations with a Democratic Congress. But as Barry’s reputation deteriorated and a less-patient GOP took power, so did his relationship with the Hill.
At the beginning of his fourth and final mayoral term, in 1995, Barry faced a $722 million budget deficit and pleas from Congress to rein in spending. Rather than engage in politically costly layoffs and program cuts, Barry submitted his 1996 “miracle budget,” which made virtually no cuts and instead demanded a federal bailout. Instead, Congress handed him the control board, which was fine by Barry: They could make the cuts, take the political heat, and provide him with campaign fodder for another mayoral run: decrying Congress for its “rape of democracy.”
Meanwhile, the Williams Doctrine was already in its formative stages: In May 1997, Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), chair of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, wanted to hand Williams, then chief financial officer, authority over some of the critical city functions Barry would lose two months later in the Rescue Act. Days later, Williams would irk the mayor by assuring Taylor that $31 million in emergency funding that Barry had requested weren’t necessary. After a stiff rebuke from Norton, he apologized in the Post, attributing his moves to his “adolescent exuberance” for reform.
Williams’ first D.C. budget, for fiscal 2000, got stuck in rider hell.
The budget included spending to implement a medical-marijuana program that had passed by voter initiative and a needle-exchange program modeled on successful programs in six other cities. Congress had none of it. Riders prohibiting spending on the programs were tacked on, leading President Clinton to veto the D.C. appropriations bill in late September.
The District’s fiscal year starts in October, and for the next seven weeks, new spending was put on hold as Congress hammered out a compromise. In late November, the budget finally passed; medical marijuana was still verboten, but private clinics in the District could at least sponsor needle-exchange programs without fear of losing federal funding for their other operations.
These days, D.C. budgets pass Congress mostly free of the riders that bloated control-board-era budgets. Gone are provisions that sought to micromanage District affairs, from banning same-sex-partner health benefits to limiting the mayor’s security detail to capping welfare payments to keeping private helicopter tours out of the sky. (Bans on government funding for abortion, medical marijuana, and statehood advocacy remain, along with a few other provisions.) And not only have the budgets been trim, but they’ve also passed quickly. The fiscal 2005 appropriation passed on Oct. 18 last year—its earliest passage ever.
Furthermore, under a restructuring plan implemented last year, the District’s budget no longer passes through a dedicated House appropriations D.C. subcommittee, which in the past was the locus for the most odious congressional grandstanding. Now, the D.C. budget gets sent through the House’s Transportation, Treasury, and Housing subcommittee—one that offers fewer opportunities for District-related demagoguery. (The Senate subcommittee, chaired by Brownback, remains.)
As for what’s in those budgets, it’s a lot.
During the control-board years, the feds decided that rather than continue the federal payment—which ended up totaling $660 million by fiscal 1996—they’d take over some of its services for free—running prisons and the criminal-justice system, for example, and paying a larger share of Medicaid expenses. Since then, the District hasn’t had a consolidated federal aid package.
But the city has managed to get a big portion of the federal subsidy back through a passel of programs, creating a federal quasi-payment.
Take the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program. The District’s more-than-a-city-but-not-quite-a-state status has long meant that many typically state-run functions have gotten short shrift. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the District’s only public institution of higher education, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). For decades, UDC has been underfunded, leading to repeated rounds of faculty cuts and perennial threats of disaccreditation.
In the past, students who wanted to enroll in programs UDC didn’t offer, or who were merely looking for a stronger guarantee that their degrees would be worth something when they graduated, could either pay other public schools’ high out-of-state fees or private universities’ even more exorbitant tuitions. But under the TAG program, instituted in 2000, D.C. students can pay in-state tuition at any public university in the country and have the federal government pick up the difference, up to $10,000 per year. If a local student wants to attend a local private university or a historically black college anywhere in the country, there are $2,500 yearly grants available.
The program began with $17 million in 2000. And for 2006, the Bush administration has proposed doubling that figure due to the program’s massive popularity. Norton’s office estimates that, to date, more than 6,000 students have taken advantage of the grants, pushing the District’s college-attendance rate up 30 percent.
Or take the First-Time Homebuyer Individual Income Tax Credit, a program that allows low- and middle-income persons buying their first houses in the District to lop $5,000 off their federal income-tax levies. That program’s been credited with fueling the city’s real-estate boom, increasing property-tax revenues, and revitalizing neighborhoods. It’s been passed and renewed under Williams’ watch.
And that’s not all. The feds have contributed:
•$1.5 million for something called the Downtown Circulator. If someday you’re cruising down K Street in a dedicated bus lane, you’ll have to thank Tony and Congress.
•$4.5 million in Metro subsidies. Getting Republicans to fund public transit is a rare feat.
•$18 million for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. Why shouldn’t D.C.’s eastern half get a shot at gentrification?
•Over $120 million for charter schools and education vouchers. School choice, of course, is a reform that lefty activists don’t consider a reform.
And those figures don’t account for grants distributed under nationwide programs and other aid. White House numbers indicate that all federal funds flowing to the District have risen considerably during Williams’ tenure, from $1.95 billion in 2000 to $2.51 billion this fiscal year.
Norton deserves most of the credit for shepherding the legislation through Republican wolves in Congress, but Williams’ management acumen has certainly made it easier: “To the extent that the city is being run well, I can get the tuition access…my D.C. tax credit,” Norton says. “That I can get if people don’t say, ‘What kind of place is this? The place is falling apart! Why should I give any more money?’”
The statehood crowd has a ready rejoinder for those programs: They’re sops, crumbs tossed down Marie Antoinette–style from Capitol Hill.
“So what?” says former Shadow Representative and Democratic State Committeeman John Capozzi. “Our budget is our money. We’ve run a surplus that has nothing to do with Congress….[It’s] the idea that [Williams is] not willing to fight any battle. I mean, pick a confrontation he’s had” over voting-rights issues.
Activists say that the real test is: Has Williams bolstered home rule?
Under this meek accommodationist, the District has somehow made more progress on home rule than under all previous administrations—measured from the day he took office, anyway: The control board was disbanded midway through Williams’ first term, without the establishment of a permanent shadow control board.
Meanwhile, a pair of bills introduced by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) could take the District past the starting line established by the Home Rule Act. One, the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act, would allow the District to spend the money it has budgeted immediately at the beginning of the fiscal year, without having to wait for congressional approval. For example, in 2003, due to delays in parts of the federal budget wholly unrelated, the city had to wait nearly five months into the fiscal year for its budget to pass Congress. When the District has to wait, it has to continue under the previous year’s projections and hold off on new hiring and spending initiatives, losing money in inefficiencies. A budget-autonomy bill introduced last session passed the Senate but was held up in the House.
Another, the D.C. Fairness in Representation Act, goes further; it would give the District a full-voting seat in Congress as well as give a seat to a fast-growing, Republican-heavy state, probably Utah. Norton has a competing bill demanding full representation in both the House and the Senate; Williams has cast his lot with the Davis bill—the one that has a chance of success.
But now that the legislation has been introduced, Norton says, the time has come for the Williams administration to take a more hands-on approach. “I need the city over here pressing it,” she says. “The mayor is more withdrawn than most public officials, so I have to take most of that initiative. [He’s] very cooperative; he’ll come over if necessary, but he’s not always his own best asset….That [budget-autonomy] bill should be at the top of the city’s list.”
Of all Williams’ quislingesque tendencies, his willingness to cozy up to Bush, whether by attending a Rose Garden reception for the National Teacher of the Year winner or sitting proplike at the State of the Union address year after year, most horrifies his detractors.
As Norton puts it, the mayor “enjoys real respect in the White House.”
Couple the presidential love fests with Williams’ almost stubborn refusal to make even token gestures toward statehood and it’s easy to understand why local activists so despise the Williams Doctrine.
Recently, Capozzi helped lead an effort to get the District flag displayed at Union Station, culminating a movement that had spanned 30-some years. Last year, he asked Williams to plan a dedication ceremony and invite Bush.
“It was free, it was easy, it would send a message to everybody, and frankly he didn’t have to do anything about it,” Capozzi says. “What has he done? Nothing so far.” He says DC Vote and other groups are planning a ceremony for next month, with or without Williams.
“Every time I’ve seen him confronted with a question about voting rights, he has never used the phrase ‘D.C. statehood,’” Capozzi says. “He doesn’t want to be involved in a situation where he has to say we deserve what everyone else has, because he just isn’t that focused on that.”
But should he be focused on that? The political reality is that both elected branches of the federal government are controlled by an ideology-fueled, orthodox right-wing Republican Party. Being a constant statehood kvetch isn’t going to suddenly convince legions of retrograde members of Congress that a jurisdiction that’s passed a medical-marijuana initiative and would likely legalize gay marriage deserves the freedom to do so. All a take-it-to-’em Tony could do is briefly relieve Bush haters’ nausea.
Could Williams make more token gestures without risking his cozy relationship with the feds? Probably—even Norton thinks he could: “He tends to think that if a chairman of a committee says something or wants something, that he has to pay special attention to that,” she says. “That is not what a mayor is supposed to do. A mayor is supposed to respond strongly to the chairman, and the chairman will respect that, particularly if he’s done the good job the mayor has in his city.”
A little more mayoral hardball, she says, might pay the city still more dividends: “During our appropriation we get compliments for the city now, but we do not see enough reciprocity from the Congress.”
Williams, however, is just being the savvy politician that no one thinks he is. The D.C. electorate, by and large, isn’t crying out for a strong stand on voting rights—a point Plotkin concedes: “They’re not writhing in the streets. There’s not massive civil disobedience, and I will say, I’ve gone to plenty of town-hall meetings; no one raises the questions.”And if you believe the Census Bureau’s projections, there are going to be fewer and fewer disenfranchised citizens concerned with D.C.’s status. So is it fair to blame the mayor for not pressing hard on an issue his constituency isn’t pressing him hard on?
Williams understands the politics: “Other people can do the protests and the advocacy and this and that, and I never disagree with them,” he says. “I just don’t think it’s my role to lead the effort, by and large. And if people disagree with that, then, you know, throw me out of office. I dunno.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Max Kornell.