Mayor Anthony A. Williams has more power than his press assistants. He makes more money than they do. He signs and vetoes legislation.
But sometimes, he’s happy to let the press guy tell him what to do.
The mayor’s new communications director, Vincent S. Morris, provided some direction this week. The backdrop for Morris’ power play came at the April 6 mayoral press conference, a weekly ritual that begins at 11 a.m. Williams generally chews up most of his time at the podium making announcements, introducing initiatives, and otherwise articulating his worldview.
But he’s usually made a point of sticking around until noon for those annoying off-message queries.
Until Morris came along, that is. At the April 6 session, Morris brought the proceedings to a close at around 11:45 a.m. The intervention got a gaggle of reporters squawking—mostly about the new gatekeeper’s attempts to control the press.
When veteran WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood asked why the mayor had left so suddenly, Morris replied, “He’s running the city, Tom.” Sherwood quipped that he thought that was City Administrator Robert Bobb’s job.
At that point, the orderly briefing turned into a rapid-fire bitch session. Reporters circled Morris and delivered a litany of beefs about the new house rules. Some wondered why they hadn’t been invited to a special background briefing. The television guys even carped about getting parking tickets outside the John A. Wilson Building.
Morris had a simple answer: “Take Metro.”
He never backed down. Instead, the former reporter opted to deliver some career advice: If reporters aren’t aggressive enough to shout out their questions when the mayor is at the podium, he said, “maybe they should consider another line of work.”
Morris offered no apology for giving the mayor the hook. Reporters were served notice that a free-flowing Wednesday-morning discussion with Williams is no longer their birthright.
“If a press conference is over and looks like it’s run its course, its over,” Morris tells LL. “There is no press conference that meanders on just to fill the time period.”
New press secretaries must assert themselves. But reporters don’t expect control issues from a former member of the tribe.
Morris says he spent 15 years with a notebook in his hand. He covered city hall for the Washington Times during the reign of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. He worked Capitol Hill for the New York Post for seven years, and he spent some time on the presidential campaign trail.
He crossed over to the other side when he joined the mayor on March 28. His motivation for making the jump recalls a Michael Jordan retirement line. Morris says, “I felt like I’d done everything I could as a reporter.” He says it wasn’t such a tough decision to come to work for a mayor who’s “done an amazing job.”
Reporters who worked the Hill with
Morris say he was one of the most aggressive guys in any room. “He was a real ball buster,” one scribe says. The kind of reporter who bristled when a press conference was cut off, another says.
Morris seems to have left all that behind.
The day before the press-conference spat, Morris had invited a select group of reporters to a “pen and pad” briefing in a fifth-floor Wilson Building conference room. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Edward D. Reiskin was going to speak to the chosen about the mayor’s new crime bill. That was all well and good—if you got an invite.
Several city-hall mainstays—including big dog Sherwood—did not make the list. Neither did LL. And TV reporters were excluded because, as Morris puts it, “pen and pad doesn’t include cameras.”
Sherwood got the story anyway from other sources, but he needed some tape. So he and cameraman Phil Jacobs decided to pay a visit to the briefing room.
That’s where Morris stepped in. Or stepped in it.
On the WRC-TV tape shot by Jacobs, Sherwood can be heard saying he needs footage of Reiskin. Morris replies, “You are not going to shoot in this hallway.” When Sherwood asks why he can’t tape in the hallway, Morris answers, “Because I’m asking you not to.”
The deputy mayor, he says, will not be available for a TV interview. “You’re not going to shoot him,” Morris says on the tape, suggesting that Sherwood use old footage.
Sherwood has a thing about public hallways. During the ballpark debate last year, he had a physical confrontation with police officers who were blocking the doors to the executive branch’s fifth-floor suite so Williams could duck the cameras.
Morris’ efforts at discipline are no laughing matter, says Sherwood. “The Wilson Building is a free and open building, and we don’t have to wait for people to give us permission to talk to people in the public hallways,” he says. He points to a long tradition of openness “that no one has tried to change. Not even Mayor Barry during his toughest days.”
WTOP radio city-hall reporter Mark Seagraves says Morris is showing favoritism toward his old friends in the print media. “I think there certainly is a problem when he gives a handpicked group of reporters a private briefing on something,” he says.
Morris says he’s surprised at the reaction, but he’s defiant. He contends that background briefings are standard procedure.
If the mayor was looking for a tough guy to handle the press, he found the right man.
After a press conference in July 2004, Morris steamrolled a cameraman in the Senate Radio-Television Gallery. According to an account in Roll Call, CBS cameraman P.G. Cuong was angry when the very tall Morris blocked his shot of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. After exchanging words, Cuong appeared to grab Morris near his throat. Morris responded by pushing Cuong over some chairs.
Morris doesn’t dispute that story. He says Cuong quickly apologized and that they are now friends. Cuong did not return phone calls.
The altercation prompted a July 12, 2004, letter from Lawrence J. Janezich, then director of the Senate Radio-Television Gallery. He reminded correspondents to “maintain decorum while on the Capitol grounds” and stated that inappropriate behavior “may result in sanctions.” Morris was not punished for the incident.
His get-tough attitude with the Wilson Building press corps won’t be forgiven so easily.
WUSA-TV reporter and anchor Bruce Johnson has covered every elected D.C. mayor. “I am adamantly opposed to a press secretary saying ‘We are done,’” he says. “I don’t think the mayor has evoked that privilege. He’s stood and answered every question.” He chuckles at the notion that Morris would even try to control the press. “That’s not going to happen here,” he says.
It’s not as if Williams couldn’t benefit from more discipline while heading into a possible run for re-election in 2006. His tendency to speak his mind without considering the fallout has driven his subordinates crazy for years. Some supporters find that quality endearing, but it can be poison for a candidate.
The mayor says Morris hasn’t gotten any instructions on how to handle the press. “My general attitude is to take as many questions as possible,” he says. “I didn’t bring him in to tighten things up. He’s doing it the way he thinks is best.”
GAY LOBBY TO GRAHAM: DON’T MIX TRAGEDY AND POLITICS
The March 16 murder of mayoral gay liaison Wanda Alston shocked D.C.’s gay community, prompting a week of collective grieving. Alston, who directed the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, was known as a strong-willed woman who lived by her principles.
Now the gay community is divided over a bill bearing her name currently before the council.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham introduced the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs Act of 2005 on April 4 as a tribute to Alston. The bill would establish the office as a permanent cabinet-level post and create an advisory commission on relevant matters.
Alston supported a similar bill authored by Graham two years ago.
At first glance it would seem like a political no-brainer and a big boost for the gay community. But the District’s leading gay advocacy group, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), opposes the bill.
GLAA spokesperson Richard J. Rosendall says Graham is using Alston’s death to push his legislative agenda. In an April 1 memo to all councilmembers titled “Possible Memorials for Wanda Alston,” Rosendall wrote, “There is one idea…we oppose: the proposal by Councilmember Jim Graham, which he made immediately after the news of Wanda’s death, to revive his stalled bill.”
GLAA stopped the Graham bill two years ago, and the group won’t buckle now. It’s got an ally in Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who says Graham is “wrapping this in Wanda’s death. I think he’s stepped over the line.”
Graham did not return calls or e-mails for this story. In an April 1 e-mail to GLAA, Graham defended his effort to memorialize Alston with the bill. “I would say Wanda was the strongest supporter of making this office a statutory office,” he wrote. “As recently as a couple of months ago, she had pressed me to continue the effort. Thus I am doing so.”
GLAA says Graham’s bill wouldn’t help the gay community.
“I personally find the concept to be patronizing,” says GLAA Treasurer Bob Summersgill. “It’s not like we have trouble with access to the government.” He points out that two of the 13 councilmembers are openly gay, as is the city’s attorney general, Robert J. Spagnoletti.
DAVID AND THE BEAN COUNTER
At-Large Councilmember David Catania has a new title for Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi: “chief fictional officer.”
He unveiled the moniker at an April 5 meeting convened to discuss the final report on land-acquisition costs for a new baseball stadium off South Capitol Street.
Catania questions the findings laid out in a report prepared by Deloitte & Touche, commissioned by Gandhi. The CFO stands by that report. The report’s final price projected for land acquisition, infrastructure, and environmental cleanup comes to $161.4 million. Back in December 2004, Catania managed to pass an amendment to the baseball-stadium bill requiring the city to look for another stadium site if that number exceeded $165 million.
Now it looks as if Catania won’t get to serve up his poison pill. So our councilmember of perpetual anger and disgust is about to explode.
“He’s either misinformed or he’s obscuring the truth,” Catania says of Gandhi, dismissing the report as “a bogus analysis.” He charges that Gandhi “fails to meet his responsibilities.”
Gandhi calls the study “a very conservative estimate.” He says the Deloitte & Touche report is “a worst-case scenario.”
Gandhi shows great deference to councilmembers. But every man has his limit. “I don’t take my credibility lightly,” Gandhi says. He adds: “I am offended by this.”
“Remember when the mayor said the stadium would cost $434 million?” he asks. “I was the one who said it will cost $540 million.”
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