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You can count on one thing from Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham: He’s a tough guy to count on.

A brief history of the councilmember’s fence-sitting:

At various points last year, Graham both supported and opposed a takeover of the city’s schools by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He called the status quo unacceptable but voted against the takeover.

Last year, he worked his supporters into a frenzy by hinting that he would run for the at-large seat then occupied by Harold Brazil. He fueled the fire by releasing a poll showing he could win. He even picked a day for his announcement. Then he said that Council Chairman Linda Cropp had talked him out of it.

He briefly pledged to vote with the mayor for a new baseball stadium in return for some library money but then sided with the anti-stadium rabble.

These days, Graham is firmly behind Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty in his quest to be mayor. He introduced Fenty during his Jan. 8 mayoral-exploratory kickoff at the home of former Councilmember William Lightfoot. Graham did the same in Ward 1. He told his constituents at a packed Jan. 30 exploratory fundraiser that Fenty’s hometown roots, youthful energy, and attention to neighborhood concerns are exactly what the city needs.

Or almost exactly what the city needs. Fenty may soon be joining baseball supporters and Williams in an exclusive D.C. club—victims of Jim Graham flip-flops.

Graham is already working on his rationale for bailing on his fellow councilmember. Here’s how it goes: “Obviously, when you move this early, you have to anticipate that there will be many a slip ’tween cup and lip.”

Graham might as well buy Fenty a bib.

“Adrian knows that if Linda Cropp gets in the race I would have to reassess….I have a very high amount of respect for the chairman and the mayor, too,” Graham says. He expects that “lots of people in the Fenty camp would have to reassess,” if either heavyweight decided to run.

Graham says his new, qualified support for Fenty reflects an unexpected shift in the political landscape. When he jumped on the rapidly accelerating Fenty bandwagon, Graham says, “Everyone was operating under the assumption that the mayor was not running.”

He says it seemed that lawyer A. Scott Bolden, lobbyist Michael Brown, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, and Fenty would be the only choices. So Graham naturally gravitated to his friend and political ally on the council.

That’s a cop-out. Or a display of flawed political radar. Or perhaps a flash of the same bad political instincts that led Graham to sidestep a fight with the vulnerable Brazil.

Perhaps Graham has been too busy reading I’m OK—You’re OK to mind the city’s political landscape. For instance, how’d the councilmember get the notion that Williams wasn’t considering re-election? It certainly wasn’t anything the mayor said. For the past six months, he’s kept everyone guessing about his plans for 2006, in a maneuver not altogether unlike the act pulled off in 1998 by then-Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.

And LL must have missed Cropp’s announcement that she was retiring to the beach. Remember the stadium debate? Cropp’s eleventh-hour maneuvering that almost killed baseball was attacked by critics as a power play motivated by mayoral ambitions. She’s done nothing to stop the talk.

Somehow, Graham forgot all that when he was seduced by the Fenty gang.

Fenty won’t address Graham’s hedging directly. Instead, he shifts into exploratory-committee speak. “Our decision on whether or not to run is going to be based on discussion with regular D.C. voters,” Fenty says. “It’s not going to depend on any public official’s opinion.”

But the city’s political rock star shouldn’t feel completely dissed. Graham is sticking by his council colleague until further notice. “For the present time, I am definitely an enthusiastic supporter,” Graham says.

LL has no idea why Graham appears to be deferring to Williams. After all, the mayor recently rebuked the councilmember in his fiscal 2006 budget proposal.

Although that document was packed with pet projects for councilmembers, Graham sees a glaring omission. He claims to have negotiated with City Administrator Robert Bobb for months to have the city take control of an abandoned building for a new Ward 1 senior-citizen wellness center. The two-story brick structure spans a half-block on a rough stretch of Georgia Avenue NW and sits across from a strip club called the House. Graham says city officials even have “plans on paper” for a new center.

But the building will be vacant for a while. The $3 million needed to build a center in his ward was left out of the mayor’s spending spree. Money for new wellness facilities instead went to Wards 4 and 6. Graham says the mayor’s decision to delay funding for the center “just doesn’t make sense from any practical standpoint.”

Graham claims the administration has no reason to punish him. But sources at the John A. Wilson Building say some in the Williams camp are tired of Graham’s flirtation with Fenty. The mayor’s shop was also ticked off about his fleeting promise to vote for the baseball-stadium-financing deal.

Graham pressed the mayor to explain his wellness priorities at a recent council budget hearing. In Ward 1, said the mayor, “[I]t’s just a question of scheduling that and pacing it with our limited resources.” Mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Gregory McCarthy told LL that any suggestion that budget choices were politically influenced is “nonsense” and that the Georgia Avenue site “is just not ready for ground-breaking this year.”

Oh, and by the way, Graham’s other pet project—renovation of the Mount Pleasant library branch—was down for almost $3 million in the mayor’s budget.

Graham says money for the his wellness center will be in the budget bill that the council sends back to the mayor. He’s counting on his pal, Committee on Human Resources Chair Fenty, to help make that happen.

DON’T COUNT YOUR CHICKENS

At a glance, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Clifford B. Janey should be thrilled with his first budget. The schools got a 9 percent increase, and the mayor handed Janey a $26 million account to address his top priorities. It is the largest DCPS budget proposal in history.

But ongoing labor negotiations might make a mess of things.

Unions representing employees from principals to food-service workers have been talking with school officials for weeks. Their old contracts expired in September 2004. In a city flush with cash, union members expect their leaders to deliver a healthy raise.

That means DCPS might have to find a way to pay up.

John Musso, the independent chief financial officer for DCPS, says the proposed 2006 budget does not include an earmark for possible pay raises. “The 2006 budget reflects the same level of funding for salaries and contracted step increases as in 2005,” he says. Musso explains that every other school district can build in a cushion when they see negotiations on the horizon—but not the District.

Blame it on the bizarre budget cycle imposed by Congress, which approves all D.C. expenditures. DCPS budget guru Mary Levy, of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, says the schools have to plan a budget 18 months in advance to keep things in sync with the congressional budgeting schedule. The long lag time makes it hard to plan teacher raises.

In other words, Williams might have to ask the council for even more money for the schools. “We tried that last year,” Levy says, “and it created a mess.”

The root of that fiasco was DCPS’s failure to budget for a teacher pay increase that eventually cost about $40 million. When it came time to cough up the dough, DCPS had no choice but to present the school board with a plan to cut 600 jobs. The board rescinded the negotiated pay raise, teachers threatened to strike, and the unions went to the mayor and council. Over the next few months, DCPS made $21 million in cuts, the council came up with $14 million in extra cash, and 500 workers lost their jobs. In the end, the teachers got their pay bump.

Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, chair of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, hopes DCPS will be more responsible during these negotiations. She says the labor accord will be a good test of whether the much-praised Janey is on the right track.

She also says her colleagues aren’t too excited to see another request for money from the schools. Several councilmembers support Janey’s $26 million welcome-to-town payment. But after years of throwing money down the DCPS sewer, they need to see results. Competence in negotiating a contract and finding the money to pay for it would be a good place to start. “If the schools come back yet again asking for more money,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says, “we have to start asking ourselves what we are doing here.”

FENTY GETS PICKED OFF

LL guesses that baseball must not be so evil after all, now that chief stadium-deal-basher Fenty will be in the box seats at the Nationals’ May 15 game against the Chicago Cubs.

Not that he had any choice.

The hero of the anti-stadium lobby got caught in a rundown at a recent fundraising auction for Lafayette Elementary School. As several attendees tell it, celebrity auctioneer Fenty pushed the price of two Nats tickets donated by Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss up to $800. He urged bidders to go higher. So architect Jeff Stoiber—who strongly backed the stadium deal—yelled out that he was in for a grand if Fenty joined him at the game.

Fenty agreed. What sort of politician would deny the kiddies?

Stoiber says it was a “spontaneous” gambit. He adds, “I think the world of Adrian Fenty, but we disagree completely on baseball.” He promises “great seats, on the third-base side.”

Fenty calls his newfound fondness for baseball completely consistent with his position. “I actually supported having the team play at RFK,” he says.—James Jones

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