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Early this month, a cabal of gambling interests orchestrated a campaign to put a slot-machine initiative before voters on the November ballot. The goal was to collect 17,599 petition signatures from D.C. residents, and platoons of foot soldiers hit the streets and strip malls in search of John Hancocks.
Thanks to ongoing hearings on the petition drive at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, we now know that the gambling people relied on two groups of D.C.ers to get signatures:
•disadvantaged or down-and-out city residents and
•disadvantaged or down-and-out D.C. politicos.
Into the first group figure a list of homeless and transient folks who received quick cash for their circulating efforts.
Into the second group figure, well, Norm Neverson, Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, and Lawrence Guyot—who received quick cash for their circulating efforts.
Now, LL was aware that the gambling establishment didn’t try to go through city hall to get its plans approved. That was because the big names in local politics—the Anthony A. Williamses and Adrian Fentys—wanted no part of a slots empire. So the slots folks went in search of other names that carry political bona fides.
Or used to, anyhow. To break down the initiative’s tired guns:
•Neverson once stood tall and proud as head of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Then, in the spring of 2003, he expressed nostalgia for the three-fifths compromise, and his fellow Dems ousted him. He told LL he made $5,000 for his petition activities.
•Kinlow was once a promising young Ward 8 activist and committed Democrat. Then, in 2002, he ran for an at-large seat as an independent and lost handily. He made $234 for his petition activities, according to campaign-finance filings.
•Guyot reached his political zenith in the civil-rights movement of the ’60s. In the years since, he became an acolyte of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. He made $682.50 for his petition activities.
These three now have something in common aside from a career misstep or two: They’re on record as working to place 3,500 “video lottery terminals” on New York Avenue NE. It’s a temporary line of work that other activists have pointedly passed up. “They don’t need the money that bad,” says longtime Barney Circle activist and slots opponent John Capozzi, when asked about the dearth of politerati working on the petitions. “To me, if I believed that gambling was OK, I’d take the money, but I don’t.”
In choosing to link arms with the gamblers, Neverson & Co. should have known that they’d eventually clash with DCWatch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill and her team of slots-petition challengers. Brizill has done her best Greta Van Susteren, arguing on her own behalf in the often technical proceedings in front of the Board of Elections and Ethics. Her adversary is John Ray, the former D.C. councilmember turned Wilson Building handyman who’s representing financier Rob Newell and his local band of slots proponents.
In her challenge, Brizill contends that slots proponents polluted the entire signature-gathering process and flouted D.C. elections law in the five-day petition campaign that concluded on July 6. The strategy draws inspiration from the highly publicized fiasco of the summer of 2002, when challengers knocked Williams off the Democratic primary ballot. In that proceeding, Williams opponents convinced the Elections Board that affidavits signed by the primary circulators for the mayor’s re-election campaign couldn’t be trusted.
Learning from the Williams debacle, Ray bifurcated the signature-gathering effort. He divided the circulators into two distinct groups: one of local opportunists who operated out of Ray’s downtown law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and one of local opportunists who worked with out-of-town contractors associated with Progressive Campaigns Inc. at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown. The shoddy petition work handed in by the hotel boarders has cast something of a pall on the otherwise exemplary national hospitality chain.
The local quasi-luminaries got plenty of petition coaching from Ray, local businessman Pedro Alfonso, and activist Vickey Wilcher. They testified that they attended an orientation session at Manatt, received their petitions at the downtown firm, and handed them back in and received payment from one of Ray’s law-firm colleagues. A few who worked out of Manatt said they were drawn to the slots efforts for the $500 million in economic development promised, including a bowling alley, restaurants, and a movie theater.
Never one to pass up a chance to unleash his booming voice, Neverson reportedly issued a speech of sorts at the Manatt confab. “People listen to Norm Neverson whatever the reasons may be,” said Neverson, who added that he’d been involved in New York Avenue redevelopment for 30 years.
Even though the local pols helped legitimize the “grass-roots” slots effort, their testimony before the Board of Elections lacked the polish of seasoned veterans. Kinlow, who has been hired by Ray and slots supporters to monitor the petition review process, was grilled by Brizill and Wilma A. Lewis, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who has given a Law & Order flavor to the proceedings as the board’s new chair. “Did you ever have occasion to go to the Red Roof Inn?” Lewis asked Kinlow.
“No,” he answered.
Lewis raked the Ward 8 activist over the coals for irregularities in his petitions. She pointed out that one entry was dated Sept. 2. “You turned it in July, right?” Lewis inquired.
Responded Kinlow: “I think that some people don’t know what date it is. Some people write down what date they think it is.”
Some of the more anonymous circulators had financial motivations as well, though they ended up less profitable. The local pols operating out of Manatt received up to $6.50 per signature, but the rate at the Red Roof Inn ranged only from 50 cents to $3.
Several local residents who reported to work at the Red Roof Inn testified that they served as petition witnesses for other circulators, mostly Progressive Campaigns out-of-towners who aggressively solicited signatures at Safeways and Metro stops. Witnesses received only 50 cents per signature.
Neverson hinted that he deserved every penny of his higher wage. “You know, your brother Norm Neverson knows thousands of people by name, by phone number, and by address,” Neverson reminded LL on Monday.
•Last Thursday afternoon, LL spotted a pack of four workers tearing down political signs on 7th Street NW. The cleanup campaign attracted LL’s attention for a few reasons:
1. The campaign-poster placement seemed in accordance with District law, in that the signs were properly affixed to streetlights and numbered no more than three to a block on each side.
2. The foursome working out of a blue Ford Ranger tore down every single sign and had six orange trash bags filled with the signs in the truck bed.
3. The truck had Maryland license plates.
The removal campaign appeared to fall disproportionately on the public exposure of At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who has been on the council for 14 years. When LL inquired about the goings-on, a worker in an orange vest laughed and brandished a freshly deposed Brazil poster: “Do you really support this guy?” The trash bags also contained blue-and-white posters for Tony Dominguez, an independent candidate for the at-large council seat.
The cleanliness crew pointed to a letter taped to the truck windshield, identifying the vehicle as belonging to VMS Inc. A Richmond-based corporation, VMS has a five-year contract to maintain the District’s roadways, which include two interstate highways, eight tunnels, 340 lane-miles of streets, and countless gutters, sidewalks, and roadway signs.
And 7th Street, apparently.
D.C. Department of Transportation spokesperson Bill Rice tells LL that VMS does keep a close eye on 7th Street but is not in the business of limiting political expression. Rice says the company has been told not to tear down political posters. “This is a case where contractors are a little overeager to fulfill their contract and keep up our transportation system,” says Rice.
A VMS spokesperson says that the company will be more discriminating in its street-maintenance efforts. “Everyone has been given explicit instructions not to take down even illegally placed signs on our roads. Everyone is aware of the sensitive nature of political signs and to keep their hands off them,” says VMS’s Julie Rautio.
•The Board of Elections and Ethics dreads nothing so much as a petition challenge—a bureaucratic soap opera entailing investigations, scads of documents, and formal hearings.
One way to keep the proceedings to a minimum: Upgrade the board’s photocopier.
This month, the D.C. Statehood Green party mounted a challenge of the nominating petitions submitted by incumbent Democratic D.C. Shadow Representative Ray Browne. The challengers saw petition irregularities in the faintly written signatures for Browne, some of which they couldn’t read.
“We identified many of the signatures as illegible because the photocopies provided us were so bad,” explains Adam Eidinger, who is running for Browne’s seat as the Statehood Green candidate.
The Statehood Greens decided to drop their challenge earlier this week. —Elissa Silverman
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