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Last Thursday, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen met former D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. for lunch at Ceiba on 14th Street NW.
The first topic of conversation?
D.C.’s mayor-for-life informed Allen that it was time for a change: to councilmember-for-life. Over upscale Latin cuisine, Barry told Allen that he planned to challenge the incumbent councilmember, who helped engineer Barry’s first comeback, when he won the Ward 8 council seat in 1992.
Allen adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “I didn’t think much of it,” she told LL Tuesday afternoon, after Barry announced to the local media that he planned to make the rumors of another comeback official the next morning on Joe Madison’s talk show on WOL. Barry told LL that he will most likely make a formal announcement on June 12.
“I don’t consider you a candidate until you file [papers with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics],” Allen says of the perennial attention-seeker.
Indeed, two days later, on May 29, Allen kept the Barry challenge under wraps as she kicked off her own re-election campaign at Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE. The crowd was fairly intimate for a two-term incumbent: The gathering of Allen’s close supporters included her mother, a bunch of her children and grandchildren, and a small band of constituents who came to fête the “only candidate for Ward 8.”
Allen presented eight years of accomplishment, emphasizing the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in housing starts and new businesses that have come across the river during her time on the council. “Looking back, I think I’ve done a great job,” she bragged.
“There’s only one person sensitive to the needs of people in this ward,” said Allen. “Again, that’s me.”
Barry presented a different view of the ward on Tuesday. “Things are so bad in this town I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “I want to focus my total attention on Ward 8, because it has the highest number of negative things: unemployment, cancer, dropout rate, and other social ills.”
Barry said he was “disgusted” with the current state of health care, affordable housing, and public schools in the city. “Ward 8 needs a fighter,” he declared.
He dismissed concerns that Ward 8 had experienced enough of his leadership. “New is not necessarily better,” Barry said. “You can buy new shoes that are too tight, and they hurt you.” Instead he offered comfort: the promise of a summer job for every youth.
Last year, Barry made headlines for his visits to the hospital. Last May, he suffered a bout of pneumonia that landed him at Howard University Hospital for a spell. Barry says his high blood pressure is now under control, as is his 17-year battle with diabetes. “My health is excellent,” he says.
Barry says he plans to keep his day job making deals on the bond market if he wins the council seat. He reports that his income is back up to his average “six-figure salary,” though he took a plunge last year when a contract with the city’s Department of Health got drastically cut.
Four years ago, Barry threatened another return to public office. That time he made rumblings about running against at-large incumbent Harold Brazil, but pulled out a few weeks before the petition deadline, saying he would better serve the city working on a youth anti-violence initiative.
He made similar rumblings about challenging at-large incumbent Phil Mendelson two years ago. After a U.S. Park Police officer filed a report alleging that Barry had been stopped in Buzzard Point with traces of crack cocaine in his car, Barry ended that comeback attempt, as well. “The Park Service planted the stuff over there, and I’m finished with it,” Barry says of his aborted run in 2002.
So Allen and her colleagues greet Barry’s announcement with caution. “Isn’t he always running ’til he’s not running?” responded Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham Tuesday night.
Ward 4 resident Calvin Gurley wants his fellow D.C. denizens to vote for a ballot initiative he’s titled Mr. Bill Cosby’s Age 18 House Rule.
If the measure makes its way onto the ballot this fall, it’ll test voters who haven’t studied the Washington Post’s 2004 Voter’s Guide. By voting yes, would the initiative:
A. Give a thumbs-up to Cosby’s screed on Ebonics, hiphop fashion, and the collective moral responsibility of the African-American community delivered at Constitution Hall last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education?
B. Replace D.C. Cable Channel 28 replays of D.C. Board of Education meetings with Fat Albert episodes?
C. Make every 18-year-old know the plot of the “Rules Is Rules” episode of the Bill Cosby Show circa 1969, in which Cosby character Chet Kincaid spends his whole day trying to pump air into his basketballs?
Actually, according to Gurley, the proposed law draws inspiration from the ’80s sitcom father figure, Cliff Huxtable, of the The Cosby Show. “His ruling of the house—which so many…black families still carry as their commandment—is once you reach 18 you’re out the house,” explains Gurley. “Some places in the South, the symbolic gesture in letting you know you overstayed your welcome is when you go to the dinner table and everyone is eating. But at your place at the dinner table, your plate is turned upside-down.”
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According to a summary statement, the Cosby rule would legally obligate parents to make child-support payments only until a child reached the age of 18. Right now under D.C. law, parents pay child support until the child reaches the age of 21. “The District of Columbia and the D.C. Superior Court will recognize and accept the age of eighteen as adulthood and release all legal and financial obligations from their parents at age ,” reads the summary.
Gurley pays child support for two of his children: a 9-year-old daughter and a nearly 18-year-old son.
On Wednesday, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics approved Mr. Bill Cosby’s Age 18 House Rule as an appropriate ballot initiative.
Indeed, it takes a bit of effort for even a celebrity-enhanced measure to come before D.C. voters on election day. First the proposed law must be deemed appropriate for consideration by the board. Once the board approves language for the measure and allows for public comment, supporters have 180 days to circulate petitions and collect signatures of at least 5 percent of D.C. registered voters. Those signatures must meet a 5 percent threshold in at least five of the city’s eight wards.
In other words, a ballot measure forcing all the supermarkets in Ward 3 to move east of the river couldn’t get on the ballot by dint of signatures just from Wards 7 and 8 residents.
If the proposed initiative jumps through all the Board of Elections hoops and supporters collect enough honest-to-goodness John
Hancocks, then voters citywide will have
the opportunity to vote up or down on the
And that’s a bad thing.
Ballot initiatives have been in vogue lately. Since the early ’70s, District voters have considered 20 ballot initiatives or referendums, and three charter amendments. Initiatives create local law. Charter amendments, such as the one in 2000 altering the composition of the D.C. Board of Education, change the Home Rule Act.
Over the years, D.C. voters have been citizen legislators on public-policy issues such as the right to overnight shelter for the homeless, horse-drawn carriages, and campaign-contribution limits. A number of the initiatives have been overturned by the D.C. Council, such as a 1994 term-limits initiative.
Supporters of such measures tout the initiative process as a grass-roots, direct-democracy means of lawmaking.
LL sees the ballot initiative differently: It is a dangerous mechanism for deep-pocketed individuals and special-interest groups to circumvent our elected government—the mayor and the D.C. Council—which might be hostile to their cause.
Take legalizing gambling, for example.
This spring, D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso put forth the Jobs, Education, and Healthcare Lottery Expansion Initiative of 2004. According to Alfonso’s summary statement, “this initiative will create jobs and generate revenue for the programs to improve the District’s public schools and assist District senior citizens in obtaining prescription drugs by expanding the lottery to include ‘Video Lottery Terminals.’”
Create jobs? Help Johnny learn to read? And help Grandma gain access to her anti-inflammatories?
What kind of Neanderthal would be
Well, a majority of the D.C. Council, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and Congress.
Alfonso and his legal counsel, former At-Large D.C. Councilmember John Ray, know their proposal wouldn’t have any chance of approval with our current crop of elected officials, who generally oppose any expansion of gambling or “video lottery terminals,” as the measure likes to repeat. “The council wasn’t going to pass it,” admits Ray.
Sure, Alfonso and Ray could focus on this year’s council races and recruit gambling-friendly candidates to run. They would need to figure out ways to finance those candidates while adhering to the contribution limits. Then, if they actually helped elect gambling-friendly candidates, they would need to get them to introduce legislation, shepherd the bill through the council, and get the mayor to sign on the dotted line.
That’s too damn hard.
Instead, Alfonso saw an easier, less cumbersome way to get the job done: propose it as an initiative. LL doesn’t expect to see Alfonso and Ray standing out in the 95- degree heat in front of the D.C. car-inspection station or the Good Hope Marketplace Safeway this summer. The gambling supporters will pay petition circulators, as happened with last year’s Initiative 62, the Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders Initiative of 2002. Hiring paid petition gatherers from California is hardly grass-roots democracy.
Alfonso might be running out of time to put the issue before voters in November. On Wednesday, newly installed Board of Elections Chair Wilma A. Lewis and her colleagues postponed, until at least next week, a decision on whether the initiative was appropriate. That leaves little time for Alfonso et al. to collect approximately 18,000 signatures of D.C. register voters before the July 6 deadline.
Alfonso isn’t the only one taking advantage of the initiative process. Former D.C. Board of Medicine Chair Robert T. Greenfield Jr. has asked the Board of Elections to consider a measure titled Health Care Liability Reform Act of 2004. Tort reform, in other words. The mayor has a draft of similarly titled legislation, yet most believe that it’s dead on arrival in the council.
Well, the council has quite a few lawyers, including personal-injury practitioner Brazil.
The D.C. Smokefree Workplaces Initiative, which was given a thumbs-up by the D.C. Board of Elections, has been ruled inappropriate for the ballot by D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell. Other initiatives up for consideration this year include the Support for a Public Hospital in the District of Columbia initiative put forth by former Statehood Green Party Ward 6 council hopeful Jenefer Ellingston.
Gurley had another initiative he hoped to get on the ballot: Councilmembers Must Pay Their Parking Tickets. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz led an effort a few years ago to exempt herself and her colleagues from the wrath of the city’s meter maids while on council business. The Board of Elections deemed the ballot measure inappropriate Wednesday.
“I have a little energy in me,” says Gurley, who works as an accountant in the Department of Homeland Security. —Elissa Silverman