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D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton needs some help in guarding her precious turf on Capitol Hill. Technology is the answer: Norton and her staff should dig a little trench around the Capitol’s perimeter and install an electronic tripwire. Next, outfit D.C.’s leadership with radio collars. Whenever they venture to the Hill, the system will set off alarms in the delegate’s Rayburn Building office.

That very contraption has worked miracles in Washington state, alerting motorists to the proximity of elk and other wildlife to highways, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. As she installs her anti-encroachment equipment, Norton may want to set aside an especially high-pitched radio transmitter for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi.

In December, Gandhi convened a meeting with House and Senate staffers from the region about crafting a plan for lobbying the Hill about the District’s longstanding financial burden as host to the federal government, known in wonk circles as the “structural imbalance.” Gandhi’s office set the time and place for the meeting, without deferring to Norton.

Norton entered the meeting with members of her staff and scolded D.C.’s chief bean-counter for not checking in with her first. “I was angry that the meeting was called without going through my office,” says Norton, who left the meeting to attend a previously scheduled appointment with staff members. “I was very chagrined.”

The stage for the Gandhi-Norton skirmish was set back in October, when Gandhi and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced a new strategy to advance D.C.’s financial agenda vis-à-vis the feds: The city had hired five big-name lobbying firms to push for more federal funding. D.C.’s paid advocates include Patton Boggs LLP, Holland & Knight LLP, Van Scoyoc Associates Inc., Arent Fox PLLC, and the Downey McGrath Group Inc.

The move to link up with local big shots came after Congress last year lifted a rule prohibiting the city from using its funds to lobby Capitol Hill. The congressional action, however, came with a hitch: The District could not use the lobbyists to argue for congressional representation or statehood. Pushing for a higher Medicaid reimbursement rate or more transportation dollars was fair game, however.

The effort, budgeted for up to $500,000, would be overseen by Gandhi. Placing lobbying in the hands of the city’s “independent” CFO hinged on uniquely District political logic. Gandhi, who has helped deliver four balanced budgets for the city, is a favorite of Hill legislators. And since the goal of the campaign is to secure more dollars from Congress—not voting rights—who better to helm the campaign than the city’s financial guru?

“I have to pay the bills,” says Gandhi. “The federal government should recognize its obligation to the city.”

Teaming number crunchers with the Gucci Gulch amounts to a big shift in the District’s strategy. Until October, the District’s fate on the Hill was largely left up to Norton and the rest of the D.C. “shadow” delegation: shadow senators Florence Pendleton and Paul Strauss and shadow representative Ray Browne.

The unpaid offices are an argument for capitalism: With little financial incentive or competition for office, D.C.’s delegation has made little progress in advancing our city’s cause. Whether the imperative is more federal dollars or voting rights, this crew is long on goals and bluster, short on achievements.

At least Browne considers the position a job. He shows up at his Judiciary Square office and attends community meetings around the city to talk about voting rights. When LL phoned for an update of the shadow rep’s activities, he mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with Rep. Tom Davis’ (R-Va.) office about a D.C.-representation bill Davis has put forward.

That’s pretty much it for the delegation roundup. LL couldn’t even leave a message for Pendleton, because her office phone has no voice mail.

Her fellow shadow senator brags about greater involvement. “There are occasions when Dr. Gandhi and I talk about various budget issues,” says Strauss. “He’s someone that a lot of people on the Hill respect. As much as I try to follow the budget, he really knows what he’s talking about.”

LL’s sentiments exactly.

That doesn’t stop Strauss from employing five unpaid staffers, including a law student from Poland. As far as LL can gather, the Strauss worker bees mostly spend their time tracking down Strauss.

Browne agrees that extra help is needed: “We need every bit of ammunition we can get on the Hill.”

Well-dressed reinforcements, though, won’t likely arrive until later this year. The CFO’s office says that it has put lobbying activities on hold for the moment.

“We haven’t been issued any task orders, and no work has been performed,” says Douglas J. Patton of Holland & Knight.

One lobbying project has been executed since the October announcement: According to the CFO’s office, the city has spent $54,202.46 for Patton Boggs to develop a strategic plan to address the city’s structural imbalance. Patton Boggs partner Ed Newberry says the firm has laid out a strategy but cautioned against D.C.’s deploying too many resources this congressional session.

Gandhi explained that the Patton Boggs analysis has been rolled into a report for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who chairs the D.C. appropriations subcommittee. The report, which explains the District’s structural imbalance and details ways in which the feds might address D.C.’s unmet budgetary needs, is to be released on Friday.

As things now stand, that imbalance gets addressed only in frustration. Every time Gandhi approaches a microphone to talk numbers, he bemoans the city’s deep-seated deficit. As the nation’s capital, the District bears many unique financial burdens. Given the large number of federal offices, nearly half of the city’s real estate is untaxed. Plus the city provides services such as public safety, public works, and so forth for the feds without any federal financial contribution.

That means that D.C. residents end up paying higher fees and taxes to make the books balance.

This isn’t just a District sob story: A report by the General Accounting Office last June stated that the city’s structural imbalance ranges from $470 million to $1.1 billion every year. “[M]anagement improvements will not offset the underlying structural imbalance because it is caused by factors beyond the direct control of District officials,” reads the report, which endorses federal assistance for the city. “[B]y virtue of the District being the nation’s capital, justification may exist for a greater role by the federal government to help the District maintain fiscal balance.”

The decision to hire some professionals is a smart move with a proven track record. Most big municipal governments have hired hands working for them on the Hill: Van Scoyoc Associates, for example, lobbies on behalf of Baltimore, Detroit, Fayetteville, Ark., and Compton, Calif., according to its client list.

The GAO findings and enhanced lobbying strategy seem to have inspired Norton: On Tuesday, Norton introduced the District of Columbia Fair Federal Compensation Act of 2004. And, for once, Norton has gotten support from our neighbors. Davis as well as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Rep. Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) have all signed on as co-introducers of the legislation.

The bill would require that the federal government contribute $800 million each fiscal year for such infrastructure costs as roads, information technology, and capital improvement projects for D.C. public schools. “The strongest proponent of this bill is the CFO,” explains Norton.

CROPP DUSTING

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp cannot abide mean words, arguments, and criticism of her colleagues on the dais. Everything must be nicey-nice, at least when the public is watching.

Since Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham made rumblings about challenging colleague Harold Brazil for his at-large seat on the D.C. Council back in early February, Cropp’s polite world has been falling apart. Although Graham held off on a formal announcement, he started the campaign early. A few examples:

Graham energetically corrected Brazil’s Dan Quayle–ish pronunciation of the Crummel school building at a council hearing

Graham distributed a poll exposing Brazil’s weaknesses. “Voters give Graham positive ratings for his performance in office while they offer Brazil decidedly negative evaluations,” reads the Mellman Group poll.

Graham highlighted Brazil’s flip-flop on a legislative amendment dictating the hours when stores may sell alcohol.

All the mudslinging had LL looking forward to a rare commodity in this town—an energetic, challenging council race.

On Tuesday night, Graham told attendees at a Leadership Washington dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., that he planned to make things formal: In conversations, he informed supporters that he would launch his at-large candidacy on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building on Thursday afternoon. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty would be at his side. “We’re not going to give up a single voter,” Graham told LL Tuesday night, saying that a warm reception from the Rev. Willie F. Wilson and his congregation over the weekend had convinced him to run.

By Wednesday morning, Graham had decided to give up the whole race.

Who changed his mind?

Cropp.

Here’s how it happened: After the dinner Tuesday night, Graham met with Brazil. The two ended up dialing up Cropp and talked with the chair until nearly 1 a.m. “The atmosphere was starting to become extremely divisive on the council and at meetings,” Cropp says she told her Ward 1 colleague. “It also was showing evidence of going outside into the community.”

As any D.C. council watcher knows, Croppspeak needs to be interpreted. A sitting councilmember challenging a sitting councilmember for his seat is an unprecedented move in local politics. That would mean colleagues having to choose among colleagues. Patterson and Fenty had already chosen Graham. Cropp had chosen Brazil.

“Harold asked for my support before Jim,” Cropp says.

The ugliness of a Graham-Brazil contest would have gone beyond the petty politics of the Wilson Building. Graham is white. Brazil is black. If Graham had gone on to prevail, Chocolate City would have had four white at-large councilmembers, and the current white majority on the 13-member panel would have become further entrenched.

Of course, the voters of the District of Columbia are well-qualified to make such decisions. Yet Cropp apparently feels her duties as chair extend to thinning out electoral ballots—a charge she denies. “I didn’t prevent a competitive race from happening,” says Cropp. “When I shared my concerns with Councilmember Graham, I do think he heard my concerns. I can give my opinion.”

With Graham out, Brazil faces less daunting electoral challenges from Sam Brooks and Kwame Brown.

Cropp argued that Graham’s withdrawal was in the public interest. Hmmm, discouraging an enthusiastic, energetic campaigner from challenging a bumbling 14-year incumbent with few legislative achievements?

LL thinks Cropp did the public a disservice, all in the name of saving it from a “divisive” race. To Cropp, “divisive” means awkward and unpleasant exchanges among colleagues. To LL, that word is a euphemism weak-kneed politicians employ when they’re too afraid to make tough decisions.

And the cowardly rhetoric swayed the normally headstrong Graham. “She prevailed upon me to not do it and convinced me,” says Graham. “She thought it was a divisive, potentially harmful campaign that she didn’t want to see happen….I’ve decided not to go forward out of a final consideration of the need for all of us to be working together on the issues that face us.”

Amid all the wordsmithing, LL has sussed out one truth: Cropp didn’t do this because she’s impressed with Brazil’s record on the council. “He’s done some good things,” says Cropp. “He has introduced some legislation. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s a mixed bag with all of us.” —Elissa Silverman

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