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When Mayor Anthony A. Williams arrives at the John A. Wilson Building every morning, his Lincoln Navigator pulls into a reserved parking spot right in front of a ground-floor entrance. The mayor hops out of the SUV, glides through the doors, and, less than 30 seconds later, steps into an open elevator waiting exclusively for him.
Flanked by his security detail, Williams rides the elevator to his sixth-floor suite. He repeats the trip several times each day, whether he’s coming back from an elementary-school groundbreaking or his ground-level press-briefing room.
And it’s almost always express service to the mayoral penthouse.
In taking that route, Williams bypasses all the floors where the D.C. Council conducts its affairs. Therein lies an insider’s political tale: The mayor routinely gets hammered for not paying enough attention to schools, social-service agencies, the police, and on and on. Yet in the esteemed opinion of his Wilson Building cohabitants, the city institution that gets the coldest shoulder from Williams is the D.C. Council itself.
He never calls or visits, say councilmembers in their best Mike Nichols–Elaine May routine. And like most Jewish mothers, they exaggerate just a touch. The mayor does occasionally call or visit councilmembers—when he really, really wants something.
These next few days, Williams faces one of the most critical lobbying challenges of his administration: convincing a majority of councilmembers to support his effort to take control of the city’s public-school system. Williams wants to strip authority from the D.C. Board of Education so he can have budget authority and the power to hire and fire the superintendent; he wants to make the schools leader a cabinet-level agency head who reports directly to him.
The mayor got a two-week extension when the council delayed consideration of school-governance legislation at its April 6 session. The council will likely take up the bill at a special April 20 legislative session. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has agreed to introduce the mayor’s takeover plan as an amendment in the nature of a substitute for a bill already approved by the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation that would keep the current hybrid school board in place through 2006. Williams has gotten a few of Evans’ colleagues to go along with his proposal: Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, and At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania all say they will vote in favor of a mayoral takeover.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil says he likes the mayor’s plan, but told the Washington Post that his views aren’t set in “cement.” Indeed, Etch A Sketch is a more appropriate medium for the councilmember’s public-policy views.
Bottom line: Williams needs two to three more solid votes. So perhaps the chief executive will have to start taking some layovers on his usual nonstop trips to the top of the Wilson Building.
LL has a few negotiating ideas for the mayor to win over the remaining councilmembers.
•Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson: Promise to hug all 400-plus victims of the Pershing Park roundup.
In her role as chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, Patterson has repeatedly hammered both Williams and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey for unjustifiably arresting World Bank/International Monetary Fund protesters in a September 2002 demonstration. The councilmember has grilled police officials in hearings and issued a blistering report on the Pershing Park calamity.
Yet she has never gotten meaningful apologies from Williams and Ramsey.
Settling old scores with Patterson would greatly advance the administration’s schools agenda, because Patterson is a council opinion-maker on education. Elected nearly 10 years ago as a schools advocate, Patterson has been a vigilant overseer of the public schools even though she doesn’t currently sit on the council’s Education Committee. She has breakfast regularly with school-board members. She has attended board meetings and expressed her frustration over fiscal and management issues.
Patterson, though, has not embraced a mayoral takeover. “Maintaining a policy-making Board of Education, with the ties to the community that they require, is one way to promote the kind of community participation that is necessary for public schools to work,” Patterson wrote to constituents in her e-mail newsletter last week. “Turning this particular function over to a single elected official provides no second avenues—no checks and balances to assure the community role.”
Williams-administration officials believe they can still convince the principled councilmember to change her mind. They hope that a favorable Post editorial and a few words from Op-Ed columnist Colbert I. King might influence Patterson, who has a strong relationship with King.
On Monday, Patterson informed LL that only a Williams promise of “world peace” will change her vote.
•Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp: Promise a life free of controversy.
The chair despises nothing so much as debate and conflict. She tries to paper over the council’s differences in closed-door breakfast sessions—a tack that is getting her into trouble with the local press.
Yet Cropp actually has a firm position on this issue: As a former school-board member, she dislikes the mayor’s plan to emasculate the partially elected body. When Williams appeared before the council to testify for his proposal last month, Cropp dismissed the mayor’s grand plans for the school system as “fluff.”
Cropp has also expressed reluctance to change the city charter, which Williams would need to do to gain budget and governance authority.
Perhaps the mayor should also include a pledge to Cropp that once he takes over he will have private breakfast meetings each month about school issues.
•Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous: Promise to say nice things about his new book, Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education.
“Kevin Chavous’s insights into the whys and hows of the urban charter school movement are a wonderful contribution for policy-makers, educators and concerned parents,” Williams says in a blurb that appears in the book’s galleys. “His mantra of ‘innovation by any means necessary’ is a beacon of hope for predominantly African-American school districts in Washington, D.C. and across
It’s not too hard to figure out when Williams gushed over Chavous. It had to have been before February, back when Chavous openly stated his support for a mayoral takeover. With the positive book blurb in hand, however, Chavous changed his opinion: On Feb. 12, he announced that he now supported keeping the hybrid school board in place.
Since Chavous flip-flopped once already, however, there’s no reason why he can’t flip-flop again.
Perhaps a mayoral directive to buy Chavous’ book would boost its ranking on Amazon and flatter the councilmember.
•Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty: Promise something to keep the ubiquitous politician busy.
As it stands, Fenty spends his time ripping on the Williams administration in the Post, on NBC Channel 4, on WAMU, and in any other media outlet on his speed dial. And you can bet that much of the time, Fenty is filibustering about his pet project—the stubborn blight on his beloved Georgia Avenue NW.
The reason he has so much free time is that he doesn’t chair a council committee. While his colleagues oversee the city’s entire human-services system or all its economic-development agencies, Fenty has a portfolio of nothing.
How about a Committee on Georgia Avenue?
•Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham: Promise to say that Graham wore the bow tie first.
Williams has a chance here: Graham says he’s “had enough with the status quo” but wants the school board to have some authority.
If the bow-tie thing doesn’t work, Williams could promise support for Graham’s at-large run against Brazil. Ooh, that’s a tough one: Williams actually headlined a fundraiser last week at Zola for Brazil.
Some things are set in cement.
•Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen: Promise a supermarket in Ward 8.
Williams has promised this many times.
Why not try it again?
•At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz: Promise to author the Carol Schwartz Isn’t to Blame for the Lead Crisis Resolution of 2004.
Schwartz and Williams lately have been political soulmates: railing against the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies while glossing over their own lack of oversight in the city’s lead scandal.
But the Republican will be a difficult councilmember to win over: The former school-board member says she absolutely supports an elected school board to govern the system.
•At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson: Promise to ditch the Lincoln Navigator for a Toyota Prius.
Emissions reduction is one of the issues that most excites the lefty councilmember. But even the environmental activist wouldn’t trade elected school-board members for clean air: He has already authored a bill to keep the current system largely intact.
•The D.C. Office of Personnel has recently formed an Incentive Awards Committee to formally review bonuses given to city employees. LL looks forward to reading the group’s conclusions on why certain Williams-administration higher-ups have received extra cash for their service to the city.
LL imagines this might be one finding: He successfully hid from public view as his department’s role was being scrutinized in one of the city’s biggest public-health scares. He aptly skirted responsibility for major health-care issues facing the city.
Yes, that might be the conclusions for why former Department of Health chief James A. Buford received a $1,166 bonus in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2003.
Or how about this fact-finding: She did an amazing job of mismanaging the city’s food
program for needy children and seniors. She has taken the Tuition Assistance Grant program in a very different direction. She has forced federal agencies to take an investigative interest in
Well, that might be the report on State Education Office Director C. Vannessa Spinner, who received $2,050 for all her efforts.
Other notable bonus recipients include Department of Corrections chief Odie Washington, who got $6,500; Department of Employment Services Director Gregory Irish, who received $5,875; and Williams Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson, who got $3,972 for all his work.
Robinson cautions LL that the bonuses issued in fiscal year 2003 were likely based on performance in 2002. He adds that public servants such as himself who are either classified as either “executive service” or “excepted service” do not receive cost-of-living increases every year.
•Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s taking of communion at Easter services last Sunday got jeers from some Catholic bishops, who believe that the candidate’s pro-choice views violate church teachings. On Fox News Sunday, D.C.’s own Cardinal Theodore McCarrick agreed that Kerry’s support for abortion rights and stem-cell research clashes with church doctrine, though he hesitated to say that he would deny the Eucharist to Kerry for those reasons.
LL wonders how McCarrick weighs in on a more local controversy: Vincent Orange’s birthday party. The Ward 5 councilmember, who represents the Catholic University of America, Trinity College, Providence Hospital, and various other institutions of the Catholic archdiocese, held his annual birthday celebration at the Dream nightclub on April 9, which even LL knows was Good Friday.
Mayor Williams, who attends St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Ward 1, came out for the evening’s festivities. Yet several other Catholic D.C. pols told LL they had skipped out on the event, and remarked on Orange’s insensitivity for having his A-list affair on such a holy day.
“For those who thought it was insensitive, I apologize,” says Orange, who also points out that Jesus Christ was crucified between noon and 3 p.m. —Elissa Silverman
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