D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil demanded answers. At a March 17 council hearing, he pushed folks from the Department of Housing and Community Development for an explanation of how conditions at two former D.C. school buildings—Armstrong and “Cromwell”—had deteriorated so badly.
You read correctly: Harold Brazil, getting tough.
What planetary alignment could have brought this about?
Easy: an unexpected challenge to the councilmember’s re-election. And it comes from a colleague, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who in early February established an exploratory committee to suss out his odds at winning Brazil’s cushy at-large seat.
And it just so happens that Graham was right at the center of Brazil’s inquiry into the situation at the Armstrong and “Cromwell” Schools. Brazil wanted to know why the D.C. Office of Property Management hadn’t done anything to maintain the properties. “It seems to me there was a lack of oversight,” Brazil judiciously concluded.
Hmmm. And just what body oversees the D.C. Office of Property Management?
Well, that happens to be the D.C. Council’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management.
And who chairs that subcommittee? That would be Graham.
Petty politics don’t commonly play out on the council dais, where Chairman Linda W. Cropp likes to showcase mature legislators devoted to consensus. Yet there’s nothing Cropp can do to keep Brazil and Graham from showboating on Channel 13 these days.
When his turn came up, Graham remarked, “Well, it’s an interesting line of questioning to follow, Mr. Brazil.”
“The two schools that we have before us today: Armstrong and—it’s CRUM-mel, by the way, Mr. Brazil. Sometimes pronounced Crum-MEL. But not Crom-well,” Graham informed his colleague.
Brazil and Graham continued to squabble as amused audience members looked on: “You have your time, but please don’t chastise me,” Brazil responded.
“Alexander Crummel needs to have his name correctly pronounced,” replied Graham.
That’s quality bickering, and it’s not even summer yet. With their respective quirks and obsessions, Graham and Brazil may make for the most entertaining political theater since the last time Marion S. Barry Jr. tussled with Carol Schwartz. You have Brazil the bumbler, who has mispronounced the name of every activist in town and could earn a spot on Saturday Night Live with his extemporaneous non sequiturs. Most savvy politicians know how to leverage such incompetence, but not the self-righteous Graham, who looks petty and pompous when highlighting the folksy blunders of his prospective opponent.
Right now, Graham’s still in campaign rehearsals. He originally said he’d jump into the race by spring. When asked about missing his self-imposed deadline, he told LL that spring is a state of mind. “It’s too cold for spring. We’re waiting for a warm spring day,” says Graham.
The ambitious councilmember relies on a self-serving poll to bolster his campaign prospects. In a survey of 400 likely voters, according to the Mellman Group, “[f]ew voters say they will vote to re-elect Brazil, and Brazil trails Graham in a head-to-head primary matchup.” Actually, with Graham leading Brazil 37 percent to 34 percent with a 5 percent margin of error, the race is a dead heat.
Because there won’t be any campaign forums until June, the emerging rivals are forced to expend their competitive juices in the council trenches. A few weeks ago, for example, Brazil pushed Ward 6 colleague and chair of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Sharon Ambrose, along with other committee members, to extend the hours when grocery and liquor stores were allowed to sell alcohol. Brazil’s change would have allowed some businesses to sell beer and wine until midnight; they must currently stop sales at 10 p.m.
Then, on March 16, when the bill came before the Committee of the Whole, Brazil offered a friendly amendment: He wanted to make sure that the city didn’t extend the alcohol-selling hours of grocery and package stores.
Here’s the anatomy of the flip-flop: Brazil had originally pushed to lengthen the booze-selling window. When his Ward 6 neighbors got wind of the change, they flooded the at-large councilmember and his colleagues with e-mails denouncing the move.
Usually when Brazil flip-flops, his colleagues smile knowingly and move on.
Yet this time, there was a conscientious objector: Graham.
It’s not that Graham had any substantive problem with Brazil’s amendment: They both now want the earlier booze restrictions. In any other situation, Graham would have let the Brazil amendment fly right past.
But this time, Graham demanded that the amendment get a full airing at the next plenary council meeting, on April 6—a forum in which the full outlines of Brazil’s ambivalence should come to light.
Colleagues recognized the moment as the informal kickoff to months of campaign jockeying between the two councilmembers. “Are there questions in regard to the long, hot summer that’s coming?” joked Cropp.
If Graham was hoping to get a rise out of Brazil, it worked. Brazil put out a press release exposing Graham’s tactics. “Councilmember Graham exalts politics over the citizens’ concerns about late hours of operation,” Brazil said in the March 16 release. “I have been working continuously to improve the quality of life for all District residents, and I hope Graham would put aside his political differences and place people over politics.”
Graham responded in an e-mail to constituents. “[W]ithout a hearing, he recently and quietly convinced other committee members to reverse the status quo and extend the hours. I and many others reacted, city wide. I guess he got wind of it, and flip flopped,” wrote Graham. “Now he wants the reduced hours. Go figure.”
“I want to be sure as possible that there will be no future effort by Mr. Brazil to restore these late night hours,” added Graham. “But calm down, Mr. Brazil, I am not in the race yet.”
Brazil did not return LL’s calls for comment.
YOU SNOOZE, WE LOSE
Property development. Air rights. Breach of contract. Enough boring terms to put you to sleep?
It certainly worked for a prominent city attorney.
In recent months, the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel has been battling developer T. Conrad Monts over a real-estate deal that goes back more than 15 years.
In 1988, Monts’ Washington Development Group was awarded exclusive “air rights” to develop office space, a hotel, and residential housing above a stretch of I-395 south of Massachusetts Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets NW. In 2000, the District sued Monts to take the air rights back, arguing that the developer had breached his lease by failing to pay the city rent and to make good on the project.
Monts countersued, asserting that the District had violated its contract with Washington Development, and sought $65 million in damages.
As the Corporation Counsel’s lead attorney in the case tried to convince a D.C. Superior Court jury of the city’s case in January, he competed with a distracting sound. The noise was coming from his own table.
Co-counsel Daniel Rezneck had his head slumped into his chest.
Rezneck, 68, had fallen asleep.
“There was audible snoring involved,” recalls one court eyewitness. “There were sounds that were noticeable.” Sources involved with the case say that Rezneck dozed off more than once in the proceedings before D.C. Superior Court Judge Jeb Boasberg. Rezneck declined to comment to LL.
In the end, the jury sided with Monts, telling the city to pay the developer $8.4 million in damages. The city is appealing the case. Monts has tangled with city officials before: In 2001, he received a $15.7 million settlement arising from a dispute over the renovation of the John A. Wilson Building.
A Harvard Law School graduate and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Rezneck is a familiar face on the D.C. Bar and has years of experience in municipal law. In the mid- to late ’90s, he served as general counsel to the D.C. financial control board.
In a March 17 closed-door meeting between Mayor Anthony A.Williams and the council, Chairman Cropp wondered aloud whether Rezneck’s snooze might have cost the District. The Zzz’s could have made tax-paying, law-abiding D.C. residents on the jury unsympathetic to the city’s case, Cropp speculated. And she wanted to know the mayor’s thoughts on launching an inquiry into the matter.
According to several accounts of the meeting, Williams didn’t give Cropp a straightforward answer.
LL put the same question to D.C. Corporation Counsel Robert Spagnoletti. “Mr. Spagnoletti did not receive any comments or complaints that Mr. Rezneck fell asleep during the closing arguments of the trial, nor has the mayor asked him to investigate any such allegations,” says Tarifah Coaxum, acting public-information officer for the Office of the Corporation Counsel.
LL knows how much Mayor Williams loves baseball.
And sports metaphors.
So LL will describe the mayor’s Monday-night schools governance discussion with the D.C. Congress of PTAs in the following way: That night in the library of the Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, a roster of approximately 100 parents—mostly from affluent parts of Wards 3 and 4—rapped with Williams about his plan to take over the D.C. public-school system.
And parent after parent delivered up a fastball right down the middle of the plate for the mayor to hit out of the park Cal Ripken Jr.–style. “Nobody’s really committed to education….I don’t think it’s about the money,” remarked Judy Licht, who has two children at Lafayette Elementary and a daughter at Deal Junior High. “I think it’s about the city’s commitment to our kids.”
LL expected the mayor to lock in the ball, step in, and swing evenly through—sending Licht’s fastball more than 410 feet over deep left center: I’m committed to your kids. School-system accountability begins and ends with me from now on. That’s why I want the power to hire and fire the superintendent.
Instead, Williams talked about service-delivery improvement. He mentioned not packing up his marbles if he didn’t get his way. And he asked Licht what she would do differently.
In other words, he whiffed on the ball Billy Ripken–style.
“I like your model,” Janney Elementary and Deal Junior High parent Matt Frumin confessed to the mayor later. “I want to know that you like your model.”
Check-swing bunt. Here’s what the mayor said to this one: “The schools are in mortal danger. They’re about ready to implode,” he told Frumin. But instead of convincing Frumin and the rest of the city’s parents that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore—yes, a Hollywood reference, but the mayor likes to mix ’em up, too—he ended up saying that he’s “committed to working with the structure proposed by Chairman Cropp.”
A quick primer for nonjocks: Back in September, Williams announced with some urgency his plan to take over the D.C. public schools. The mayor likened the 65,000-student system to a natural disaster and vowed to do a comprehensive cleanup: He wanted to make school supervision a Cabinet-level job and have the authority to hire and fire the superintendent. He often referred to New York City as a model.
Six months later, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is under fire for his schools takeover. And Mayor Williams can’t seem to convince the D.C. political establishment to go along with his plan.
So Cropp has come along with a compromise, as always: to create a “collaborative” made up of seven members from the mayor’s office, council, and school board to advise School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz et al. in hiring and firing the superintendent.
In other words, no substantive change.
Frumin and other parents seemed to sense the morass. “We’re behind you if you show the passion,” Frumin told the mayor. “I hate to say it, but I didn’t feel it tonight.”
No matter. When Williams asked parents whether they supported his takeover, almost every hand went up.
The mayor had less success with councilmembers who attended the meeting. “He did nothing to alleviate their concerns,” said At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who supports a slightly altered version of the current hybrid school board. “He played into them.”
•Bibliophiles generally get type-cast as quiet, reserved types. Yet a mayoral nominee to the D.C. Board of Library Trustees acts more like a bully, says Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr.
As first reported last week by WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, Orange says that Williams library-board pick and Georgetown developer Richard Levy verbally accosted him and his wife on April 16, 2002. The Oranges had just attended the D.C. Emancipation Day parade and were walking next to the Wilson Building when Levy confronted them.
“‘What are you doing to the mayor?’” Levy badgered the councilmember, Orange recalls. At the time, Orange’s Committee on Government Operations had been conducting hearings into the mayor’s fundraising activities. Orange responded that he was just doing his due diligence in performing oversight.
“‘We’re going to get you,’” Orange recalls Levy warning him.
Orange brought up his concerns about Levy with Williams on March 17. Williams asked why the issue hadn’t come up earlier in the nomination process, yet he promised to try to smooth things over.
Levy called Orange that day and left a message seeking an appointment with the councilmember.
The next day, Orange claims, Levy bad-mouthed city officials in an exchange at a Georgetown clothing store, which was overhead by a third party, who contacted the Ward 5 councilmember. Levy’s outburst was later described by Orange in a March 19 letter to Mayor Williams. “He became extremely angry and stated ‘that damn Mayor wants me to call Orange. The Mayor said, I embarrassed him….That damn Orange,’” reads the letter.
Levy did not return LL’s phone calls for comment.
The council has allowed Levy’s nomination to languish in hopes that the mayor will reconsider the appointment. Instead, some councilmembers would like to see Williams reappoint Alexander Padro, who clashed with the Williams administration over plans for a new central library.
“I don’t think he’s fit for public service,” Orange says of Levy. “I think it’s wise to let the mayor know that this encounter took place.”
•On March 18, a group of advocates for the homeless came to the Wilson Building to talk with their elected representatives. Specifically, many in the group wanted to encourage the D.C. Council to continue to support the Gales School Shelter, a city-run facility on Massachusetts Avenue NW that has been scheduled to close at the end of March.
The group walked through the metal detector. They showed their IDs. Then they were told to wait.
The security officers on duty told those assembled that they could visit their councilmembers en masse with one condition: if an armed officer accompanied them. “When the security guard told us we had to wait, we were taken aback,” says T.J. Sutcliffe, advocacy director for So Others Might Eat.
The activists were told that the change in policy had been instituted after housing activists clashed with At-Large D.C. Councilmember David A. Catania and his staff two weeks ago.
Would the Wilson Building fuzz also trail health-care lobbyists dressed in their Armani finest?
Wilson Building higher-ups, including Cropp, learned about the new policy after a press inquiry. “If people are just merely lobbying their councilmember, I don’t see any reason for a security guard,” says Phyllis Jones, secretary to the council. “I think that’s intimidating.”
Jones says the policy will be reconsidered. —Elissa Silverman
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