Last Friday afternoon, at around 2:30, Mayor Anthony A. Williams strolled Mount Pleasant’s commercial corridorinspecting dollar-store tchotchkes, glad-handing barstool regulars, and squeezing mangoes like fellow bow-tie wearer Mr. Whipple near the corner of Mount Pleasant and Irving Streets NW.
The weekday outing wasn’t exactly a promotional tour for City Living, D.C. Style: The mayor had come out to the Northwest neighborhood because the day before, near the same intersection, reputed Latino gang members had sprayed at least 15 bullets in a running gun battle. When the lead stopped flying, 20-year-old Milton R. Sagastizado was dead and a Metrobus driver had been wounded in the crossfire.
Confronted with the carnage, Williams took to the streets for a shoe-leather display of municipal concern. On the steps of Dos Gringos, a neighborhood cafe, Williams pledged to do what just about every big-city mayor pledges to do when gang warfare erupts: boost collaboration between law enforcement, government agencies, schools, and the community to combat the violence.
Surrounding the mayor at Dos Gringos were various officials who would presumably take part in such an effortincluding Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty, and Latino-community leaders such as BB Otero from the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center and Lori Kaplan from the Latin American Youth Center.
One key figure in the District’s outreach strategy, however, was nowhere to be seen: the Williams administration’s new director of its Office on Latino Affairs, Gustavo F. Velasquez.
Graham suggested the walking tour that morning in an emergency meeting of the Gang Intervention Partnership, a working group formed between police and community leaders after an escalation of gang violence in early August. The Ward 1 councilmember contacted the mayor, but apparently no one at the table or in the executive office thought to ring up Velasquez.
Velasquez says he learned of the shooting Thursday afternoon while watching the TV news and soon after received word from the police department’s Latino Liaison Unit. Yet that evening, while camera crews and concerned local leaders converged on Mount Pleasant, the mayor’s Latino liaison spent most of the evening at another community meeting.
His absence didn’t escape the notice of Latino-community leaders. “Where was he yesterday?” asked one activist at the Friday event, who asked not to be identified. “We spent four hours [on Mount Pleasant Street] last night.”
Velasquez had something to prove to D.C.’s Latino community well before the latest crisis. A native of Mexico, Velasquez comes to the District via Philadelphia, where he served as director of operations for Congreso de Latinos Unidos Inc., a $12 million social-service agency. When Williams announced Velasquez’s appointment Sept. 3, Velasquez got the same welcome that many out-of-towners who come to District government receive: carping that the newcomer doesn’t know the city and its residents.
At the end of last week, Velasquez learned Rule No.1 about D.C. politics: Don’t wait for the mayor to call you.
“I take responsibility for him not being here. Don’t blame him,” Williams told LL, when asked why Velasquez was MIA from the Friday-afternoon walk. “It’s my responsibility to tell him. I didn’t tell him.”
Velasquez already had gotten a few hints that the mayor experiences bouts of forgetfulness about his Office on Latino Affairs. When Williams announced Velasquez’s appointment at his weekly press conference, a reporter asked the mayor whether Velasquez would be a member of his cabinet. Williams wasn’t sure whether he would or not.
As of last week, administration officials had concluded, when pressed on the question of the director’s cabinet status, that Velasquez does qualify: He has direct access to the mayor.
Whether he’s a cabinet member or not, Velasquez seems to be in tune with the mayor’s philosophy of emergency response. Although Williams makes an effort to attend many community events, his specialty is not crisis management. On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, Williams shrank from his unwritten duties as a custodian of civic morale, deferring to federal officials and anyone else who wanted to step forward.
At the time of the Mount Pleasant gun battle, Williams was in Providence, R.I., to give a speech on “Building Communities: Neighborhood by Neighborhood” at Brown University. He returned the next day and spent the morning in Annapolis before showing up in Mount Pleasant.
Thursday evening, it was Ramsey who dominated the newscasts, talking about the dynamics of gangs. “The gang problem is something that’s very complex,” Ramsey told reporters Friday afternoon. “It’s not going to be solved by foot patrols.”
Ramsey’s right about that. Members of the Gang Intervention Partnership stressed the interconnection between police, schools, recreation, and the city’s various community-based organizations. On Friday, members highlighted reform of the city’s Youth Services Administration as high priority and pointed out that two youths involved in the shootout had been involved with the juvenile-justice agency.
They rallied behind Youth Services Administration Acting Administrator Leticia Lacomba. Last week, Department of Human Services Director Yvonne Gilchrist asked Lacomba to step aside, according to sources. Latino-community members have praised Lacomba’s work. “Recently, Ms. [Lacomba] provided a series of forums for the juvenile population that really motivated many of the youth there to make changes in their behavior. I know this because several of the youth I work with told me about the forums and how empowering they were for them,” a member of the mayor’s juvenile-justice task force wrote to the mayor in an e-mail last week.
Gilchrist, according to sources, wants LaMont Flanagan, former commissioner for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to head the Youth Services Administration.
In only a few months at the agency, supporters say, Lacomba had brought a reformist spirit to a government agency whose dysfunction was writ large in the pages of the Washington Post. Former Administrator Gayle Turner stepped down after a Post exposé on the agency this past summer.
The other gang-intervention talking points are just as complex: educational opportunities, language barriers, and jobs. Those messages will be even harder to get across if the Latino Affairs director can’t find his way to a microphone.
Around 3:25 p.m. last Friday, Velasquez arrived as the mayor’s tour concluded, in front of Calvary. “See, he’s here!” the mayor announced.
•Supporters of the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2003 might have thought they caught a lucky break when D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp referred the controversial legislation to the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. That move put the bill banning smoking in all public spaces including restaurants and barsinto the hands of At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who took her last puff on July 9, 2001.
“I quit July 10,” says Schwartz.
Yet being a secondhand smoker hasn’t made Schwartz a fan of smoking bans, such as the one that took effect last week in Montgomery County. “We’re not an island onto ourselves,” says Schwartz. “I want [Montgomery County smokers] to come here.”
The Republican argued that market forces will take care of nonsmokers. “I do want separation,” adds the at-large councilmember. “I think there should be nonsmoking restaurants and bars, for nonsmokers like myself.”
•Councilmembers for years have dreaded tedious committee meetings and marathon markup
sessions. They generally have better things to dotheir second jobs, for example, or lunch. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil has thought up an innovative way to combat long hours conducting the public’s business: remote voting.
And he’s shopping the idea to his colleagues.
In a letter, Brazil urged his fellow legislators to look into “how the Council can utilize 21st Century telecommunications technology” to make operations “more efficient.”
In other words, videoconferencing and the like would save Brazil from time-consuming trips down to the John A. Wilson Building from his law office.
“Other jurisdictions, including Iowa and Oregon, permit remote voting in committee,” Brazil explained. “With only 13 members, fewer than that of other legislatures, the Council should take steps to ensure that each committee member is given every opportunity to vote in committee markups.”
Hmmm. With only 61 square miles of territory to administer, the District’s elected officials should be able to get to committee markups without too much hassle. LL imagines that in Oregon or Iowa, a legislator might have emergency business that required her to travel several hours from the state capital. In the District, even Deanwood’s only a half-hour trip at most. Elissa Silverman
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