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On April 21, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton summoned D.C.’s chief executive to her office. She wanted to talk with Mayor Anthony A. Williams about a $75 million school-voucher proposal, which Norton knew Williams had discussed in a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
Norton outlined a few basic points:
1. The mayor directs political strategy at the John A. Wilson Building. The congressional delegate takes the lead at the Capitol. “I want the mayor to respect my role in Congress,” Norton told LL at an event celebrating charter schools Friday afternoon.
2. Any attempt by the feds to put money in the D.C. budget for their pet projects threatens the District’s limited autonomy. “The mayor of the District of Columbia, without discussion with elected officialsand certainly not with residentssays to the Bush administration, ‘Let’s make a deal,’” Norton complained earlier that day on WTOP’s Politics Program With Mark Plotkin.
3. [Insert cussword here.] Sources report that Norton abandoned the usual collegial formalities seen on C-SPAN and ripped into Williams using language not suitable for all audiences.
It was the NC-17 version of Norton’s trademark wild-woman act, a local melodrama that’s been running almost as long as Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. The congresswoman explodes over an issue where local and federal jurisdictions collide; she throws a public fit; and then she declares herself the self-appointed guardian of democracy, justice, and home rule. The Norton Rage-o-Meter went off the charts last week, when the Washington Post formally outed D.C.’s Democratic mayor as a voucher supporter. That kind of synergy with the Republican agenda burns Norton up.
And when Norton gets agitated, she talks a blue streak better than Richard Pryor.
In this most recent performance, Norton unleashed her fury not only on Williams but D.C. Council Education Committee Chair Kevin P. Chavous and Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, both of whom have also voiced support for federal funding of school vouchers in D.C. “I don’t know how she got to be chair of the school board anyway,” Norton fumed at one point on WTOP.
Actually, in the same way Norton got where she isby running largely unopposed in 2002.
Norton won 98 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary; Cafritz had almost the same numbers in the general election. “This woman has talked to nobody,” Norton proclaimed at an anti-voucher press conference last Thursday. “I doubt she follows what happens in Congress.”
Well, Cafritz seems to have tracked the voucher issue a bit more than Norton.
Three months ago, on Feb. 8, the Post ran a story announcing the Bush administration’s plans to set aside $75 million for an experimental school-voucher program in various cities. The story noted that both Williams and Chavous had met with Paige about the District’s participation. On March 29, Cafritz jumped in, advocating a D.C.-based voucher program in a Post op-ed.
Where was Norton?
In early April, both Cafritz and Chavous appeared at a Palisades Citizens Association meeting. Chavous explained that his support for vouchers was because they might come along with about $100 million in federal money for special education and other programs normally funded by states.
Where was Norton? Her recent anti-voucher blitz obscures her past inactivity on the issue. It seems Norton didn’t get her wild-woman groove on until last week. “He’s shopping home rule!” Norton declared on WTOP. “[Williams] is violating the will of the District of Columbia, as is Peggy Cafritz, as is Kevin Chavous….If he would trade [home rule] away for dough for vouchers, isn’t it a fair question for District residents to say, ‘What else would he trade us up for?’”
Norton frames vouchers as a sell-out of home rule. “This is not a man who negotiates very well. This is not a man who stands up for us very well,” added Norton about Williams. “I think he has no beliefs. If you have no set of principles, then you can say, ‘Voting rights? What’s that? Home rule? What’s that?’”
Exactly: What is that, delegate?
Home rule is the half-assed form of self-determination that the feds grudgingly approved for the District in 1973. It allows D.C. residents to elect their own municipal leaders and allocate local tax dollars, subject to congressional approval.
Regardless of how you feel about vouchers, the current debate showcases home rule in action, not under attack. Look at what’s happening: Local officials are getting together, discussing policy, and essentially deciding that an offer from the feds might be in the city’s best interest.
Norton just can’t stomach telling her liberal Democratic colleagues that predominantly Democratic D.C. is giving the GOP an urban foothold for schools policy. And she’s equally sick at the Republican gloating: “I’m sure that Mayor Williams is going to catch some flak from the teachers’ unions, but I’ll bet that the parents and children in the District sure are grateful,” said Republican Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, a voucher proponent, in a press release Friday.
The feds aren’t inserting the voucher mandate into the D.C. appropriations package. Flake isn’t making speeches threatening a receiver for the schools if we don’t take the voucher plan. We can take it or leave it, and our mayor is choosing the former.
Norton & Co. are not, in fact, witnessing home-rule incursions. Instead, they are seeing local officials at their most spineless, deciding a critical policy issue behind closed doors. Williams, Chavous, and the Bushies all but inked the District’s participation in this program before the debate even started.
Once the issue came into the open, however, Norton did nothing to advance the dialogue. Instead, she went ad hominem on Williams, Chavous, and Cafritz.
“There has not been enough local leadership on this issue,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty at an anti-voucher press conference Thursday afternoon.
Williams dismisses Norton’s antics. “I think Eleanor is very combative; she’s very, very confrontational,” Williams said this week.
“I think that because Eleanor doesn’t have a vote, this is how she has to do business,” Williams explained to LL. “She has so much to do, she’s operating on a hair trigger. Sometimes she’ll go off.”
Last Friday afternoon, Norton attended a charter-school celebration along with Williams. Norton arrived first at the event and spoke with reporters outside the Charles Sumner School. Eyes and cameras shifted toward a black Lincoln Navigator, which pulled up near Norton. Williams did not come out right away, so Norton approached the SUV, tapped on the window, and then pulled the door handle.
After a few minutes, the mayor stepped out and shook Norton’s hand.
Norm Neverson’s May 1 resignation as chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee seemed like a Williams-scandals reunion of sorts. Moments before Neverson announced his departure, former Williams deputy chief of staff and fundraising guru Mark Jones stood in the One Judiciary Square chamber alongside former Williams 2002 campaign field-operations director and petitions guru Scott Bishop Sr.
Calls for Neverson’s abdication arose over a comment he made in a Washington City Paper cover story (“Vox Populi,” 4/11); he said that he would have supported the “three-fifths compromise,” the constitutional clause that deemed a slave 60 percent of a person for purposes of political apportionment. “During the many interviews with the writer, I repeatedly shared the following themes: Eurocentric perspectives, pernicious racism in the USA, the lack of humanities, and failure to understand axiology,” Neverson explained to his fellow Democrats that evening.
For those, like LL, who scored below 800 on the verbal section of the SAT: Axiology is a branch of philosophy studying the nature of values.
Neverson’s verbose explanation seemed a bit convoluted even for our Ivy League-educated mayor: In the end, Williams decided not to support Neverson. The mayor foreshadowed that move in his press conference the day before. “To revive an issue that’s been dead for 140, 150 years is really remarkable in every possible way,” chuckled Williams. “I find it spectacularly problematic and troublesome.”
Neverson fanned the controversy Friday morning, when he stood outside D.C. Superior Court flanked by attorney Stanley Kirkland Foshée and Bishop. “Each of us has room for improvement,” Neverson told reporters. “Mr. Bishop was vilified, attacked…for something that was not within his control. He was assassinated just as I was assassinated on this issue.” Unlike the unknown saboteurs who sank Bishop, Neverson pointed his finger directly at the conspirators working against him: Democratic party foes Philip Pannell and Barbara Lett Simmons, who led the calls for his resignation. “These people have denied me due process and besmirched me,” said Neverson, who said he will decide soon whether to pursue legal action.
Neverson’s heir apparent seems to be attorney A. Scott Bolden, who currently serves as chair of the party’s finance committee. “I don’t have a comment,” says Bolden, who represents, among other clients, Independence Federal Savings Bank, the local financial institution involved in the Washington Teachers’ Union mess.
* This budget season, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp strong-armed eight council votes to support a controversial budget matter. The issue? Klingle Road. The controversial Northwest thoroughfare received funding to reopen through the 2004 Budget Support Act passed Tuesday.
The key arm to twist? At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil’s. In the past, Brazil had opposed reopening the roada position consistent with that of his political patron, Williams. Yet, somehow, Cropp got Brazil to change his position. LL says “somehow” not because Brazil has deep convictions and never changes his position; he flip-flops every day. It’s just that no one is quite sure what Cropp offered Brazil to change his mind.
Whatever the case, Brazil made a U-turn. On Monday night, the opposing sides crowded a Brazil fundraiser to influence the key vote. “I said, ‘Are you on our side?’” asked Woodley Park resident Renate Wallenberg, who supports keeping the road closed.
“He said, ‘I’m always on your side,’” Wallenberg says.
Brazil voted to keep Klingle in the Budget Support Act, which allocates $5.7 million for the road’s reopening, the next day.CP
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