In recent weeks, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey have faced some bad publicity on the rough streets of D.C.:
* Last week, two officers were shot by a robbery suspect at Lil’ Peckers restaurant in Adams Morgan.
* Homicides are on the upswing, including a recent multiple stabbing in Petworth and a shooting in Columbia Heights.
* Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham got into an altercation in Dupont Circle and came away displeased with the police response. He later joined angry constituents in denouncing the cops.
In the view of the mayor’s office, all this commotion constitutes a crisis. And for every crisis, there must be a summit.
So last Saturday morning, Williams and Ramsey met with residents at a packed Eastern High School auditorium for the “Forum on Crime & Prevention: Building Partnerships for Safer Neighborhoods.” Joining the mayor and the chief were U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard, Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III, and various commanders and rank-and-file members of the city’s police force.
Here’s a sampling of what LL learned from the gathering:
* The community needs you!
* We need to do everything we can to keep our kids on the straight and narrow!
* Osama bin Laden means nothing if you’re afraid in your house!
In other words, very little about specific ways to reduce and prevent crime. Just a lot of platitudes on public safety from the usual advisory neighborhood commissioners, nonprofit honchos, and political operatives.
When Williams first came into office, in 1999, he appeared committed to sidestepping the banality of mass confabs on municipal problems. One of his first innovations was a program called Mayor’s Night In, an evening in which D.C. residents could engage in a tete-a-tete with Williams about their streets, their schools, and their new roof decks. That’s no longer happening.
Instead, the mayor now prefers large, name-brand gatherings. In November 1999, he convened the first Neighborhood Action, an assembly of 3,000 D.C. residents, lots of hand-held technology, and an energetic moderator named Carolyn Lukensmeyer that all told cost $500,000. He followed up with an $800,000 sequel two years later, as well as a youth summit, a rat summit, and a gun summit.
In effect, the mayoral summitry has turned into the administration’s public-policy recycling program. The same old ideas, the same old faces, the same old solutions: They’re all there, complete with bananas, coffee, and pastries.
To the mayor’s credit, he did vary the presentation a bit, most notably by organizing “breakout” sessions on specific crime problems. For instance, 40 or so D.C. residents crammed into Eastern’s Room 150 to focus on drug-crime prevention. First, John Davis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked the group, “What is the problem?”
One participant raised his hand and suggested limiting the supply of illicit drugs.
“Impossible, my brother!” Davis replied.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dolly Davis, no relation, who held a poster detailing all the open-air drug markets in her neck of Ward 7, talked about a lack of responsiveness to 911 calls.
Then another participant piped up: “The breakup of the families.”
“Will you please stand up and say that again!” Davis said.
When the breakout sessions returned to the auditorium, the mayor and Chief Ramsey participated in an Oprah-style chat accompanied by the commanders from each of the seven districts. Chief Ramsey seemed to be in his element, spouting empty pronouncements not only about public safety but about the modern-day human experience.
“We want more residents going into the schools and helping a child to read,” Ramsey told the crowd.
“How can parents not know that their
children aren’t going to school?” Ramsey asked incredulously.
Perhaps it’s best for the chief to stick to sociology. After all, he’s not nearly as eloquent on the topic of, say, homicide closure rates, which in D.C. hover around 55 percent, which is below the national average. In the end, Ramsey promised to get officers out of their cars for an hour a day, but little more.
Attendees should feel privileged to have seen the chief at his elusive best. The mayor and several councilmembers have met a couple of times with Ramsey in the past week to discuss improvements to community policing and other crime-fighting techniques. Each time, say councilmembers, they’ve had little success in setting specific targets.
“The only thing we get out of one meeting is a commitment to have another meeting,” says Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty.
D.C. LOYAL DEMOCRATS
Jack Evans has created quite a stir with his proposal to bump up D.C.’s presidential primary. The Ward 2 councilmember’s hardball legislation has riled up more than just the run-of-the-mill tax-and-spend anti-biz Evans naysayers: His political gamesmanship on the primary has drawn the ire of Live Free or Die New Hampshirites, Democratic National Committee pooh-bahs, and even a Wall Street Journal pundit.
Here’s how Evans pulled such a coup: Last week, he introduced legislation that would have D.C. usurp New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status, in spite of a Granite State law that mandates its presidential primary be held before that of any other state. Yet D.C. isn’t a state, Evans points out. And he hopes to exploit our unique political status to call attention to our biggest political handicap: our lack of voting representation in Congress.
Evans wants D.C. voters to cast their ballots on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004, before both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. “It’s an enormous generator for those economies, because nothing happens there,” Evans chided last week. Yet the dull states have a big party supporting their cause: Democratic National Committee bylaws have it in writing that Iowa and New Hampshire will be first.
If D.C. were to cut in front, Democratic muckety-mucks such as Terry McAuliffe have warned the Ward 2 Democrat, D.C.’s primary might not be fully certified—which means that the party would not seat potentially as many as 30 out of D.C.’s 38 delegates at the convention. And that makes the blue-eyed, blond-haired admirer of Robert F. Kennedy even more strident. Of course, Congress could possibly intervene and overturn the Evans law—because D.C. lacks legislative and budget autonomy, issues the Democrats in Congress failed to advance while in control—but then again, a majority-Republican House and Senate might enjoy watching the Democrats deprive the primarily African-American D.C. delegation of their right to participate in the Democratic party’s nominating process.
That might make some good TV viewing for Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
So far, LL’s been quite disappointed with the caliber of D.C.-bashing in the New Hampshire media: “We think the case against D.C. getting the first primary can be made in two words: Marion Barry,” wrote the Manchester Union Leader in a Jan. 19 editorial. “Our nation’s capital is a beautiful city, and its inhabitants include many dedicated public servants. But electorally speaking, the residents of D.C. don’t exactly have a stellar track record.”
That just shows how out of touch Manchesterites are with the times: These Rush Limbaugh dittoheads might want to reach for something a little more 21st-century, like, say, the current mayor’s petition fiasco.
Right now, Evans has the co-sponsorship of his 12 council colleagues as well as the support of Mayor Williams. “I want you all to know that I fully support this legislation,” Williams announced at his Jan. 22 press conference. “We’re prepared to deal with all contingencies. We all want to press forward.”
So will Williams hold an election in defiance of the party?
The mayor, of course, has the most to lose in a spat with bigwig Democrats. National Democratic leaders on the Hill and elsewhere will likely remind Williams in upcoming weeks that they might be quite helpful in his life beyond the John A. Wilson Building. And given that most who roam the Capitol steps skip the Washington Post Metro section, they might still think of Williams as a tidy, exacting chief executive.
If Evans holds the generally queasy council together and the mayor doesn’t cave, Democratic leaders fear an additional scenario: that while D.C. dwellers such as Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and John Edwards (D-N.C.) march through Iowa and New Hampshire, another Democratic hopeful might find the milder D.C. climate more to his liking. That would be the Rev. Al Sharpton, the demagogic New York minister known for his involvement in the Tawana Brawley case.
“Mr. Sharpton would be the early front runner in a field of six candidates running in a D.C. primary,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s conservative pundit John Fund. “Democrats are hoping their D.C. brethren will…not provide Mr. Sharpton with a launching pad for his candidacy.”
That’s a candidate LL will have no problem covering. CP
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