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Once upon a time, Mayor Anthony A. Williams spoke wistfully of hiring and nurturing people who deliver results. That was to be the mantra of his administration: Just produce.
The standard seems to have changed over the past four years.
“I stick by my friends,” Williams announced to the Washington Post, referring to Friend of Tony Gwendolyn Hemphill. “She’s worked very, very hard for me.”
That may be true. Hemphill’s friendship, though, seems almost as painful as hearing First Mother Virginia E. Hayes Williams sing the 1985 Dionne Warwick classic “That’s What Friends Are For”:
* In May, the mayor barely escaped censure from the bungling D.C. Democratic State Committee after hosting a fundraiser for Maryland Republican Constance A. Morella, whose House seat had been a bull’s-eye for Democratic takeover. At the time, FOT Hemphill served as the party organization’s executive director.
* In July, Williams re-election co-chair Hemphill spearheaded a campaign that ended up submitting nearly 8,000 invalid signatures on the mayor’s nominating petitions to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. The board later disqualified Williams from the Democratic ballot, forcing the incumbent to launch a write-in campaign for the nomination.
* In October, Hemphill quietly resigned from the Williams campaign, citing personal reasons. That was around the same time that the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) executive board asked for her resignation, along with the resignations of WTU President Barbara A. Bullock and WTU Treasurer James O. Baxter II. The following week, the local press began airing stories about alleged financial irregularities in the union’s books.
The Hemphill file is just the sort of embarrassment that Williams set out to avoid when he took office in 1999. The idea was to stiff-arm the opportunistic hangers-on from the days of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. To make a clean break from D.C.’s bad old days, the Williams administration rolled up the red carpet for lobbyists and power-brokers tied to Barry. Former Williams Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer once bragged about keeping Barry friend and power lobbyist David Wilmot out of the mayor’s orbit.
Yet four years later, Wilmot’s once again prowling Wilson Building hallways. On Inauguration Day last week, Wilmot cohort Frederick D. Cooke Jr.—who is also Hemphill’s attorney—greeted legislators after the swearing-in. The old Barry hands had transformed into Williams reformers.
No one else seems to have reinvented herself with quite as much success as Hemphill, though. She’s done so much transformation, in fact, that even the most nosy in D.C. politics can’t quite figure out where she came from.
In the ’80s, Hemphill worked as the mayor’s labor liaison in the Barry administration.
She grabbed few headlines back then, except once: a front-page expose on the city’s emergency assistance program. According to that August 1988 Post article, Hemphill and her husband, Lawrence Hemphill, received $4,044 in “emergency” assistance from the city’s Department of Human Services welfare division in order to make mortgage payments on their $200,000 Ward 4 house. At the time, the Hemphills had fallen three months behind on their monthly payments. Gwen Hemphill explained that medical costs involving their physically disabled son drained the family’s combined $77,000 income.
Ten months later, the Hemphills had another big expense to deal with: a $12,000 maroon Peugeot. They claimed that a relative had helped them afford the sports car.
In 1996, Hemphill’s labor contacts landed her as Bullock’s assistant at the WTU. It ended up being a metamorphosis for all parties involved: In the 1998 mayoral race, the WTU split from most other unions and endorsed then-Chief Financial Officer Williams, who promised the teachers substantial salary increases.
Political savvy or dumb luck? By the time the WTU endorsed Williams, the Williams campaign was already a juggernaut. Still, the rewards were plenty.
Williams rewarded Hemphill and resurrected the political lives of other Ward 4 supporters, such as neighbor Norman C. Neverson. As new chair of the D.C. Democratic Party, Neverson appointed Hemphill executive director. Hemphill’s husband eventually also landed a plum position, as director of the city’s Office of Community Outreach.
Since then, both Hemphills have been integral to many prominent Williams endeavors. Gwen Hemphill served as one of the directors of Washington First Corp., a nonprofit that funded the mayor’s activities at the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2000. Hemphill was among the FOTs to get a mention in the D.C. inspector general’s 514-page report on the mayor’s nonprofit fundraising, released last March.
As re-election campaign co-chair, Hemphill also starred in the nominating-petition drama. In her testimony to the board of elections, Hemphill expressed little knowledge of the day-to-day operations of the botched campaign. What she did know sometimes contradicted testimony from Williams’ campaign adviser Charles N. Duncan, who resigned soon after the petition flap.
When asked by the board about specific responsibilities in oversight of campaign operations, Hemphill was hard to nail down: “I cannot answer that,” she answered.
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But her specific responsibilities apparently consisted of turning out for the mayor whenever he called. On Aug. 9, after the petition fiasco had blown over, Hemphill donned a hard hat alongside Williams as labor endorsed the incumbent’s write-in effort. “We have Gwen Hemphill back there, so we don’t have to worry,” remarked WTU General Vice President Esther Hankerson.
The campaign co-chair seemed less visible as the November vote neared. In the final days before the election, Hemphill announced that she had resigned for personal reasons. Her leaving the Williams camp coincided with her departure from the WTU: The union’s financial irregularities had been referred to the U.S. attorney.
Those who’ve spoken with Hemphill say that she tells them she bears no responsibility for the alleged misallocation of nearly $2 million in teachers’ union dues.
On Dec. 19, the FBI, the inspector general’s office, and other law-enforcement agencies raided Hemphill’s house, as well as those of other teachers’-union officials. According to an FBI affidavit, Hemphill had allegedly acquired thousands of dollars of artwork, electronic equipment, and clothing, all on the union’s dime. A seizure list from Hemphill’s house includes such items as a 50-inch flat-screen plasma TV and a fur coat.
In these tough times, Williams’ loyalists are lining up behind the embattled politico. “Gwen Hemphill is truly a stalwart in everyday outreach,” says Neverson, who received Hemphill’s resignation as executive director of the state committee last month. “I am truly proud to be her friend.”
Hemphill won’t comment on how she went from Barry bureaucrat to Williams honcho to Williams embarrassment. Or about anything else, for that matter. “I’m not speaking to the press. I’ve already been tried and convicted in the press,” Hemphill tells LL.
Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty showed up his council colleagues at the inaugural ceremonies last Thursday at the Warner Theatre. When he was introduced by D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp, the crowd erupted in hoots and hollers for the constituent-obsessed freshman.
The contrast with council veterans’ welcome was deafening. There were polite handclaps for Ward 1’s Jim Graham, restrained cheers for Ward 2’s Jack Evans, and a few shouts for Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, who earlier in the ceremony had delivered stirring remarks on the city’s negligence in criminal-justice and public-safety matters.
Yet the populist Fenty has yet to learn how to win friends among his less popular colleagues at the Wilson Building.
In a council meeting just after the swearing-in, Fenty introduced an amendment that would have helped him secure a critical committee post on the council. The measure would have placed Democrat Fenty ahead of Republican colleagues David A. Catania and Carol Schwartz in the cutthroat line for cherished committee assignments. To accomplish such a coup, Fenty’s legislation would have replaced Cropp’s seniority-driven committee assignments with a partisan pecking order, like Congress, where no members of the minority party get committee chairs.
But in the end, none of Fenty’s 10 Democratic colleagues spoke in support of his measure. “I figured I had 11 votes. I figured I didn’t need to ask [for support],” he remarked afterward. “Maybe I’m more partisan than most members of the council. When I think about the Republican Party, I think that they think the opposite I do on every important issue.”
The amendment failed 1 to 12, with Fenty the lone supporter.
The rebellious move clearly angered Cropp, who had issued her status-quo council assignments two weeks prior. In fact, before Fenty moved his amendment that Thursday afternoon, Cropp had suggested in opening remarks that she might throw a bone in the form of a special task force or something to Ward 4’s seniority-challenged representative.
After Fenty’s stunt, his colleagues put on their poker faces while their staffers snickered. “I think he just lost the task force,” chuckled one Cropp staffer in the audience.
“I didn’t hear it was a conditional offer,” reacts Fenty.
The freshman’s education in the ways of representative government continued into the current week courtesy of Schwartz.
Fenty, as it turns out, had informed constituents about his efforts to champion a pedestrian-safety bill. He’d promised that the bill would be promptly scheduled for a hearing before the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. But he’d forgotten an important detail—namely, to contact the committee’s chair, Schwartz.
The faux pas earned Fenty an e-mail rebuke from the chair. “How presumptuous of you to mislead citizens into thinking you somehow control my Committee’s agenda,” wrote Schwartz, after noting that Fenty had never spoken to her “about this issue at all, in any way, shape or form.”
Schwartz pronounced herself “flabbergasted.”
* For two years, school-board reps have been complaining about the autocratic ways of President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. They have bellyached about her nonconsensus agenda, her short attention span, her this, her that.
Now, they’ve decided that the best way to handle a dictator is to do away with her enforcer. At the end of December, seven out of nine board colleagues got behind an effort to oust William Lockridge as vice president and install appointed member Marian Saez as
Cafritz backed Lockridge, who served as VP last term.
“The board decided that this was a good time to make some changes,” explains Saez about the power play. “They thought I could bring a different skill set to the vice presidency.”
The changing of the guard will officially take place Jan. 15.
* A few weeks before the November election, Mayor Williams traveled to Philadelphia to stump for former Philly Mayor Ed Rendell, who was running for governor of Pennsylvania.
He wasn’t the only D.C. official who lent a hand to the former Democratic National Committee chair: D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck and her husband, Paul Peck, contributed $144,000 to Rendell’s campaign, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I said, ‘Paul, do you know how much we gave?’ I was surprised. He was surprised,” says Peck, who has been friends with Rendell for over a decade.
Peck says she gave the legal limit to Mayor Williams’ re-election efforts, though she did not contribute to his inaugural fund. “I was not asked,” she says. CP
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