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Around noon on Sept. 24, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty stood on the steps of Moten Elementary School in Southeast to decry proposed cuts to the D.C. Public Schools budget. “One thing I cannot support is a cut to the schools,” he defiantly announced, surrounded by D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Superintendent Paul Vance, and appointed school-board member Charles Lawrence.
None of his council colleagues had shown up in solidarity. While Fenty was denouncing the prospect of schools budget cuts, the rest of the council was working on balancing the budget. In a previously scheduled lunch meeting at the John A. Wilson Building, they discussed ways to close the city’s projected $323 million gap in fiscal year 2003—among them a proposal to shave $30 million from the schools.
Where Fenty, defender of education, was supposed to be was an empty seat. Several colleagues joked about the councilmember’s unexcused absence, including council Chair Linda W. Cropp: “There goes his chairmanship,” quipped Cropp to those sitting close by. But the chair was hardly amused by her colleague’s scheduling conflict, according to those in attendance.
“Councilmembers are elected to decide where and when they should go,” responds Fenty, when asked about his priorities that afternoon. “What I went to was a public discussion of a budget issue. What I missed was a private discussion….In my opinion, elected officials need to concern themselves with the public discussion of publicly spent dollars.”
The upwardly mobile Fenty has his sights on something bigger than a committee chairmanship, anyway. Two years ago, when he upset five-term incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis for the Ward 4 council seat, Fenty promised to bring basic constituent services back to the ward. And he has made sure to monitor every liquor store, read every neighborhood e-mail discussion, and follow up on every tree in the ward that needs trimming.
Yet Fenty has started to become just as aggressive on issues that reach beyond Georgia and Kansas Avenues NW. From the moment he was elected to the Ward 4 seat, he’s been atop the list of future mayoral prospects. So instead of cultivating working relationships with his council colleagues, he’s positioning himself to stand alone—preferably in front of a camera.
Despite being the only councilmember without a committee to call his own, Fenty has lately had something to say about every major policy issue. In March, he railed against going ahead with planned income-tax cuts. In July, he denounced the Cadillac Grand Prix. In September, he demanded to know whether the District would be reimbursed for providing police for the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings.
While Fenty has been bathing in media attention, though, he’s been getting into hot water with his fellow councilmembers. “As he moves beyond his own constituent concerns and deals with a variety of other issues, he antagonizes his colleagues,” observes
It’s not as if Fenty’s a complete maverick on policy. On most votes, he stands with his left-leaning colleagues, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. For his opinions on any fiscal matter, consult the latest study from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. And on any NIMBY issue, look for him to defend the back yard.
But where the rest of his legislative colleagues look for common ground, Fenty often looks for a crusade. His renegade position on the schools budget ruffled the feathers of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. Chavous has been seen by many as a mentor for Fenty, who got his start at the council as a clerk for Chavous’ committee. But by grandstanding about protecting the schools, Fenty undercut Chavous’ authority as chair and made the $30 million in targeted cuts sound heartless.
On a council haunted by the memory of a federal takeover and the financial control board, Fenty sees himself as a visionary representing an unencumbered future. “That was the whole mentality of our budget balancing….People are living with ghosts from the past,” he says. “It’s almost as if the council is satisfied with just being good accountants.”
On the Grand Prix, Fenty likewise bucked his elders. Though At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil is head of the Committee on Economic Development, it was Fenty who took the lead in pushing the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to disclose the terms of its contract with race promoters. And he did it in the name of residents far from Georgia Avenue.
“He swooped into Kingman Park. Those are Chavous and [Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon] Ambrose’s people,” says another council colleague.
It’s not just the rest of the council that Fenty upstages. When the sniper attacks claimed a victim in the District last weekend, it was Fenty—not Mayor Anthony A. Williams or Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey—who was the first D.C. official quoted in the Washington Post. Granted, the fatal shooting took place in Ward 4, at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road NW. But in other jurisdictions, the police chiefs and county executives gave the official comments.
* Usually on the dais, D.C. councilmembers follow the U.S. Congress model, in which legislators politely exchange debate with their “esteemed” and “respected” colleagues. The bickering, brawling, and hurling of zingers usually happen behind closed doors during so-called breakfast meetings, from which the public and council groupies like LL are barred from attending.
But Oct. 2’s committee hearing on parking had a distinctly British Parliament feel, in which lawmakers cast aside pleasantries. After watching some of the proceedings on TV from his council office, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans grew irritated enough to make his way to the fourth-floor chamber to accuse his colleagues of sneaking critical parking changes through the council without proper hearings and notification.
“I really feel from these two guys that I got blindsided,” Evans told the assembled constituents, referring to Graham and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, which oversees the city’s parking rules and regulations.
The stealth measure? Emergency legislation passed in June, which created one-block residential parking buffer zones in areas that had changed wards in this year’s redistricting. The action infuriated residents of Sheridan-Kalorama, a small neighborhood on the western side of Connecticut Avenue NW, bounded by Florida Avenue on the south and Waterside Drive on the north. Fearing overflow parking from Adams Morgan, several of them had come to the hearing to express their displeasure that Wednesday afternoon. Evans blamed Graham for not informing him that the neighborhood, which Evans inherited from Graham when ward lines were redrawn, had strong objections to the plan.
“I am sorry Mr. Evans has tried to personalize the debate,” responded Schwartz after Evans’ diatribe. “We can sit here and rehash this from now until doomsday, and everybody can be mad at everyone else. I can participate in that if you want me to.”
At that point, LL hunkered down for an entertaining afternoon.
But, alas, Schwartz didn’t follow through on her offer. The hearing went on, and Evans retreated to his office.
* “Ms. D.C. Watchdog. Bulldog. Rottweiler,” Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. once greeted Marie Drissel. She responded by growling, “Rottweiler!”and raising her right leg. For more than two decades, Drissel earned the nickname by being a vigilant watchdog over municipal finances as well as the city’s campaign-finance laws, filing numerous grievances with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.
Four years ago, Drissel engineered the mayoral draft campaign that netted more than 9,000 signatures on nominating petitions for then-CFO Williams. She later served as special assistant to the mayor for boards and commissions. Drissel’s absence from this year’s Williams re-election effort was quite noticeable, after fellow D.C. watchdogs exposed widespread fraud and forgeries in the mayor’s nominating petitions.
While Williams ran a write-in campaign in the dog days of summer, Drissel focused her energies elsewhere: In September, she became president of the board of directors for the Washington Humane Society, which operates two shelters in D.C. for abused and neglected animals. “My political life has gone to the dogs,” quips Drissel, who also works full time as director of finance and human resources for World Links, an international nonprofit focusing on technology in education.
* When councilmembers proposed taxing out-of-state municipal bonds as a way to restore funding to city agencies, Harold Brazil knew where he stood. Never mind that the estimated $6.6 million in revenue was meant to save libraries, Department of Corrections pretrial detention facilities, and the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program—Brazil feared that the tax would hurt retirees and other investors in the bond market. “It’s pulling the rug out from our own citizens, to turn around and tax them,” Brazil said. The amendment failed, 8 to 5.
Thirty minutes later, the bond-taxing plan came up again. This time, the corrections programs were set aside: Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., along with Graham and Fenty, proposed using the tax to fund programs such as IDA, libraries, and the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp., as well as the District’s burial-assistance program. Ward 7’s Chavous offered a friendly amendment, throwing in some cash for the harbor patrol and the city’s Office of Motion Picture and TV Development. The new version passed, 8 to 5—with the help of Brazil.
LL found Brazil’s change of mind curious: For one thing, Brazil’s wife, Crystal Palmer, heads the Office of Motion Picture and
Brazil did not respond to LL’s repeated calls for comment.
* On Monday, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club enters the endorsement bonus round. Though D.C. voters will elect two at-large councilmembers this November, the D.C. Home Rule Act prohibits the Democratic party—or any other party—from nominating more than one candidate this election.
Why would the Stein Club, which has already endorsed Democratic incumbent Mendelson, give a non-Democrat its stamp of approval? “Our bylaws allow us to endorse the other seat,” explains Stein Club President Kurt Vorndran. In the past, Vorndran says, the primarily gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual Democratic club has given the nod to former At-Large Statehood Party member Hilda H. M. Mason.
Some Stein Club members see this year’s endorsement extra as a snub to Republican At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, who is gay and has not been endorsed by the Stein Club in past elections. “Nor have we endorsed Eugene [Dewitt] Kinlow before,” Vorndran reminded LL, referring to the former Ward 8 Democrat who is running as an independent this November.
Of course, Kinlow has never run for council before.CP
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