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On Sept. 10, D.C. voters trekked to the polls and largely cast their lot with the status quo.
In the mayor’s race, they voted for gentrification over the voice of the people.
In the council races, they voted for professional politics over e-mail blowbagging.
In the “shadow” congressional races, they voted for proven champions of D.C.
With all the primary campaign fluff out of the way, local pols in the coming weeks will face an actual issue: a projected $323 million revenue shortfall in the city’s fiscal-year 2003 budget.
The money troubles came to light a little over two weeks ago, when Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans first pushed the city’s panic button. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi briefed Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp, and council Finance and Revenue Committee Chair Evans on the impending fiscal crisis in early September. The only one of the three elected officials not courting voters this fall, Evans spread word of the revenue crunch to local reporters, and the cash catastrophe got some play in the final days before the primary.
In a reflection of his ever-advancing political skills, Williams informed voters that he’s not to blame for the District’s dollar shortage. The Wall Street slowdown and dot-com burst lowered expected revenue from capital-gains taxes, in addition to other economic factors. Forty out of 50 states share the District’s cash crisis, including neighboring Virginia, which has a projected billion-dollar-plus deficit.
But that’s little comfort to Chicken Little Evans, who fretted about budget pressures and deficit spending all spring. He’s seen the District’s sky fall once already. Just as Lou Dobbs sermonizes on the business cycle, Evans harps on the District’s very own deficit cycle. He repeats and repeats his spiel about warning signs reminiscent of the early ’90s, when reform-minded Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly faced a $300-million-plus budget deficit. That mayor, as well as a coterie of councilmembers, expressed alarm but not much else. Small cuts were made, but the deficit continued to grow year after year.
Congress created a financial control board in 1995, after the $300 million deficit ballooned to more than $700 million.
Ever since the control board’s 2001 sunset, councilmembers have strutted their budgetary and oversight prowess, knocking down financial gimmickry that threatened to send us back to the bad old days of the mid-’90s. And it was easy to do back when analysts were still advising suckers to buy Enron. But this new budget crisis threatens to expose the council’s newly flexed muscle as steroid enhancements from a go-go economy.
For the first time since the control board abandoned its offices, the council faces some tough decisions. “This is a very defining moment in the District,” says Evans.
In a meeting last Friday, Gandhi presented the mayor and councilmembers with a combo approach: reduce spending and raise taxes. The one-two punch, according to Gandhi, could yield as much as $458 million—$263 million from slashing spending and $195 million from raising taxes. The mayor and the council have until Oct. 1 to decide the right formula.
Gandhi outlined the biggest 10 budget-busters among agencies. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) topped the charts, with a $770 million allowance. According to the CFO, the schools budget increased 41 percent over the past four years—a statistic the mayor trumpeted as a sign of the city’s fiscal health only a few weeks ago. But now the inflation seems wasteful. Other targets include the city’s housing-production trust fund, its interim disability-assistance program, and high-priced middle managers. Gandhi also explored increases to various taxes, including cigarette, hospitality, and property taxes.
Others suggested a less painful salve: dipping into the city’s “rainy-day” fund. Two years ago, Congress mandated that the District create emergency and contingency reserve funds equaling 7 percent of the city’s budget. The rainy-day fund, in its original conception, existed solely to preserve D.C.’s good standing with Wall Street and to bail the city out should it encounter dire financial straits.
Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty has determined that the current deficit justifies a raiding expedition. “The District should be able to use its rainy day fund because it is raining now,” Fenty argued in a letter to D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on Tuesday.
“A key reason that District policymakers are reluctant to use the emergency and contingency reserves is that the law requires that all funds withdrawn in a given year must be repaid in the subsequent year,” Fenty continued. “This means that any funds withdrawn in 2003 would have to be replenished in 2004….The replenishment rule makes it unlikely that the District will ever be able to benefit from the substantial amount it has set aside for a rainy day.”
That logic gives at least one of his colleagues the heebie-jeebies. “What scares me a little is listening to Fenty…at the very least saying we should take money out of the rainy-day fund,” says Evans. “We take money from the rainy-day fund and cover the deficit this year, and what happens next year?”
And in so saying, Evans informally kicks off the 2006 mayoral campaign. Fenty is a legitimate threat to Evans’ long-harbored ambitions of running the city. In rebuffing calls to dip into the fund, Evans positions himself as the voice of fiscal restraint, the guy who
will keep the city from backsliding into sloppy budgeting and heightened federal
Fenty, meanwhile, has made his reputation as a constituent-services guru. Even outside his ward. Whether it be by protesting deafening race cars in Kingman Park or banning single-container sales in stores along Mount Pleasant Street and Georgia Avenue NW, the councilmember always sides with residents. And by relying on the rainy-day fund, Fenty could lessen the impact of the budget crisis on service delivery. “I think it’s a balanced approach,” he says.
Another likely 2006 mayoral contender is Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous, who usually jumps at the chance to be quoted on high-profile issues. He has been publicly silent on the budget cuts.
Former control board Chair Andrew Brimmer could not be reached for comment.
* Chevy Chase resident Mary Rowse this summer fought hard for a losing political cause: the candidacy of Erik Gaull, who challenged entrenched incumbent Kathy Patterson for the Ward 3 council seat. Patterson won with 73 percent of the vote.
After a long day at the polls Sept. 10, Rowse returned home to find her house a designated drop-off for Patterson’s campaign posters: Three dozen green-and-white Patterson signs were staked in her front yard or attached to her fence. One of the poster-sized Washington Post endorsements of the incumbent, which Patterson’s troops had mounted in front of every Ward 3 polling site, greeted Rowse as she approached her front door.
The Patterson people were rubbing it in. “I was highly flattered that I was singled out in my contribution to the effort,” said Rowse last week. In an interview with LL, Patterson admitted that one of her supporters had decorated Rowse’s front yard.
Patterson herself waged a less in-your-face finger-wagging campaign. For instance, she wrote a note to a well-connected local pol who contributed to Gaull’s campaign, forwarding a sample of Gaull’s negative campaign literature. Attached to Gaull’s agitprop, Patterson had typed a note saying, in effect: Look at the type of candidate you are supporting. She’d signed it “Kathy.”
* The chair of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation has been a good perch for Chavous: It’s given the ambitious pol oversight authority over the city’s largest agency, DCPS. It’s earned him ivory-tower cred to teach a course on education law at American University’s Washington College of Law. And now it’s making him an author, of a book on charter schools.
Too bad D.C. kids haven’t gotten that much out of Chavous.
Chavous remains publicly mum about the project, though those close to the councilmember report that he’s industriously researching and conducting interviews for his first opus. The District hosts 36 charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent from DCPS bureaucracy. Though some see charter schools as a last hope for desperate parents and students, the schools have not been universally successful: In the past year, the D.C. Board of Education has revoked several charters for low performance and poor financial accounting.
* Chavous might not want to spend too much time with his head buried in the books: Supporters of the Rev. Willie F. Wilson are already buzzing about his possible run for the Ward 7 council seat in two years. Though Wilson preaches to his Union Temple Baptist Church flock in Ward 8, he and his family reside in Ward 7’s Penn Branch neighborhood.
In the Democratic primary two years ago, Chavous received only 53 percent of the vote in the Ward 7 council race. In a field of four lesser-knowns, Robert B. Hunter, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Atonement, managed to attract 1,845 votes—or an impressive 33 percent of the vote. The Wilson camp vowed to get to the bottom of the rumors. “I don’t know anything about that,” says Wilson campaign manager Ayo Bryant.
* In one of his HBO specials, comedian Chris Rock asked to meet the politician who’d lost to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. In the routine, Rock commented that if that person lost to the formerly crack-smoking Barry, he or she must have been on heroin.
Rock got that chance this week, when he filmed scenes from his upcoming movie Head of State at the Wilson Building: “Chris, I’m Carol Schwartz,” the at-large Republican councilmember informed the comedian. “I’m the one that lost to Marion Barry.”
* Among the dream candidates, celebrities, and ideals listed as mayoral write-ins, eight D.C. voters penciled in former Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. With his Ivy League bona fides, time served as U.S. attorney as well as on the Superior Court bench, and his impressive No. 2 spot at the Justice Department in the Bill Clinton administration, Holder appeals to constituencies all over town.
The morning after the primary, Holder created quite a stir when he walked into the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics office at One Judiciary Square. Had he shown up to collect his write-in votes?
“The mayor asked me to head up his vote-counting team,” Holder later explained. While he observed the proceedings, he spotted his name on a few ballots. Does that encourage him for a run in four years? “2006 is a long way away,” he said. CP
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