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Last week, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson trekked over to 1100 50th Place NE to meet with Houston Elementary School parents. With less than two months left in the school year, school administrators in April had announced that the Ward 7 school would discontinue its sixth-grade classes—a plan that angered parents, who believed the decision was made in haste. Mendelson intervened and hammered out a compromise, keeping the sixth grade afloat for at least one more school year.
He then issued a press release touting his success.
At Monday night’s Ward 7 Democrats endorsement meeting, challenger Dwight E. Singleton accused the at-large incumbent of “grandstanding” the Houston episode for the local crowd. Singleton, who currently represents Wards 3 and 4 on the D.C. Board of Education, claimed that the incumbent had curiously scheduled the parents’ meeting without contacting school board members and other officials. (Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous co-sponsored the meeting but did not attend.)
If Singleton had done any homework on his opponent, he would have known better than to make such accusations: Mendelson, after all, loves the paper trail. He had corresponded back and forth with D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vance, as well as school-board member William Lockridge.
Houston parent Sherry Smith corrected Singleton herself.
Mendelson’s the guy on the D.C. Council, after all, who votes no on emergency legislation—even if he agrees with the bill substantively—if it’s not technically an emergency. His penchant for process prompted Washington Post editorial-board member Colbert I. King to write in a March column that watching the at-large councilmember at work ranks up there with “watching toenails grow.”
Mendelson has taken on the wonkiest work that the council has to offer, namely the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights, and Redistricting. Among the sexy items on the committee agenda this session has been a complete redrawing of the city’s ward and advisory neighborhood commission boundaries. The task played to Mendelson’s strengths: community involvement and attention to detail. But in the end, the Mendelson-authored plan adopted by the council earned him a few neighborhoods of enemies.
The councilmember’s profile has left a target on his back. Even Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. jumped in to challenge Mendelson early this spring, before a run-in with the U.S. Park Police prompted a quick exit.
Opponents sense that Mendelson lacks sizzle—an impression confirmed by the councilmember’s stump speeches. In his presentation to the Ward 7 Dems—localized with references to Houston Elementary and Hillcrest—Mendelson harped on his three E’s: education, the environment, and economic development. But when Mendelson talks economic development, he alludes to renters and small merchants, not landlords and developers.
Mendelson has been a foe to the city’s development community ever since the ’70s, when he joined the fight to keep the homey abodes of McLean Gardens on Wisconsin Avenue NW from being the next Crystal City.
Even in an overwhelmingly Democratic town such as D.C., Mendelson’s fealty to liberal causes stands out. He’s unabashedly against tax cuts, for rent control, and pro-labor. In some ways, he doesn’t sound too different from Barry (except for the big difference that Mendelson adds one more white member to the council): He’s against the closing of D.C. General Hospital, supports more funding for the University of the District of Columbia, and speaks about the importance of summer jobs and recreation.
Mendelson relishes the less glamorous roles in government: He has been an active participant in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, chairing its Transportation Planning Board and leading the charge for higher air-quality standards.
So it’s no wonder that the some of the city’s biggest real estate players have put their money behind a challenger to Mendelson. Beverly Wilbourn’s campaign-finance filings read like a directory to the Greater Washington Board of Trade: The Oliver Carr Co., Parking Management Inc., and Doggett Enterprises are among Wilbourn’s backers.
The biz crowd turned out for Wilbourn at the Ward 7 endorsement event. Former Ward 7 Councilmember and real estate developer H.R. Crawford strolled into the 6th District police headquarters community room surrounded by a group of pro-Wilbourn acolytes.
Before the roomful of Democrats, Wilbourn had a rhetorical style as bland as Mendelson’s, yet far less meaty. “I play by the rules, but I play to win,” said Wilbourn.
At the end of the evening, the Ward 7 Dems endorsed two candidates: Mendelson and Wilbourn each received 24 votes, and Singleton grabbed 16. “I didn’t bust nobody,” Wilbourn told LL with arms flailing a la Muhammad Ali. “It was the power of the message….Folks came here absolutely committed to other people, and at the end of the night, they voted for me.”
THREE’S A CROWD
Singleton won the right to represent Wards 3 and 4 on the school board in November 2000. On Election Night, he nabbed 13,220 votes in his own Ward 4—and a dismal 2,036 votes in Ward 3.
It doesn’t appear that the politico has done much in the intervening months to boost his Ward 3 appeal.
Ever the climber, Singleton is now vying for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. At Tuesday night’s Ward 3 Democrats endorsement meeting, Ward 3’s elected school board member not only failed to secure an endorsement—he couldn’t even get nominated.
Singleton, to be sure, didn’t do a lot to advance his own cause, strolling into St. Columba’s Episcopal Church more than an hour late, just as Ward 3 Dems Chair Thorn Pozen was closing the floor for at-large nominations. Even after the candidate appeared, though, no one bothered to raise a hand for Singleton.
After Mendelson addressed the crowd, Singleton moved toward the podium. Pozen explained that only nominated candidates would be allowed to speak at that time. “I am your elected representative whether your rules recognize me or not,” boomed Singleton. A few members of the crowd, including fringe mayoral hopefuls Faith and James W. Clark, accused the overwhelmingly white Ward 3-ites of racial discrimination.
Singleton finally spoke to the crowd more than an hour after Mendelson secured the group’s endorsement. “First of all, I’d like to apologize for my lateness. It’s characteristic for public officials to be late,” Singleton began. “Either it was my misfeasance or my failure….I didn’t know you needed someone to nominate you.”
Even with the extra time to prepare his remarks, Singleton didn’t wow the crowd. “I think the Ward 3 schools have not diminished one bit under my leadership,” he modestly said.
In another contested race, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson ended up 3 votes shy of the 75 percent needed for the group’s endorsement. Patterson received 38 votes; challenger Erik Gaull received 17. The Ward 3 Dems also failed to endorse Shadow Senator Paul Strauss. Strauss received 35 votes, while challengers Pete Ross grabbed 17 and David Van Williams got 2.
On June 19, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton announced a significant change to her highly publicized “No taxation without representation” bill currently in Congress: As originally written, the bill would have exempted D.C. residents from federal taxes until they achieved full congressional representation.
Norton’s change, however, stripped the bill of its taxation provisions. In a press release, Norton declared that the removal was all part of a grand scheme to “perfect” the bill.
Norton’s plan, though, includes large helpings of damage control. A few days earlier, WTOP’s Dave McConnell reported that the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), had already decided to remove the no-taxation component of the legislation.
A number of prominent Democratic senators, including Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), expressed hesitation about the bill because it would have required a change in the tax code. Even Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) voiced concerns about the bill with city leaders on Norton’s Citizen Lobby Day back in April.
“One of the problems with this bill is that it asks whether two things can be done,” explained Norton to LL on Monday. “Only one thing can be done. And the thing we want done is voting rights.”
So does Norton admit that there was a problem with the original bill? “I use the word ‘problem’ to describe everything,” she quickly interjected.
Norton then spent another 30 minutes explaining the perfecting process to LL. “None of my constituents were confused about this bill,” she said. “Everywhere I go, they talk about voting rights.”
Yet five minutes later, Norton confessed that she had written an article to explain her strategy. “Because of this confusion I have an explanation on my Web site [www.norton.
house.gov],” she told LL.
* Nothing inspires executive and legislative grandstanding quite like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the agency responsible for screwing over city residents with parking fines and a tyrannical bureaucracy. The latest DMV fiasco stems from the agency’s attempt to nail motorists for tickets dating as far back as the Jimmy Carter administration.
So far, LL’s nomination for best supporting actor in this civic drama goes to Ward 7 Councilmember Chavous. Chavous stole the spotlight at a D.C. Council session two weeks ago, when he introduced emergency legislation that would dismiss parking tickets and fines more than 3 years old. After his soliloquy—which was aired for Channel 13 audiences—Chavous quickly withdrew the bill.
Two days later, Mayor Anthony A. Williams joined several of Chavous’ council colleagues in front of the television-news cameras to announce an amnesty program for tickets more than 5 years old. Along with DMV Director Sherryl Hobbs Newman and Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck, Williams was flanked by At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty.
Chavous skipped that day’s performance.
“The amnesty is misleading,” he claims.
According to guidelines, Chavous points out, DMV will dismiss fines more than 5 years old but still require the original ticket to be paid. “There’s even a statute of limitations for most crimes,” he says.
Chavous says that he’ll introduce a new DMV bill next Tuesday.
* D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp sees her role as that of a conciliator, but at Tuesday’s council breakfast meeting, Cropp played autocrat: Each council office needed to kick in $500 to finance Saturday’s John A. Wilson Building open house.
Her colleagues loudly objected. After all, the combined $6,500, which would pay for food provided by Design Cuisine of Arlington, Va., might be better spent helping a constituent pay rent or attend summer camp.
” I think it is utterly ridiculous for us to take $500 out of constituent services to purchase cheese and crackers when we could be doing something constructive for the constituents,” argues one councilmember.
Cropp wouldn’t budge. The nine-month-late homecoming celebration, which will be held Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., will feature speeches from Mayor Williams, Cropp, and Bonnie Wilson, wife of the building’s namesake.
What about WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin, who made reoccupation of the Wilson Building part of his statehood crusade?
Plotkin was uncharacteristically modest. “They’re back in the building, and that’s where they’re supposed to be,” he says.
* With 22-year-old parking tickets now haunting the civic psyche, District residents have reason to express limited paranoia about the rollout of new government billing programs/revenue generators. And it shows.
Over the past few weeks, some D.C. home dwellers have received notice about the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA)’s new Automated Meter Reading Program, which will replace old outdoor meters with state-of-the-art technology. The new meters, equipped with radio transmitter devices, will allow the authority to make accurate readings without home visits.
LL especially enjoyed reading two of WASA’s Q and A’s about the new meter program:
“Q16 Is this system monitoring my phone calls?”
“Q17 Is this system monitoring how many people are in my house?”
For answers to these cliffhangers, please contact WASA. CP
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