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Federal City Council Chair Terence C. Golden last week announced his intention to liberate the District from the autocratic reins of D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. But Golden wasn’t headed to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to pick up nominating petitions to put himself on the ballot this fall.
Instead, Golden is recruiting former D.C. Councilmember Bill Lightfoot to spearhead the quest for a more temperate, consensus-seeking model of schools leadership.
Although Golden is the former CEO of Host Marriott Corp., he apparently didn’t attend any corporate seminars titled “Thinking Outside the Box.” The Lightfoot recruitment strategy, after all, is the second most unoriginal idea in the District, right behind developing the Anacostia River. In all but one election season since 1994, the erudite Ward 4 trial lawyer has emerged as a would-be municipal savior, only to pass up public service in favor of more worthy pursuits such as his family and his law practice.
* In 1994, then-At-Large Councilmember Lightfoot threatened to jump into the mayor’s race if his council colleague, then-At-Large Councilmember John Ray, did not triumph in the Democratic primary. Lightfoot publicly bemoaned the prospect of surrendering the city to comeback kid Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. or then-incumbent Sharon Pratt Kelly. All summer long, Lightfoot flirted with running as an independent in the general election, even filing nominating petitions to qualify for the ballot while offering lukewarm support for Ray.
On Sept. 13, Barry won the primary election.
On Sept. 15, Lightfoot dropped out of the general election. And in 1996, he abandoned the council after two terms.
* In 1998, as Barry dithered about seeking re-election, Lightfoot teased District voters again. He said that he was interested in pursuing the mayoralty, a perch from which he could assist reform-minded councilmembers in carrying out their mandate. He never did.
* In 2000, Lightfoot was traded from D.C.’s Mayoral Fantasy League to the School Board Fantasy League. Rumors this time posited Lightfoot as a candidate for president of the newly configured D.C. Board of Education. It seemed like a natural leap, because Lightfoot served as treasurer for a campaign by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to change the board’s makeup and mission through a ballot referendum.
* Now, in 2002, Lightfoot is entering his second term as shadow school-board savior.
The nearly biannual Lightfoot craze says a little about Lightfoot himself—and a lot about D.C. politics.
The longer Lightfoot stays out of office, the larger his legend grows. Though lumped in with the young turks elected in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Lightfoot was a prominent member of a council that led the city to fiscal ruin. He situated himself as a middle-of-the-road legislator, eager to find consensus and get behind popular initiatives. “You can’t be a successful trial lawyer and alienate people,” says former At-Large Councilmember Betty Ann Kane.
Lightfoot’s likable style didn’t lend itself to tough decision-making. Colleagues complained that he often waffled, especially on vexing issues. In 1994, Lightfoot offered several answers for his campaign squeamishness, saying he didn’t want to run a “stop-Barry” campaign for which he would be framed as the “tool of the white establishment.” In 1996, when the city’s fiscal crisis brought about a federally appointed financial control board, Lightfoot decided not to seek re-election on the council. He said that he needed to put his young family first—a reliable standby for a politician weighing his political future.
On his way out, Lightfoot attempted to justify the council’s failings.
“The decisions that the board is making are things the council should have addressed, but, due to compassion, could not make,” Lightfoot explained at the time. “We are elected to represent constituents. The control board is charged with balancing the checkbook.”
Colleagues didn’t deny that Lightfoot worked hard, juggling his council office and a lucrative law practice. “He was quick, like a lot of lawyers,” remembers Kane. “He’d cut to the chase pretty quickly—which some people could interpret as not putting a lot of time into [legislating].”
Lightfootitis is an understandable affliction for a city struggling with recovery from its association with Barry. Ever since Barry flamed out, the District’s white elite has been shopping for black leaders with anti-Barry resumes
—namely, calm, articulate voices that shun polarizing racial rhetoric but still speak of social justice. That’s exactly the package offered by Williams.
Lightfoot plays the role even better than the mayor. The former councilmember is used to imploring D.C. juries to award his clients millions of dollars in damages. And the skills that he uses to charm courtroom audiences work quite well with the city’s in-crowd, such as the Goldens who sit on the Federal City Council.
“I tried very hard to get Bill to run [two years ago],” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “I think Bill would be an excellent president of the school board. He has a commitment to making the city better.”
Williams himself sometimes shares that assessment. In 2000, Lightfoot helped the mayor barely win the referendum that created a hybrid elected/appointed Board of Education. Williams then considered endorsing Lightfoot for president of the newfangled board.
In fact, the congruence between the two men is so strong that Williams advisers worried about giving the former councilmember an electoral trampoline. They thought that Lightfoot had the potential to outshine his boss, setting up a head-on electoral collision in two years.
In the end, Williams lined up behind Cafritz.
Many believe that Lightfoot still has a calling for public service, primarily as the city’s chief executive. “I think it’s conceivable one day I would still be mayor,” he said when he retired from the council in 1996. “I’m emotionally, physically, and financially ready to be mayor.”
And the dearth of any young up-and-comers has kept Lightfoot a seasonal temptation.
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Meanwhile, the former councilmember remains a political heavy whose endorsement is sought by aspiring politicos across the city. Lightfoot’s support, for instance, added a dose of credibility to the 2000 campaign of underdog Adrian Fenty, who unseated five-term Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. This election season, Lightfoot is chairing the re-election campaign of At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
That’s just enough involvement to keep Lightfoot’s name in circulation for another two, four, six, or eight years. Meanwhile, the would-be candidate sounds a lot like a candidate when asked about running: “I would love to have the opportunity to improve the schools if the mayor wants me. It’s been a longstanding interest of mine,” he says.
Democratic Party leaders from Eleanor Holmes Norton to Terry McAuliffe have ripped Mayor Williams for associating himself with the re-election efforts of imperiled Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). And with good reason: Restoring the Democratic majority in the House is a precondition for ridding the District of its colonial status.
But at least the mayor has the courage to stick by his misguided convictions: Last Thursday, amid all the criticism, he made good on his pledge to Morella by showing up at her Georgia Brown’s fundraiser.
The same cannot be said for D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp, whose name appeared alongside Williams’ on the invitation to the Morella event. The pusillanimous council leader failed to show.
Cropp now backpedals even on lending her name to the invite. “It was presented to me as an appreciation for her,” she explains. “I soon learned that it was a political fundraiser….A thank-you for what you do is one thing; a political fundraiser is something different.” The council chair says that she then crossed Morella off her schedule and spoke at the Kalorama Citizens Association meeting instead.
Local Democratic operatives aren’t buying any of the excuses proffered by their putative District leaders. Two days after the Morella event, Wanda Lockridge presented a resolution to her fellow Ward 8 Democrats at their monthly meeting censuring the mayor for his efforts on behalf of the Montgomery County Republican: “BE IT ALSO RESOLVED that the Ward Eight Democrats, Inc. will not support or endorse any candidate who has supported or intends to support, financially or otherwise, a non-Democratic Party candidate for political office,” Lockridge read to the crowd.
It passed with a vote of 30 yeas, 2 nays, and 2 abstentions.
The resolution also requests that the Ward 8 chair introduce the resolution at the next meeting of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, which is May 2.
“To assist a Republican candidate is unconscionable,” says Philip Pannell, chair of the Ward 8 Democrats. “I’m really hurt by this….The mayor has shown no sensitivity that Democrats are upset about this.”
Nor does he have to. The reformist technocrat knows that he has no need for the Democratic Party apparatus this election season, much less the endorsement of the puny Ward 8 cell. This is not Chicago. Williams has already accumulated a million-dollar war chest and has no viable opponent in sight. Cropp is also quite comfortable in her Wilson Building digs.
LL suggests a new project for the city’s
top Dems: Trent Lott’s take-back-the-Senate campaign.
DOWN THE HATCH
At almost every D.C. Board of Education meeting, members read floridly worded resolutions praising students, teachers, and overachievers. So what made Monday’s emergency resolution honoring Dunbar Senior High School teacher Tom Briggs different?
It made the board look like a functional, sagacious governing body.
Briggs faces termination due to a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law that prevents government employees from engaging in partisan activity. In 2000, Briggs ran as the Statehood Green Party candidate for a Ward 2 seat on the D.C. Council. During the election, officials notified Briggs that his candidacy violated an arcane provision of the law.
Around that time, Briggs recalls, he received his October 2000 issue of American Teacher headlined, “Determined to Make a Difference, [American Federation of Teachers] Members Nationwide are Running for Office.” Public-school teachers across the country are exempt from the act—except in the District, where educators are considered federal, not local, employees.
LL suggests that Hatch Act enforcers might want to review their civics textbooks, especially the chapter that discusses equal protection under the law.
D.C.’s Board of Education, though, seemed quite knowledgeable about the concept. And in a rare showing of unity, school board members rallied behind Briggs—and, by extension, D.C.’s right to governing autonomy. “From Socrates to LBJ, teachers have often been called upon to lead,” District 3 school board member Tommy Wells lectured LL. “We don’t have the right to say teachers can be our elected leaders. That should not be dictated by Congress.”
* The D.C. Board of Education consists of five elected, four appointed, and two student members, who usually keep their mouths shut. But at last Wednesday’s meeting, student rep German Vigil prompted an intense policy debate. “Let me start off by asking you guys a simple question,” said Vigil. “If you are hot, raise your hand.” He received an overwhelming response.
“Now how many of you guys would like to go home right now?” Vigil followed up, with a similarly enthusiastic reaction. “Well, this is how the students felt today, and today was Stanford 9 testing….They can’t function when they’re hot….I just hope we can do something to keep students cool,” Vigil pleaded.
He argued that the steamy conditions might affect student performance on the standardized test.
Vigil’s observation of conditions in D.C. public schools during last week’s heat wave prompted a 20-minute-plus debate on the school system’s procedures for dealing with extreme weather conditions, which board members seemed unfamiliar with. Chief of Staff Steven Seleznow explained that the system closes schools on a case-by-case basis, because some schools have air conditioning.
“This certainly brings home the value of why we have students on our board of education,” commented Wells.
Vigil’s impact went beyond Wednesday’s meeting. At Saturday’s Ward 8 Democrats meeting, Cafritz was still talking about his astute observation. “The other day, it was over 100 degrees, and kids were taking the Stanford 9,” she hyperbolized.
At-Large Councilmember Mendelson, who was also in attendance, addressed the heat issue, as well. Last school year, Mendelson recalled, the school system installed air-conditioning units at Watkins Elementary School. There was only one problem: The rooms were not equipped with electrical outlets to plug the window units in.CP
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