Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson is the city’s slacker in constituent services.
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson is a privileged politician. She heads the D.C. Council’s powerful Judiciary Committee—which guarantees her frequent headlines in the local papers—and she faces virtually no competition this year in her quest for a third term on the council.
And there’s yet further proof that Patterson is exempt from the laws of urban politics: She gives almost no goodies to constituents in her ward.
According to 2001 records at the District’s Office of Campaign Finance, Patterson collected exactly $0 for her constituent-services fund last year.
The goose egg makes Patterson look like the Grinch of the council, a panel stacked with Boss Tweed wannabes. Constituent-services funds are a “perfect patronage pot,” says Jeffrey Henig, director of the Center for Washington Area Studies at George Washington University. The funds got their start in D.C. in 1974, but “the notion that the councilmember would have a patronage pot to distribute goes back to the machine politics of the 20th century,” says Henig.
The tradition is doing well in the 21st. Last year, for example, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans pulled in $39,325 for his constituent-services fund, just shy of the $40,000 annual cap. (Individual donations to the funds are limited to $400 per year.)
And the Ward 2 councilmember was careful to spread the wealth, spending $39,973 on everything from emergency rental assistance to “Sponsorship of the Black Fashion Museum Open House production of…’Where Eagles Fly.’”
Constituent-services funds in most council offices pick up where the social safety net leaves off. “At the end of the school year, we get a lot of requests from students whose parents want to send them out of town or to camp,” says Estell Lloyd, chief of staff for Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, who collected $22,463 for his fund in 2001. “We get a lot of requests for community picnics. In the winter, we get requests for utilities….We try to help everyone as best we can.” Lloyd estimates that emergency appeals for assistance with rent and utilities have gone up over the past year, from about 20 per month earlier in 2001 to about 30 per month recently.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s constituent-services filings chronicle the struggles of a ward in which 17 percent of residents fall below the poverty line. “Moving expense for constituent with 5 children,” reads the description for one $150 payout. “Reimbursements for placing city evicted tenants in hotel,” says another, for a $902 disbursement. The office often gets requests from cash-strapped local charities representing individuals they can’t afford to help.
Graham’s office has formal procedures in place for dealing with calls for assistance. “If it’s a group making a request, that goes to Jim, and he makes a decision. If it’s individual constituents, the staff vets the call….We verify the [caller’s information], and then we give a recommendation to Jim,” says Denise Wiktor, Graham’s chief of staff and director of constituent services. So many requests have come in that the office has lowered its informal donation cap for individuals from $125 to $100.
Patterson need not grapple with such issues. The latest figures from the Office of Planning list her ward’s median household income as $79,832—meaning that residents can fix their own air conditioners and pay for their own block parties. “[Our] needs are very different from other wards. These needs do not require money being thrown at them, but instead making the bureaucracy work and getting the attention of [municipal] department heads,” says Patterson constituent Jill Diskan. Patterson, she says, is quite active in representing her constituents. “I don’t think there’s a correlation between the services received and the amount spent. She’s accessible. She’s responsive.”
Patterson started 2001 with nearly $15,000 left over from previous years. But she spent a measly $1,456, the least of any councilmember. “It’s not something that I put a lot of time and energy into, because any time and energy comes from something else….Most [charitable] donations I give personally,” says Patterson. “What I use it for is essentially backup for the office.”
“Backup” being a euphemism for office perks. Last year, for instance, Patterson sponsored a baby shower for administrative assistant Tami Lewis and a going-away party for her outgoing chief of staff, JoAnne Ginsburg. She spent $576.64 on “D.C. Stars and Bars lapel pins,” made a $400 donation to the D.C. Emancipation Day Foundation, and reimbursed her staff for small office expenses.
Patterson shouldn’t worry that her professional political style will alienate her voters. “If you give to individual people and the word gets out that you’re giving to people, people just line up…for the leader to dole out goodies,” says David Bardin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents Ward 3’s Forest Hills and Cleveland Park. CP