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The D.C. Council can’t decide whether it wants to be Puddy Tat or Mighty Mouse. In one case, it’s toothless and succumbs to a naked canard while pretending to protect the will of the people; in the other, it sports a red cape and puffed chest and shouts, “Damn the people!”
This latest, and most distressing, instance of split personality is on display in the form of two issues: nude dancing and term limits. Councilmembers should remember the last elected official, the late Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills, to become entangled with nude dancingmore accurately, nude-dancer Fanne Foxe essentially term-limited himself.
Next week, lawmakers will reconsider their approval of a massive bill that would reform the city’s 1934 alcohol-beverage-control laws while lifting a 1994 moratorium that prohibits the government from granting liquor licenses to new businesses that offer nude dancing. As well, the majority of the councilMachiavellian disciples allled by Chairman Pro Tempore Jack Evans, will introduce legislation to repeal Initiative 49, the measure approved by citizens in 1994 that limited elected officials to two consecutive terms in the same office.
As if councilmembers don’t have enough potential political damage looming before them this year, the prelude to an explosive campaign season. The fiscal 2002 budget fight is sure to be heated as councilmembers and Mayor Anthony A. Williams jockey for funding for pet projects on which to build their campaign platforms, in the face of a slowing economy that will only intensify the battle. And LL doesn’t even want to mention the rage of redistricting. With new census numbers, the council will have to realign wards: Already there’s talk of combining some sections of Ward 3 with Ward 4 and perhaps revisiting the split of Wards 6 and 8. Given all the headaches coming their way, LL has to wonder why councilmembers are permitting themselves to be roped into the nude-dancing hysteria.
The not-in-this-city screams over nude dancing ensued when at least one named activist, Terrance Lynch, and several unnamed business leaders who had lost their fight to deep-six the liquor-reform bill circulated a draft proposal scripted by two local entrepreneur-wannabes to open an outlet that purportedly was to be affiliated with Scores, a New York strip club with alleged ties to organized crime. The two wannabes had not finalized their plan; had not registered, as required by law, to do business in the city; and certainly hadn’t submitted to the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board any application for a liquor license.
Yet that didn’t stop everyonethe media, congressional representatives, District residents, and local elected officialsfrom joining in the hand-wringing over the possibility of this business with possible ties to the Mafia possibly opening a club in the District that could possibly have nude dancing that could possibly draw prostitution and drug dealing. (Excuse LL, please: This logic is so flawed. If keeping out nudie bars really kept out prostitution and drugs, the folks in Southeast and parts of Northeast wouldn’t be screaming for more police.)
While fanning flames of hysteria and dire possibilities, Lynch and the Washington Post editorial page, another opponent of the legislation, never mentioned the safeguards that the council had infused in the bill. There was no mention that there were limits to where the new nude-dancing businesses with liquor licenses could locate, that neighborhood residents would have the power to block such establishments from even opening, and that the ABC Board could refuse a license if it considered a particular location inappropriate for such a business or if the owners or associates of the business had criminal records. (LL loves a good spin. But the failure to add this information amounted to a deliberate miseducation campaign by the bill’s opponents.)
From the beginning of the liquor overhaul, it seemed that there was no way for the council to completely satisfy any of its constituencies. The business community, represented by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Hotel and Restaurant Association, and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, didn’t want any real changes; everything is fine just as it is, they said, thank you very much. Residents wanted more stringent regulations and limitations across the board; if some of them had their way, the District would be dry. And members of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance wanted the nude-dancing moratorium lifted, mostly out of concern for existing gay businesses in Southeast and Southwest that are threatened by economic development. The compromise liquor bill, approved unanimously last month by the council, was seen as a victory for Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, whose Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had spent two years juggling these competing interests, finally presenting a little something for everyone.
But instead of standing its ground and arguing its case, the council caved and plans to reconsider its vote. It is likely to maintain the original moratorium on new nude-dancing establishments but grandfather in the existing nude gay bars so that they can move and retain their liquor licenses.
Politically, it’s understandable that the council wants to cater to the cash- and vote-rich gay community, which has proved critical to the election of many local pols. But snatching back the nude-dancing portion of the bill may reignite the original debate between competing constituencies. If the council discriminates in what it is willing and not willing to reconsider, it will create the perception that some communitiessuch as gaysare more important than others. Are not the anxieties of neighborhood groups over the sale of single cans of beer and malt liquoranother controversial provision of the liquor overhaul legislation that was stripped out of the final billalso worth revisiting? And how about the mayor’s concern over the increased administrative costs associated with making the ABC Board a cabinet-level agency?
Already there are chargestrue or falsethat the council and the mayor frequently cater to the needs of downtown businesses, Ward 3, and politically active gaysall of which translate into rich whites. Piecemeal reconsideration, even under the guise of protecting the city from a possibly mob-connected business, reaffirms the perception of a discriminatory legislature out to serve the few, forgetting the many.
That message may not bother the Machiavellian Evans, who seems intent on wearing the title of “the Anti-Citizen,” as he is called by some activists. The Ward 2 councilmember was part of the two-man hit team that in 1996 overturned Initiative 41, an aggressive campaign-finance law that sought to limit the amount of money that could be contributed to candidates. Now comes Evans with his “democracy” legislative package, which includes the measure to repeal term limits. “Citizens elected us to use our best judgment. Sometimes, our best judgment isn’t what citizens want,” says Evans in defense of his bill. He says that term limits don’t make sense because in every ward except Ward 2, voters have turned out a sitting incumbent.
Opponents of term limits also say that residents were only half-focused when the initiative passed in 1994; that people voted for it only because they wanted to ensure Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. really couldn’t become mayor for life; and that the turnout was so minuscule that no one could claim the majority of residents supported term limits anyway.
They’re all spurious arguments. Voters drew a distinction between Barry and term limits: They elected him as mayor and approved term limits at the same time, knowing that the bill would not take effect until 1996, giving Barry the possibility of three terms. As to the number of voters who approved the measure: More citizens voted for term limits than approved the recent charter amendment that changed the school board’s governance structure83,865 residents voted for term limits (52,116 voted against), whereas only 20,511 voted for the amendment to reduce the number of elected members to the D.C. Board of Education (19,668 voted against).
Anyone interested in overturning the charter amendment on the grounds that not enough people voted in that election?
Here are the unspoken reasons for the councilmembers’ decision to repeal Initiative 49:
•They want to keep their part-time jobswhich LL certainly can understand. What fool would want to give up a part-time gig that pays $90,000?
•They’re being pressured by special-interest groups, contractors, consultants, and other lovers of the government’s teat not to go quietly into the night. Weaning for such people is too hard, and seducing new politicians who would allow them to continue sucking might be even harder.
•They want to hold their seats beyond 2002, in hopes that Williams will be gone and they can run for mayor. Four councilmembers sought the mayor’s chair in 1998; three ran for the post in 1990. It is much easier to mount a campaign for council chair or for mayor when you’re already in office.
Evans calls LL’s arguments stupid. “You should be writing for the Enquirer,” he says.
Unlike the nude-dancing moratorium, on which the council may be able to backtrack in the guise of concern for the people, the attempt to repeal the term-limit law is nothing other than a naked quest for power. Only if the council decides to present the issue of term limits to citizens in the form of a new referendum could it possibly redeem itself. But councilmembers can’t wait until the next scheduled electionin 2002to find out the results, because two years later, Evans, Ward 8’s Sandra Allen, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, and At-Large Councilmembers Harold Brazil and Carol Schwartz all would be forced off the council under the current term-limits law. Evans, Chavous, Brazil, and Schwartz all ran for mayor in 1998.
LL expects that in the end, the esteemed members of the D.C. Council, all of whom readily pontificate about the importance of voting rights in the District, will behave like all other politicians. After holding one or two hearings to create the illusion of public input, they will ignore the will of the peopleall 83,865 of themand vote to save their own sorry behinds from possible extinction. Jonetta Rose Barras
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