Some people were baffled when Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous and two of his colleagues held a forum in middle-class Ward 4 last month to discuss the future of D.C. General Hospital, because residents in that voter-rich part of Northwest rarely use the public hospital located across town in Southeast. But more than a few Northwest residents are employed there and stand to lose their jobs as a result of changes being forced by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the control board, and Congress. And Chavous is counting on the fact that voters won’t forget he came to their aid.
The town hall meeting served as the most recent and obvious salvo in the upcoming mayoral campaign. No doubt the D.C. General rescue attempt will play prominently in the platform of “Mayor-in-Wanting” Chavous as he meets “Reformer Redux” Williams. Expect the two men to pit political aspiration for political aspiration, accelerating their dizzying gamesmanship to the point of nausea.
While the official campaign season is still a year away, the two have already signaled their intent and are going at it. Chavous has been sizing up operatives to join his posse and gauging the strength of his political support, according to several sources, including former At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot. Williams, meanwhile, has amassed a $500,000 war chest. And the cash register is still ringingsince his election, in 1998, Williams has met a bunch of folks with deep pockets and a fondness for bow-tie-wearing former fiscal gurus.
The stakeout of campaign territory began as early as Nov. 20. That was the day Chavous, holding his public hearing on Williams’ appointees to the newly constructed D.C. Board of Education, attempted to establish his reign as education king and as keeper of all things related to youth. Across town at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Williams was staging his highly touted City of Mine Youth Summit, registering his own claim to the issue; he had already anointed himself “the education mayor.”
Weeks later, when the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) broke ground for more than 50 low-income, single-family homes on the site of the former Fort Dupont public housing development in Ward 7, both men were there, jockeying for prominence before the cameras. Chavous tried to steal the show, implying that he had been behind the project from its inception. In fact, WIN sources say, Chavous had been a major obstacle, while Williams had been a mainstay. Williams was pissed at Chavous’ attempted robbery and took several subtle shots at the councilmember during the program, WIN and mayoral sources say.
Chavous’ vault to the front line of the low-income-housing issue is actually a replay of his 1998 campaign theme, “Champion of the People,” which mostly referred to low-income, working-class peoplewhich, in the District, further translates, however imprecisely, into African-Americans. The first time around, that strategy didn’t yield the anticipated results, but LL understands why Chavous would want to sing from the po’ black folks’ hymnal. The lyrics from that book are somewhat foreign to Williams, although, God knows, during the past two years he has tried mightily to learn and recite them with appropriate indignation.
If past is prologue, Chavous will need more than a well-rehearsed song to wrest the mayor’s chair from Williams. Consider last year’s fight to reform school governance in the city: Chavous insightfully realized that the old, bloated elected board was hopeless. He introduced legislation to reduce the size of the elected board and to clearly define members’ roles. But Williams co-opted the discussion, demanding an all-appointed body. Chavous and his council colleagues were forced to compromise after they received word that Capitol Hill was likely to back the mayor if a battle ensued. So a partially elected, partially appointed hybrid school board was placed before voters for their approval in
a special election. Williams campaigned aggressively while Chavous pouted and ceded the terrain. The hybrid passed, and Williams went on to get his choice for president of the school board, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who received 53 percent of the vote, despite opposition from the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and Chavous, who supported the Rev. Robert Childs.
Chavous also squandered his opportunity to grill Williams’ school board nominees Laura Gardner, Charles Lawrence, Roger Peck, and Roger Wilkinsespecially Wilkins. As a former member of the board of trustees at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Wilkins joined others in approving the spending of $1.6 million to acquire a controversial work of art by Judy Chicago at a time, in 1990, when the school was deep in the red. Before there was The Vagina Monologues, there was Chicago’s Dinner Party. A salute to Georgia O’Keeffe and all women, The Dinner Party features a dining table with plates depicting female genitalia. The board’s artistic taste triggered a two-week student takeover of the school’s administration building. Students demanded the resignation of all mayoral appointees to the board, including Wilkins. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. requested the resignations, which would have taken effect in March 1991. Wilkins got a reprieve, however, because Barry was embroiled in his own troubles related to his arrest on narcotics charges. Chavous knows this history; he served as liaison between the students, trustees, and government officials at the time. So why didn’t he mention it? He couldn’t. Wilkins carries civil rights bona fides. If Chavous had referred to Wilkins’ troubles at UDC, he would have been attacking the very community of middle-class African-Americans he is trying to court.
The mayor-in-wanting has another dilemma: He can feign opposition to Williams, but he needs him. Chavous’ ability to develop a credible platform for his mayoral bid is directly connected to the education mayor, would-be youth king, and health-care savior. Each of the elements Chavous hopes to use to build his platform, Williams has already carved as a major initiative in his administration. If Chavous is to secure his mantle of “Champion of the People,” he has to configure a strategy that permits him to throw spitballs while acting beyond reproach when one of them hits its target. He must deftly attach himself to Williams’ coattails, scoring bonus points by associating himself with successful projects, without letting anyone see the Velcro.
Yet if Langston Hughes were around, he’d caution that things aren’t all “crystal stairs” for Williams. Reformer Redux still hasn’t delivered on the reform promises he made during his citizen summits in 1999 and 2000. The newfangled “services managers” he said would improve local neighborhood conditions were showcased in Wards 1 and 7, but they have produced unremarkable results. Aside from the Kmart deal in Northeast and promises to relocate some government offices, residents have yet to see any tangible evidence of neighborhood development. And as he steps into this new year, Williams has created new opportunities for self-inflicted wounds: If the new school board performs poorly, it will be Williams who will take the heat, because his imprimatur is firmly fixed on the change. If there is just one case of an indigent resident being unable to secure proper medical services at any of the city’s hospitals, all fingers will point to Williams as the culprit, because he advocated the downsizing of D.C. General. And there will be wholesale mayhem if the economy continues its southern movement, hobbling Williams’ ability to implement new initiatives or significantly improve services that still await reform.
The aspirations of Chavous and Williams could be further complicated by two wild cards: a possible mayoral run by Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania and the ever-present back-alley race-and-class game. Sources say Catania has broached the idea of a mayoral run with a few friends in recent months. Although he’s not a Democrat, Catania has gained some significant support east of the Anacostia River, where voters are largely African-American. Moreover, as one of two openly gay legislators on the council, he is sure to garner some support in that community, where Williams currently has a strong favorability rating.
For the record, Catania flatly denies any mayoral aspirations. “It’s very flattering. What councilmember doesn’t look in the mirror and see a future mayor?” he asks, adding that he was very successful during the last legislative session and is “busily putting together what I want to do in the next.”
Although race and class are always undercurrents in citywide elections in the District, they will be even more volatile in 2002, as some African-American civic leaders prepare to challenge every candidate. They, like many black voters, are seething over the fact that seven of the council’s 13 members are white. They are also alarmed over gentrification in various parts of the city and census data indicating that the District is fading from Chocolate City to Vanilla Village.
If Chavous plays the race and class cards handed to him, he could turn off some African-American voters, who, even as they bemoan the changing demographics, don’t want to be perceived as promoting racial discord. And Williams most certainly can’t dodge the class and racial issues. He will be forced to confront the lingering questions about whether he is the “white people’s boy” and whether he is “black enough.”
In a phrase, expect 2001 to be exhilaratingor damn ugly, depending on your point of view. One thing is certain: High drama aplenty is coming soon to a public forum or community event near you. Don’t miss it.
Pass the ganjathat’s the only thing that might help to bring enlightenment to the committee structure proposed by D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp last month and approved by her colleagues.
LL isn’t hurt that Cropp ignored her recommendations, reappointing Sandra Allen to the chair of the Committee on Human Services, although experience has proved that the Ward 8 representative was overwhelmed during the past four years. Nor is LL annoyed that the powerful Committee on Economic Development went to At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, also known as Mr. Mumbles, who this year may see his moniker change to Mayoral Water Boy.
What’s really puzzling is the hodgepodge of quirky subcommittees of the Committee of the Whole that Cropp has created. The Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management will be chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. LL can understand why Graham, as the other of the council’s two openly gay members and the representative whose ward includes the city’s largest Hispanic population, was selected to chair that committee. But how in the world did property management get squeezed into the construct?
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson got another doozy: the Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights, and Redistricting. Have mercy! Catania was selected to chair the new Subcommittee on Public Services, which includes the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the advisory neighborhood commissions, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Office of Grants Management, and the Department of Employment Services.
“There is no rhyme or reason to any of it,” remarks one council stafferspeaking, understandably, on condition of anonymity. “It’s silly.”
Judiciary Square observers say Cropp wanted to protect the clout of the council’s African-American members while retaining seniority as a guiding principle. Consequently, she refused to consider performance as a measure for who should get what committees or the request by some members that Democrats should be given all the chairmanships.
“The council reflects the diversity of the city,” says Cropp, defending her selections. “By dealing with seniority, you take out subjectivity. If you take out seniority, somebody will say [the assignments] were based this time on race; next time somebody will say it’s gender. If you go on seniority, you don’t have any of that.”
She says her colleagues praised her committee creations, calling them “masterful.” LL can’t imagine that anyone would characterize the scrambled results as such, but Catania did: “She did a marvelous job balancing a lot of interests and a lot of strong personalities. Linda is just a champ.”
LL can only say, Roll it fat and pass it on. She wants what everyone else is smoking.
MAKING THE GRADE?
A few years ago, when Williams was the city’s chief financial officer, the control board asked him to grade himself and his efforts to reform the District’s financial management. He gave himself a C. The report on his mayoral scorecard goals for the year 2000, being released this week, suggests that Williams may be a perpetual C student. OK, maybe C-plus. But if he takes a page from the D.C. Public Schools’ book on interpreting test scores, where any improvement in the Below Basic category are celebrated, expect the mayor and his minions to be all smiles.
In the area of “Making Government Work,” the Williams administration says it completed 15 out of its 21 goals. It completed eight of its 10 goals in the category of “Enhancing Unity of Purpose and Democracy.” Don’t ask LL what that means, but it’s awfully hard to fathom how the mayor did so well, given that the city still doesn’t have voting representation in Congress. And it’s hard to believe that the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which LL wrote about two weeks ago, actually won 90 percent of its litigation cases. (A government source says the office had only 10 cases.) LL won’t protest, nor will she be pickyeven if this stuff is misleading.
The administration claims it achieved 18 of its 23 goals in the area of “Strengthening Children, Youth, and Families,” which can’t possibly include its handling of cases like the death of young Brianna Blackmond. It completed 17 of the 25 goals it set under “Promoting Economic Development.” LL thinks the administration cheated on that one: It counted its efforts in the downtown business district three times to arrive at that score. And the administration says it completed nine of 19 goals it set in the area of “Building and Sustaining Healthy Neighborhoods”which will cause residents of development-starved Columbia Heights, folks in Ward 8 waiting for a supermarket, and LL to conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jonetta Rose Barras
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.