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The District hasn’t met a failed politician it couldn’t celebrate. When, after at least two resurrections, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. finally left office, he received a shameless sendoff at the MCI Center lauding the first few successful years of his political career. Nobody mentioned the fact that he had nearly driven the city to bankruptcywhich resulted in the arrival of the control board. Nor was there any word about his “Scottie beam me up” drug days, the hotel room, the crack pipe, or the “bitch” who set him up.
Rose-colored glasses also were handed out at the goodbye soiree for 80-something At-Large D.C. Councilmember Hilda Mason. LL was part of the hallelujah chorus, celebrating the city’s liberation from a politician too old even to follow staff-prepared cheat sheets and so irritable that there wasn’t a child or adult appearing before her Committee on Education who wasn’t subjected to abuse.
Harry ThomasGod rest his soulgot a street and a recreation center named after him, although there were times during the tenure of that councilmember when it was hard to discern whether he was punch-drunk or simply drunk on the dais in the council chamber. A likeable old coot, he never significantly improved the services of the Department of Public Works during his chairmanship of the committee overseeing it.
Now comes the big hoo-ha on Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel for defeated Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. Don’t get LL wrongshe likes Jarvis, who is an intellectual powerhouse and a formidable politician. African-Americans usually are fairly generous when it comes to their politicians, refusing to kick them when they are down and providing them with dignified, respectful exits even when they haven’t earned them. But folks in Ward 4 must have been pretty perturbed with Jarvis. They turned her out despite the fact that had she won, it would have been the last time she could have run for ward representative according to term limits; that she had served for 21 years; and that she was the daughter of the legendary Dr. Charles Drew. History be damnedit was time for her to go.
But the people planning the $150-a-pop “legacy celebration” weren’t the ones who said, “No more.” They were the ones crying over their checkbooks, wondering if the next chair of the Committee on Economic Development will be as generous and as protective of them as Jarvis. They were the ones she helped keep in business, their pockets lined with grants, subsidies, contracts, and pet government projects; for others, she simply made sure government didn’t mess with their action. Don’t pretend you don’t know the crew: the Federal City Council; the D.C. Chamber of Commerce; the Downtown Business Improvement District; John Tydings, of the Greater Washington Board of Trade; Anthony “Butch” Hopkins, of the ineffective Anacostia Economic Development Corp.; Andree Gandy, whose People’s Involvement Corp. may be one of the biggest government-sponsored speculators in all of Shaw; and Pedro Alfonso, president of Dynamic Concepts Inc., a telecommunications firm.
Then there was the menagerie of political appointees, bureaucrats, and wannabes who had been given access by Jarvis and her committeeand political cover when programs and policies they wanted to implement went belly-up. You know some of those folks, too: Robert Pohlman, the former head of the Department of Housing and Community Development and the city’s former chief financial officer; Alice Rivlin, current chair of the control board, which came along to clean up the mess created by Pohlman and his predecessors; Reba Pittman Walker, who served for less than three months as chief of staff for Mayor Anthony A. Williams; and Michael Rogers, head of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and former city administrator for Barry.
Oh yesthe host committee also included Jarvis’ council colleagues.
Kathy Etemad, who recently joined the quasi-independent D.C. Housing Finance Agency monitored by Jarvis’ committee, said the “legacy” celebration was intended as a spontaneous response by the councilmember’s supporters after she lost the election, not a “fundraiser.” The mistress of ceremonies was to be Debbie Jarvis, the councilmember’s daughter-in-law; her two sons were also among the sponsors. Testimonials and a video presentation were also planned.
As she wrote this column, LL couldn’t wait to see those telling before-and-after pictures of Georgia Avenue, Kennedy Street, and 14th Streetmajor commercial corridors in Ward 4 that deteriorated under Jarvis’ watch. The footage of the Georgia Avenue Day Parade and Festival also might be hilarious, given the marked decline in citizen participation and the increasing number of shuttered businesses along the route. LL also couldn’t wait to hear Ward 4 residents, especially those on the east side of Georgia Avenue, talk about the times they tried to reach their council representative but she was too busy taking care of business at Southeastern University, where she is president, or holed up in some meeting at the Brookings Institution, or in offices adjacent to the Madison Hotel, developing a private-public partnership with the good people at the Federal City Council, or sipping drinks with Alfonso at Georgia Brown’s, one of her favorite watering holes.
On second thought, LL just might pass. A real celebration of Jarvis’ 21 years would require lethally high levels of obsequiousness and obfuscation.
DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
In a one-horse town like the District, where nearly everyone who votes is a Democrat, the inner workings of the official apparatus of the partythe Democratic State Committeeis fodder for Chris Rock. Even funnier might be the latest attempt to paint the group as relevant. Philip Pannell, a member of the group’s executive committee, introduced and won approval for a plan to include all elected officials of the city as “ex-officio members.” Which raises the question: Who benefits? Does D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton gain added stature by becoming a member of the state committee machine? Or does the oft-ignored machine suddenly acquire power? The answer to both questions is: Only if the elected politicos fully participate. Which is to say, no.
Why would Williams jeopardize a 70 percent approval rating by attaching himself to a floundering state committee whose endorsement translates into neither more money nor more manpower nor guaranteed re-election? Williams can do bad by himself; he doesn’t need a do-nothing political organization to help him.
Not to worryPannell has an answer for that. He wants the state committee to mimic the operations of its sister organizations in places like New York, where a candidate doesn’t reach the ballot without the machine’s endorsement. Currently in the District, candidates for elected office must secure a specific number of signatures of registered voters to be placed on the ballot. Pannell wants the petition-qualifying process waived for candidates who secure the endorsement of 25 percent of the state committee. LL just loves kiss-the-ring fantasies.
CHADS, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
Even before Floridians made “chad,” dimpled or pregnant, a household word, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics had decided to disassociate itself from those little bastardsand even from its current punch-card ballots, which elections spokesperson William O’Field calls “obsolete.” It’s time to move the city into the 21st century, he sayswhich means shifting to paper ballots and pencils.
Currently, voters in the District just punch a box near the name of the candidate of their choice. O’Field says the new system would require voters to take a No. 2 pencil and fill in an arrow that leads to the name of their selected candidate. Voters would then feed their ballots into a machine located in the precinct; that machine would count the ballots, or, in the case of an error, immediately spit them out, allowing an on-the-spot revote. At the end of the voting day, the precinct captains hired by the elections board would be able to provide the vote count from the machine, which would have been keeping a running tally. “It’s cleaner,” says O’Field of the proposed new system.
Why didn’t we have this new system during last month’s election, which was plagued by long lines and delays in getting results? Blame Williams’ chintziness: he refused to budget the $1.5 million needed for new ballots, machines, and an all-important voter-education campaign. But elections officials now want to introduce the new system for 2002, when there is expected to be a hotly contested mayoral race. That’s a perfect time, right? Wrong. With the punch-card system, officials say nearly 24,000 ballots were spoiled. So, unless election officials begin the education process earlysay, in 2001allowing for time to test voters’ use of the pencil-and-paper system, LL can imagine several hair-pulling scenarios: A bunch of people will assert, no doubt, that the process was too confusing; that the pencils were too awkward, or weren’t sharp enough, or kept breaking; that they weren’t sure how dark to draw their arrows. And when the machines start spitting out all those mismarked ballots, and the lines forming outside start getting longer and longer, there will be the kind of uproar the city hasn’t seen since those days when live, registered voters had a hard time voting, but there was more than enough opportunity for the dead. Jonetta Rose Barras
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