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The April 1, 1999, hearing of Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen’s Human Services Committee had the feel of many council sessions focusing on the first budget proposal of freshman Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Allen convened her council chums to stare down Williams and his Medicaid officer, Paul Offner, over a plan to extend health insurance to the city’s 80,000 uninsured residentsa spendy initiative that Williams aimed to fund in part by raiding nearly half of D.C. General Hospital’s $47 million budget. Williams promoted the plan as part of an effort to “put people before institutions.”
On the council, though, institutions held the upper hand. Allen, for one, pressed Williams on what he’d do for east-of-the-river patients if his plan forced the closure of D.C. General. At-Large Councilmember David Catania made a big fuss over the government’s failure to crack down on Medicaid fraud, which had resulted in a near-empty kitty that could otherwise have funded the administration’s Medicaid expansion. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose posed process objections: “There really hasn’t been a great deal of public discussion of this proposal.”
Allen captured the legislature’s tenor with a remark suitable for just about any proposal advocating the horrific specter of change: “There are a lot of ‘if’s….Why should we approve [this plan] and dramatically shake up the existing health-care system?”
A year and a half later, amid threats of punitive action from House D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chair Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), District Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi reports that D.C. General has overspent its budget by $197 million over the past decadea whopping amount that has come directly out of city coffers with no sign-offs from the council or the mayor. Gandhi refused to pass along any more cash, in a gambit that will leave the hospital bankrupt by next February. The news prompted a crisis response from the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square.
In place of D.C. General Hospital, Williams is advancing plans for what you might call D.C. Specific Hospitala “community-access” center on the hospital grounds, to house emergency- and primary-care centers that would keep patients for no longer than 36 hours. Under the plan, trauma and inpatient services would fall to the city’s private hospitals. The new plan, say supporters, would eventually free up enough money to let Williams provide Medicaid to more poor D.C. residents.
Unsurprisingly, councilmembers are taking their fangs to Williams’ ankles with exactly the same vigor as they did during his ill-fated first budget cycle. In a pair of hearings last week, members reacted as though the mayor had proposed turning the Wilson Building into a trash-transfer station. The demagoguery showed up wherever a mike was standing. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous crowed about a “surreptitious and insidious” mayoral scheme to close the hospital. Catania spewed his predictable anti-Williams froth from the council dais. And council Chairman Linda Cropp whined her way to irrelevance on the issue.
Watching the festivities, LL wondered whether the councilmembers might want to check themselves in for a 36-hour community-access-center stay in search of treatment for memory loss. The entire body seemed to have forgotten a few facts: (1) The council approves D.C. General’s budget; (2) the council is responsible every year for scrubbing the hospital’s management practices and financial viability; (3) the council was cozy with the hospital’s woeful former CEO, John Fairman; and (4) the council has known for months, if not years, that the hospital’s books are a mess.
For those of you at home with LL’s D.C. Council scorecards, here’s how the shamelessness broke down:
Player: Ward 7 Councilmember Chavous
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Total estimated amount of D.C. General deficit spending during councilmember’s tenure:
Key Demagogic Excess: “If you’re in Ward 7, how’re you going to get from Nannie Helen Burroughs [Avenue] to Sibley Hospital?”
Skinny: Forget for a moment that many private hospitals are located between Ward 7 and Sibley, which lies in a tony neighborhood near D.C.’s western border. In his attacks on the community-access plan, Chavous has done a poor job of masking his resentment toward Williams for kicking his ass in the 1998 mayor’s race. Try to follow this reasoning: Chavous hammered the mayor for hatching a “secret” plan to shut down the hospital and even chided him for pursuing anti-D.C. General policies when he served as chief financial officer, from 1995 to 1998. Yet during that period, Williams kept the hospital afloat by sending cash its way. That would presumably make Williams a hero in Chavous’ book.
Punishment: Write 100-page report on dollar value of hospital’s current inventory of receivables.
Player: Ward 8 Councilmember Allen
Total estimated amount of D.C. General deficit spending during councilmember’s tenure:
Key Demagogic Excess: “The who and how and what has caused the deficits are unclear.”
Skinny: No, they’re not. The who is Fairman, who received constant support from Allen in his drive to waste tax dollars on a bloated, politically charged hospital staff. Having botched her oversight job and helped to kill the mayor’s 1999 Medicaid proposal, Allen has every motive in the municipal book to hide the culprits behind Curtain No. 3.
Allen, whose son Gilbert Allen works at D.C. General, has lost all moral suasion in her campaign to protect jobs at D.C. General. At the Sept. 18 hearing, she badgered D.C. Department of Health Director Ivan C. A. Walks on how many hospital jobs the community-access plan would claim. Perhaps Walks could have appeased the councilmember by telling her, “We’ll leave your son off the RIF list.”
Punishment: Draw flowchart illustrating role of Human Services Committee in D.C. General oversight.
Player: At-Large Councilmember Catania
Total estimated amount of D.C. General deficit spending during councilmember’s tenure: $54 million
Key Demagogic Excess: “It would be a disservice to myself to turn my back on D.C. General.”
Skinny: Catania claimed that a public hospital “saved my life” at the age of 18 months, when he was suffering from spinal meningitis. Asked whether he had ever received care at D.C. General, Catania said no.
Punishment: Sign a binding contract to get medical care at no institution other than D.C. General.
Player: At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil
Total estimated amount of D.C. General deficit spending during councilmember’s tenure: $197 million
Key Demagogic Excess: None
Skinny: Brazil’s sycophantic relationship with Williams suits him well for this particular issue. Instead of joining the hypocritical attack on the Williams administration, Brazil showed some institutional self-awareness: “In Washington, D.C., we have a penchant for blaming everyone else. I’m not really sure that’s where we want to go.”
Punishment: Stage smiling photo-op with Williams in front of the new “community-access” hospital.
Larry Gray and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, adversaries in this November’s race for school board president, have some pretty meaty issues to contest on the campaign trail. For starters, Gray campaigned against the Williams-backed June 27 referendum reconfiguring the school board; Cafritz, on the other hand, is the mayor’s candidate in the race and is careful not to cross him up on policy matters.
Thus far, however, the rival campaigns have scrapped over issues of significantly less moment. Gray on Sept. 19 filed a complaint with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics against Cafritz.
Was Cafritz, perhaps, preparing to pay off voters? Scheming to intercept the ballot boxes on their trip from the precincts to downtown?
Well, not quite. Cafritz’s offense was to place the highly offensive and illegal word “Democrat” on her campaign posters. What a renegade!
In fairness to Gray, the school board election is officially nonpartisan. But to contendas Gray doesthat the posters violate “the spirit, tradition, and implicit rules” of the school board election amounts to a lapse in judgment so severe as to virtually disqualify the accuser from public office.
Gray is the legislative chair for the D.C. Congress of Parent Teacher Associations. Were he the judicial chair, he might understand that using the word “Democrat”or, for that matter, “Fabulous Woman” or “Heroic Public Servant”is covered by one of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“Since I’ve already been confused for being white, I don’t want to be confused for being a member of the Reform Party,” said Cafritz, an African-American, in a pointed jab at LL.
Gray’s filing last week intensified the bitterness between the two camps and sparked a round of name-calling worthy of New York senatorial politics. A Gray supporter allegedly spread rumors that Cafritz campaign Co-Chair Phil Pannell had used an anti-Semitic epithet against Gray’s wife, Diana Winthrop. William Lockridge, Ward 8’s school board rep, said the supporter alleged that Pannell got into a heated debate last month with Winthrop over the phone and called her a “fat Jewish bitch.”
Pannell acknowledges insulting Winthrop, but not on ethnic grounds. “I didn’t call her a fat Jewish bitch; I called her a fat bitch,” says Pannell.
Disputes of this nature are best settled by going to the source. “He called my wife a racist fat white bitch,” contends Gray, whose version was corroborated by Winthrop.
“I just can’t get these adjectives together,” says Pannell.
No version of events, however, jibes with Cafritz’s view of her campaign co-chair: “I can’t imagine that he would do anything that wasn’t truly nice,” says Cafritz.
•Although all politicians want their press conferences to prompt media coverage, Mayor Williams got all the press he could handle from his Aug. 10 grandstanding event on 12th Street NW. The mayor used the outing to tout a five-year moratorium on new utility cutssomething that would ease the stress of traffic and trenches on D.C. motorists.
Three weeks later, the very stretch of road that Williams had stood before was sliced to make way for a fiber-optic cable. In his comments to the Washington Post, Department of Public Works (DPW) Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini disguised the flip-flop as sound public policy. “I understand that it looks bad, but this is one of those complicated decisions you get to make every day when you’re in charge of 1,100 miles of road,” he said in the paper’s Aug. 31 edition. “It’s been worth it to repave all of 12th Street from L Street to have relief for the last three weeks.”
The very next day, Tangherlini’s boss, Interim DPW Director Leslie Hotaling fired Dennis Butler from his job in DPW’s utility-cut shop for approving “permits for excavations in the public right-of-way on moratorium streets,” among other offenses. Tangherlini says that Butler had responsibility for all street-cut permits, including the 12th Street fiasco, but DPW omitted the incident from its personnel action. “Our concerns went beyond that,” says Tangherlini.
However wide-ranging the concerns, DPW brass couldn’t make the firing stick; on Sept. 15, Butler’s supervisor, Lars Etzkorn, rescinded the action and transferred Butler to a job in the street- and alley-cleaning division of DPWfar away from the high-profile grind of street-cut permits.
•The sensitive work of heading the council’s Public Works Committeewith all its probes into trash pickup, recycling, and motor-vehicle-registration lineshas At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz scared for her life. In a Sept. 11 letter to Mayor Williams, Schwartz noted with grave astonishment that “the armed uniformed police officers normally assigned to serve and protect our employees at 441 4th Street have been replaced with unarmed security guards.”
The mayor’s decision to contract with a new, apparently less menacing security force clearly stems from his lack of experience with things D.C., according to his vanquished Republican rival from the 1998 mayoral race. “Has your staff ever briefed you on the occurrences several years ago at the Wilson Building when armed intruders successfully took over the building inflicting serious wounds, including permanent paralysis for one individual,” wrote Schwartz, referring to the March 9, 1977, seizure of the Wilson Building by a group of Hanafi Muslims. In addition to the paralyzed D.C. Council intern, a reporter was mortally wounded during the attack, and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., then a councilmember, was shot in the chest.
Whether or not he’s steeped in D.C. lore, says Schwartz, Williams isn’t about to give up his own armed security retinue. “I find it difficult to understand why we have different standards for the Mayor and the rest of us,” wrote Schwartz. CP
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