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Like just about any political beehive, One Judiciary Square, the District’s seat of government, processes rumors as routinely as time slips. Every week, it seems, city hall insiders roll their eyes over the latest alleged flare-up between Mayor Anthony A. Williams and some contumacious councilmember.
Last week, though, the rumor mill ground out a story more suitable for political rumination: Williams was ready to replace mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer with Bernard Demczuk, a former aide to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and a current lobbyist with George Washington University.
“That one ripped through this place with the speed of an e-mail,” says an administration source. “Everyone was freaked out.”
So was LL. After all, one of Omer’s missions upon assuming his post in April 1999 was to marginalize former Barryites who wanted favors from the new boss. To replace him with one of Barry’s top officials would be an irony custom-made for the local punditry.
No such luck. On Monday morning, Omer received an expression of support from the globe-trotting mayorWilliams departed last weekend for Sydney, where he’s supposedly drumming up support for D.C.’s 2012 Olympic bidwho was even prepared to issue a statement from Down Under deploring the notion of a change in deputies.
“I talked to the mayor about this,” says Omer, “and he said, ‘Who cares?’”
The prospect of a mayoral declaration, nonetheless, signals that whispers of Omer’s ouster arise from something more substantive than a hallway chat among rumormongers. Disquiet over Omer’s performance has been building for months, both within the administration and among the activists and lobbyists that he faces down every day. Whether it’s poor preparation for a budget session before the D.C. Council or an ethical lapse in promoting passage of the June 27 school board referendum, Omer has engineered enough political screw-ups to generate nostalgia for former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
“He’s very loyal to the mayor, and he works hardthat’s about it for the positive side,” says a city hall observer.
The chief of staff position invites roundhouse blows like that one. The division of labor between a mayor and his point man, after all, parts roughly along these lines: The mayor cuts ribbons, presents plaques, and informs key allies that the administration supports their programs; the chief of staff cuts funding, presents pink slips, and informs key interests that the administration opposes their programs.
Omer, for example, is the one who this week told councilmembers that if they didn’t like the mayor’s plan for D.C. General Hospital, they should come up with their own; he’s the one who schooled local HMOs on the administration’s prickly position regarding physicians’ compensation; he’s the one who upbraided Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose for voting against a key administration nominee; and he’s often the poor fellow who has to inform Williams supporters in the neighborhoods that they can’t have $10,000 to throw a picnic.
Dispensing the hard medicine doesn’t exactly strain Omer’s disposition. To be sure, he is charming in social settings and schmoozes much better than the mayor himself. But colleagues, favor-seekers, and community types have no trouble locating Omer’s spine when disputes arise. Administration sources speak with dread of the prolonged tongue-lashings that Omer delivers to agency directors in his office. “He’s very combative,” says a source who frequently engages the chief of staff in battle.
“Those who come in my way find me not so attractive,” confirms Omer.
Omer once had a colleague who shared the doomsday workload, but mayoral legal counsel Max Brown left the administration early this yearleaving only one enforcer in the mayoral suite.
“He’s mean to people. He calls himself the ‘Somali warlord,’” says an administration source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s getting exactly what he deserves,” continues the source, referring to speculation about Omer’s ouster.
Omer’s detractors tend to have at least two things in common: one, a series of unpleasant run-ins with the chief of staff; and two, a steadfast insistence on speaking off the record. Call it Omerta. That Omer’s opponents won’t yet out themselves speaks to their unwillingness to endure additional unpleasant run-ins with him and also their fears that he’ll last a lot longer in the mayoral suite.
“There will always be people who are critical of the gatekeeper,” says former Ward 7 Councilmember and current real estate developer H.R. Crawford.
Many of Omer’s critics, of course, would like him to take a more conciliatory approach, dangling carrots at administration critics and coddling councilmembers out to scuttle the mayor’s agenda. But the chief of staff’s problem is not that he’s too harsh. Rather, Omer’s central failing is that he has allowed Williams’ once-lofty reputation as a no-nonsense municipal administrator to lapse.
The mayor won office in 1998 in large part because he had sacked underperforming staffers when he served as the city’s chief financial officer. Voters expected Mayor Williams to act the same way but instead have watched his appointees and “allies” dis him with impunity.
The culture of inconsequence has seeped into just about every part of the mayor’s operation:
•Williams Taxicab Commission appointee Sandra Seegars embarrassed her patron when she advocated racial profiling by taxi drivers. The mayor distanced himself from Seegars’ remarksand that’s about it. “If she repeats one more time those comments or similar comments, she will not be part of the team,” says Omer.
•Speechwriter Dan Leistikow incorporated an insulting joke about local schools budget analyst Mary Levy into Omer’s testimony before the D.C. Council in March. Leistikow received no punishment and has since moved on to a job with the Gore campaign, aided by a sterling recommendation from the administration.
•Ward 4 politico Norm Neverson won the chairmanship of the Democratic State Committee in large part because of the mayor’s strong endorsement. Ever since, Neverson has crossed up Williams on key political initiatives. Instead of volunteering to campaign for the mayor’s position on the school board referendum, for example, Neverson asked for $50,000 to lend his talents to the cause. When the money didn’t come through, he took a seat on the sidelines. He remained in good standing downtown.
Omer insists that controlling political allies is a difficult stunt to pull off “in America.” He points with pride to orchestrating events like the successful November 1999 Neighborhood Action summit, which attracted 3,000 would-be Williams supporters to the Washington Convention Center. And Omer says he was able to channel that civic energy into passing Williams’ “education budget” to fully fund schools this past spring.
Yet, for the most part, with Omer as its political director, the Williams administration continues its persistent bungling of all things political. An illustrative highlight reel would have to include: the decision to send Williams to Australia while the city debates the future of D.C. General Hospital; the failure to conduct a background check on a candidate to head the D.C. Taxicab Commission; the disintegration of the Office of the Public Advocate; the meltdown of the mayor’s budget team at a council hearing; and the misuse of mayoral staff to lobby for the school board referendum, which ended in an opinion by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that found Williams in violation of personnel rules.
Someday, public opinion on the mayor’s performance will catch up with his record. “People are mad, and yet they give this mayor a 77 percent approval rating,” marveled At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz at a Tuesday meeting of D.C. Republicans. Once those numbers start dropping, the rumors about Omer may have a different conclusion.
On Monday, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange made clear that he’d like some press attention. His office kicked out no fewer than four press releases on all kinds of legislation and civic initiatives. One even proclaimed him a “champion” in a certain area of public policy; no press outlet, including LL, is likely to pass along the details in that particular piece of propaganda.
But if Orange wants some pub, he should consult with colleague Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who this past weekend crowned herself as One Judiciary Square’s most savvy self-promoter.
Grounds for awarding Patterson that distinction came in a single quote attributed to Patterson in a Sept. 16 Washington Post story titled “Punishment of D.C. Workers Lacks Sting.” The story detailed how the government had failed to severely punish four D.C. employees who in 1997 had allowed truck driver Willis Curry to receive a work permit to drive his truck even though he had racked up more than 30 traffic violations in four states. A week after receiving the permit, Curry drove his truck through a red light and crashed into a vehicle driven by 17-year-old Benjamin Cooper, who died as a result of the accident.
Patterson told Post staffer Stephen C. Fehr that disciplinary actions taken against the D.C. officials didn’t live up to the tough talk of administration officials. “Do I think it matched the rhetoric of the time? No,” Patterson was quoted as saying.
Taken alone, that’s nothing spectacular. The file, however, shows just how much ink a motivated politician can wring from a single story. After Patterson first started pursuing the Cooper story, she scored a central role in a Thursday morning commentary by WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin. “She has been constantly on this,” says Plotkin, who also mentioned Patterson’s activism on the D.C. Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin.
As she pursued facts on the treatment of workers involved in the Cooper tragedy, Patterson wasn’t shy about distributing her findings to influential media figures in townas Post readers learned on Dec. 18, 1999. Op-ed columnist Colbert I. King that day bit on the story and reported that Patterson “has not let the city get away with high-sounding accountability rhetoric unmatched by real action.”
“In working for the taxpayers of the District of Columbia, clearly I work on issues of concern to them,” Patterson says. “That traffic issue was a major issue in the ward, as well as in my neighborhood, and the accountability issue is always on the front burner, as well.”
Most pols would have been content with that amount of play. But over this past summer, Patterson tracked personnel actions related to the four employees involved in the case. Although the story had undergone no significant changes, Patterson passed along the info to Fehr.
One day later, the story sat atop the Post’s Metro section, in enormous type. “I was surprised that it was there,” says Fehr. “That tells you it’s a slow news day. I guess I’m all right saying that.”
NICE GUY EXAGGERATES
In his endorsement of Ward 4 D.C. Council candidate Adrian Fenty two weeks ago, and in his column reporting on Fenty’s surprisingly large Democratic primary victory over incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis last week, LL wasn’t shy about praising the 29-year-old challenger. He called Fenty “the obvious choice in this election” and later headlined his Fenty-victory story “Nice Guy Finishes First.”
Nonetheless, a mass mailing by the pro-Fenty Leadership 2000 political action committee managed to take the praise a little too far. On the front of an invitation to a Sept. 21 Fenty victory party, an excerpt from LL’s Sept. 15 column reads, “It’s tempting to call his victory one of the biggest upsets in the 26-year history of home rule.”
The mailing conveniently leaves out LL’s very next sentence: “But it isn’t.” CP
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